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Rail, rail, rail, rail…

Some positive news and an head-slap moment for rail this week. First, a Page One story about commuter rail from Fort Bend County.

While the battle over the referendum for Metro’s 22-mile Houston rail expansion heats up, leaders in Fort Bend County are putting together a commuter rail project that could deliver thousands of suburbanites to downtown and the Texas Medical Center.

Fort Bend leaders say a commuter line connecting the fast-growing county with Metro’s light rail system could be one way to ease traffic problems and provide greater mobility to a wider area.

Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen said people eventually will want to take rail from Fort Bend County to such destinations as Hobby Airport, the Galleria and Bush Intercontinental Airport.

“Every day when I am out in public, someone walks up to me and asks, ‘How is the train line coming?’ ” Owen said.

The Fort Bend line would use the U.S. 90A rail corridor to shuttle riders from Rosenberg to Metro’s light rail station in the area of Fannin and Loop 610.

Sounds good so far, but there’s still a million hurdles to overcome, including such trivialities as funding and getting permission from Union Pacific to use their tracks. There’s already a feasibility study being done by the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC), and it’s a bit of a head-scratcher:

The final report has not been released, but some preliminary findings have been made public.

The 25-mile project would start in Rosenberg and run through Richmond, Sugar Land, Missouri City and Stafford to Houston. The line would connect to Metro’s Fannin South Park & Ride lot near Reliant Stadium, where commuters could change trains and head on to the Texas Medical Center and downtown.

Stations are planned in each Fort Bend County city and one in southwest Houston.

Earl Washington, special transportation planner for the council, said the final report should be finished in December.

In March, Washington said the preliminary report found that building the project would cost between $75 million and $126 million. He said ridership was estimated at 3,000 to 5,000 each weekday. Owen said new ridership figures are higher than originally thought, between 6,000 and 11,000 people on weekdays.

Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace said new construction estimates put the price at between $350 million and $700 million.

I can understand ridership estimates varying, but we’re talking close to an order of magnitude difference in the cost projections. What’s up with that?

Anyway, the general tone from the folks who live out that way is that they want this to happen, and though he leaves himself plenty of wiggle room later to change his mind, even Tom DeLay sounds like he’d allow such a thing. (I know, it’s one of the seven signs.) So far, so good.

If only Metro weren’t its own worst enemy, we might someday have a rail system that includes commuter lines to the far-flung suburbs.

As conservative opponents gear up to derail Metro’s transit referendum, there’s also dissatisfaction with the agency from an unlikely quarter: Hispanic rail allies. They are unhappy over the decision by the pro-rail Citizens for Public Transit political action committee to hire a San Antonio-based ramrod for the campaign.

The campaign manager, Eddie Aldrete, also worked for former Democratic congressman Ken Bentsen in his unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid last year. Critics claim he was hired at the behest of former Bentsen congressional staffer Pat Strong. She signed a personal services contract early this year with Metro to coordinate communications activities with a maximum payout of $120,500 through next month.

Aldrete’s last Texas rail experience was hardly encouraging. He managed the San Antonio transit agency’s unsuccessful light rail referendum three years ago.

“It’s totally insulting to our community and our politics,” says consultant Marc Campos. He works for mayoral candidate Sylvester Turner and did not apply for the campaign manager position himself. Campos argues Houston has plenty of experienced candidates for the job who are familiar with the community, but Metro PAC officials made it clear they were not interested in the locals.

He says he told Metro chair Arthur Schechter that “we don’t deserve to be treated that way. You guys do all this stuff and come to us and expect us to be there for you. Those days are over.”

It takes a special talent to piss off a core group of supporters in this fashion. If you’ll pardon me, there’s a wall I need to bang my head on.

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One Comment

  1. David says:

    Is the Sugarland mayor for or against rail? Since each set of estimates only varies by a factor of 2 or so, the difference between the estimates is probably an indication of who wants rail.

    If you want rail, you assume that the Union Pacific will let you use the lines, and the cost is basically rolling stock and station construction. If you don’t want rail, you assme that the UP will be possessive about its lines, and there are the costs of ROW-purchase and track construction as well. That will easily give you an order of magnitude.