Houston's new transit planThe story just broke on the Chronicle's web site (updated story with graphic).
Mayor Bill White said today that Houston's congressional delegation is willing to help obtain $1 billion in federal transit funds over the next 10 years, including dollars for commuter rail, light rail, fixed-guideway bus lines and other facilities.
At first glance, this proposal seems far superior to the previous Metro plan. Several substantial improvements:
- The North, Southeast, and Harrisburg lines are converted to bus rapid transit (BRT - possible light rail long-term) - which is far cheaper, not to mention less accident prone. Light rail only starts to be conceivably cost effective if you assume substantial real estate development along the lines, which is just not likely in those neighborhoods in the near term. This approach will keep costs low while ridership builds, and then allow conversion to light rail in the future when the capacity is truly needed.
- A line that had been canceled - or a least postponed to the far future - is back in: a bus rapid transit line from the Northwest Transit Center through the Galleria area down to the Westpark line. This line actually goes through a fairly dense area (residential and commercial) and will probably get a lot of use. I would also predict it will probably convert to light rail fairly rapidly.
- The Westpark line (still light rail) will now continue straight through to the UH central campus (probably down Wheeler if I had to guess). This makes far more sense than the previous plan, which would have required two seperate out-of-the-way transfers to make the same trip. It's also smart to keep this line rail for two reasons: they have a dedicated corridor (mostly), so it's out of traffic, and it's through neighborhoods where high-value, high-density new urbanist real estate development is likely to occur (and those developers will only commit to rail, not BRT that might go away).
This heavy commuter rail on existing tracks has the potential to be somewhat cost effective - or at least not a total waste of money like many other rail projects in this country. Still, they're a stretch. Only 7% of area jobs are downtown, maybe 4% more in the med center, and we're talking some time-consuming transfers here. The heavy rail will probably net out around 40mph with stops, and the Main St. light rail is around 20mph (30min end-to-end). Throw in transfer time, and it's a pretty long commute, especially compared to a point-to-point 60mph HOV express bus. But people like trains - it just might end up working out ok.
Financially, the whole plan is a pretty good deal for the city. We put up $676m going forward, throw in $324m already spent on the Main St. line, and that might get us $1b in federal matching funds. Whether the whole federal program makes sense in the first place is another story, but if the money pot's there, we might as well go after our share. Given that we recently put up somewhere around $1b for 3 new stadiums, it's not an unreasonable spending plan.
In my book, the Mayor's chalked up two good wins in two days.
(Update: Metro press release and detailed map)