Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Grand Central Station for Houston?

Metro recently hired a firm to begin preliminary design on a "Grand Central Station" intermodal terminal just north of downtown (Chronicle). Christof has published his usual insightful and detailed analysis on the CTC Intermodality blog (permalink1, permalink2), and I posted my preliminary thoughts here last spring. A few pros and cons:

Pros
  • Relatively open land where many existing and planned lines come together
  • Makes sense to consolidate Greyhound and Amtrak and link them into the other local lines, which also facilitates Buffalo Bayou and Midtown redevelopment
  • Lots of mixed-use land redevelopment opportunity nearby (although one has to wonder about the impact of a Greyhound terminal on the desirability of that development)
Cons
  • Not really central to the light rail network and job centers, which would be south Midtown
  • Flood-prone area
  • The staggering $150 million estimated cost
  • Heavy commuter-rail focus, which I have written on before and still believe is a major transit mistake for Houston
  • Not a destination in and of itself. Getting to the heart of downtown still requires a transfer. David Crossley has spoken repeatedly about how big a mistake this can be, when stations go where it's easy rather than where people really want to go. Metro is aware of this too, which is why they're pushing for the new light rail line along Richmond instead of Westpark - yet they seem to be overriding that wisdom with this choice.
In addition to these, my other major worry is the same as I mentioned before: that routes that should be point-to-point will get inconveniently forced through the hub to pump up usage numbers and justify large capital investments, although increasing average trip times and reducing overall system usefulness and ridership.

Here's my recommendation to Metro: proceed, but scale down. Design this thing to start small with incremental, modular additions over time as the demand materializes. Start with a BRT/LRT transfer station plus Greyhound and maybe Amtrak (which may not be going through Houston much longer anyway). Don't force the HOV express busses there - they should take people directly to the destinations they want to go and circulate there. Stop calling it "Houston's Grand Central Station," because that creates public expectations and budgets that may motivate unwise decisions in the future (see previous paragraph). You might say that it may evolve into Houston's Grand Central Station over time, but plunking $150M down in one shot is a recipe for disaster. If it helps, try to imagine a national media expose in 2012 with a huge and elaborate building but only a trickle of users: "Houston's Grand Central White Elephant."

3 Comments:

At 7:36 AM, January 23, 2006, Anonymous Christof Spieler said...

When I last talked to METRO people about this (2 years ago) it was clear they had no intention whatsoever of rerouting either local or commuter buses from downtown to a new transit center (despite what the Downtown people want). I hope that still holds.

Commuter rail can't go into downtown, anyway, so what matters most there is a good connection to light rail and shuttle buses. This is probably the best location we have for a downtown commuter rail station.

 
At 8:38 AM, January 23, 2006, Anonymous RedScare said...

I am unaware of any plan to force the HOV busses into this station. I doubt METRO's purpose is merely to "pump up ridership numbers" with this facility, since the numbers would already be there if the facility gets built.

As the previous poster wrote, there is not a feasible location in Downtown proper, without going underground with all of the commuter lines. From this location, a commuter can get to any location in Downtown in 10 minutes or less.

Greyhound is a concern to many who look at their current station, but I suspect an investment this large will insure that METRO keeps it clean and orderly. You don't want your signature building to be a very visible dump.

 
At 3:14 PM, January 23, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Here's what I mean by the "pump up the numbers" risk: Metro decides that they spent $150+ million on this hub, and they need to show lots and lots of people going through it. Early numbers are disappointing with just the rail connections, so they start sending HOV busses there and forcing people to transfer instead of going straight to downtown. Overall HOV ridership might drop substantially because of the extra inconvenience (or employers might move to the 'burbs), but they would show substantially higher numbers using the hub, therefore justifying the large capital expense. The hub looks good, but the overall system suffers.

It's really an extension of the same problem when they change all the bus routes to link into new LRT/BRT lines, and formerly continuous routes now require transfers and take much longer: the LRT/BRT ridership looks great, but the overall system loses.

 

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