Monday, April 17, 2006

Commuter rail and DFW's transportation future

Sorry about the late start to the blog this week. A little tip from me to you: if you can avoid it (and we couldn't), don't have multiple guests stay at your house while simultaneously having your foundation repaired, especially if such repair involves multiple large holes in your living room floor. Trust me, chaos will result.

Moving on, I came across this op-ed from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on the future transportation options being explored for the DFW Metroplex. They are in the same hyper-growth boat as Houston (actually a bit faster), expected to grow from 5m in 2000 to 9m by 2030. Much of the article talks about the multiple routes Trans-Texas Corridor 35 might take coming up from San Antonio and Austin: west around Ft. Worth, east around Dallas, or right up the middle to DFW airport. Local leaders seem to want all three, and get the state or others to pay for it. Good luck with that. If they get it, Houston should demand the state essentially build the entire Grand Parkway, including connections to the port and IAH.

They seem to have a heavier emphasis on regional commuter rail than Houston, which, as I have said before, is a dangerously flawed strategy in sprawling metros with multiple job centers like Houston and the Metroplex - and the DFW job centers and residents are even more dispersed than Houston. They seem to have the same unsound logic routinely seen with commuter rail network plans:
  1. The belief that a suburban city connected to the rail network is the same as the employers and residents of that city being connected (even if 90%+ of them are more than a half-mile from the stops).
  2. The belief that because two points are connected by the rail network, people will make the trip, no matter how many transfers, waits, walks, and slow trains are required or how poorly the trip times compare to using their cars, or even a point-to-point HOV express bus for that matter.
The maps look pretty and create the illusion of an interconnected regional network, but the realistic trip times are simply not there, and, consequently, neither will the ridership. If metro LA, with more than twice the density of any Texas metro, can't make it work, why does DFW think it can?
Many local elected officials would like a more reliable, ongoing funding source such as a dedicated sales tax to finance expanded regional rail transit. But some statewide elected officials and legislators have balked at supporting legislation to enable that.
No kidding. Maybe they see the folly? Even though it's a tad harsh and out-of-character for me, I think I'm going to have to blatently rip off a Clinton campaign slogan that should become the rallying cry for transit agencies everywhere:

"It's the door-to-door trip times, stupid."

10 Comments:

At 8:27 AM, April 18, 2006, Anonymous RJ said...

they're adding 4 million people by 2030, and who's to say that by 2055 they won't add another 4 million, which would then put total population at 14 million. And by 2080, maybe another 4 nillion, which puts them at 18 million total population. Seems like investing in a regional high-capacity non-single-occupancy system has to be part of the solution, along with changes in land use to shape growth around that system.

 
At 8:32 AM, April 18, 2006, Anonymous RJ said...

excuse my math...

adding 5m + 4m + 4m = 13m by 2055, not 14m. And then another 4m gets you to 17m by 2080, not 18m. Darn 3am diaper changes!

 
At 10:11 AM, April 18, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

They may, and that would make them equal to the current LA, which still can't make rail transit work (see
http://houstonstrategies.blogspot.com/
2006/02/reality-of-transit.html )

The vast majority of growth these days is dispersion, not concentration. Yes, there will be some dense new urbanism along a few transit lines, but the vast majority of residents *and* employers will continue to spread the suburbs. It's what most people want. And if the DFW region for some reason decides to stop offering it, then the growth will move to other metros that do.

 
At 12:04 PM, April 18, 2006, Anonymous RJ said...

The vast majority of growth these days is dispersion

These days, yes. But do you think that model be perpetuated indefinitely?

 
At 12:06 PM, April 18, 2006, Anonymous RJ said...

oh brother... now I'm missing entire words.

What I meant to ask was "do you think that model can be perpetuated indefinitely?"

 
At 2:50 PM, April 18, 2006, Blogger kjb434 said...

I truly believe in the Houston area that growth will be in both the inner city and suburbs. Suburbial growth is more noticeable than urban growth because of the larger footprint.

Also in Dallas' case, suburbial growth is much larger than the core growth. Yes, they've had some great inner city residential projects, but overall their progress has been much slower than Houston with the gentrification of old neighborhoods.

Tory does have a point that LA does have the population (actually more) than the situation you (rj) are proposing. Another good case study in commuter rail is Atlanta. Their rail system is a heavy rail commuter system that is having the sme issues as LA. The populace is too spread out and the jobs are not all in the core. Atlanta have multiple urban areas that the rail does not serve. Also, Atlanta is lacking the extensive freeway network of Houston to handle traffic. On top of that, the city of Atlanta itself is only 1/4th (under 500,000 in city limits) the size of city Houston (2 million, citylimits). Atlanta also has a very haphazard and unplanned street layout (somewhat due to terrain) which contributes to traffic problems.

Metros in the US with successful commuter rail include Chicago, New York, Boston, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, and Washington DC.

Chicago, New York, and Boston absolutely need the rail because of density and the freeway and tollways really can't grow anymore.

Miami-Fort Lauderdale and DC have effective systems (as for as passenger usage) but the sprawl in both prevent the system from adequately serving all areas. DC does have large park-n-ride facilities for commuters to use to supplement there commute. In all of these cases the commute time on rail or a combination is faster than using only a car or bus.

In Houston, average commute times just don't reach into the level were a commuter rail is justified. The HOV and future HOT systems also provide service that would be faster than a commuter line that followed a similar corridor.

Much of Dallas' rail system does run on its own system (not sharing with frieght. I think the rail line that connects to DFW Airport and Fort Worth does share a line (haven't road that line). A commuter rail system in Houston is built on the premise of sharing freight rail. That sound easy in concept, but much more difficult to put into place. The existing freight rails in Houston are busy enough and are only getting busier with increased port capacity. If commuter rail was going to happen, you can bet that UPRR will run many more trains at night. Also, the railroad cannot be force to allow Metro to use it lines. All the intricacies of commuter rail in Houston just say it's not effective. You can be Metro will have to fork or lots of money along with many more incentives to convince UPRR to even think about letting commuter trains use their tracts. Some of these incentives will be closing road crossings and some sum of money to ensure UPRR won't lose money because its frieght operation is interupted. Also, Metro will have to lease the rails at some ungodly price tag.

All of this convinces me that HOV and HOT lane upgrades along with HCTRA funded toll facilities will go a long way to improving mobility than commuter rail.

If Metro wants rail, let them focus on Light Rail that can provide some effective use as the current line is already providing.

Truthfully, the only form of commuter line that I would support would be a line that connects Galveston to Houston (which is planned for much further in the future). This along with Galveston's own efforts to island transport (street car, bus, and walking in some areas) could be an effective rail line. Also, the Gulf Freeway is one freeway that is seeing the worst commute times. I-10 and US 290 have bad time, but one is currently being expanded and the other is well on it's way in study to be expanded. The Gulf Freeway doesn't have to much long term plans. Of course, I'm sure Tory can make a good case for HOT lanes from downtown to the Galveston County line (HOV ends at the Beltway) which would greatly improve mobility on tje Gulf Freeway.

 
At 7:13 PM, April 18, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

KBJ: Thanks for the long, detailed, and insightful comment. And yes, I do think HOV/HOT would be adequate to Galveston, although there's a slight chance commmuter rail might make sense if it was a cheap enough conversion.

RJ: "do you think that model can be perpetuated indefinitely?"

Actually, I kind of do. Affluence seeks space, and society is always getting more affluent. And technology is eliminating much of the need for concentrating employment. Only 5% of US land is currently urbanized, and trends suggest our population will eventually level off and maybe even start dropping - maybe worst case at 10% of our available land? (and I think that's aggressive) There's talk of sprawling "megapolitan" areas like the Texas Triangle, and I believe it. When metros run out of room to grow - whether from geographic or govt constraints - home prices skyrocket and instead of substantially densifying, people start moving elsewhere, slowing or even stopping growth in that metro. Census numbers suggest domestic migrant growth moves away from 5M+ metros towards 1-5M cities like Austin, San Antonio, Raleigh-Durham, Vegas, Denver, Phoenix, Orlando, etc.

 
At 12:58 PM, April 19, 2006, Anonymous Steve said...

For the most part, I agree with Tory's response. At a minimum a regional fixed-guideway system needs to serve at least one relatively dense, walkable major destination, which usually is an employment center. In our region, The Woodlands and Sugar Land Town Square aside, there is little evidence that employers are gravitating to such locations on an appreciable scale. If most office and retail development continues to be of the "low-rise box in a parking lot along a highway frontage road" type, commuter rail (and most any type of transit) will have a very limited application in growing Texas regions.

That said, if folks think that we'll keeping growing employment and population at either low or high densities and somehow highway investments will suffice to eliminate congestion, I think they're rather deluded. I'm convinced that traffic congestion in a thriving, expanding region is a given - it doesn't go away. You want an inexpensive single family home and yard with convenient big-box strip malls and office parks nearby, unavoidable congestion (no reasonable travel alternative) is just part of the price you will pay. And consumers seem quite willing to accept it to pursue the "American Dream."

 
At 9:36 AM, April 20, 2006, Anonymous RJ said...

Affluence seeks space, and society is always getting more affluent.

While I have some disagreements with that statement, that doesn't really matter as much as the observation that much of the population growth in places like Houston and DFW over the next several decades is not likely to reflect affluence.

 
At 10:12 AM, April 20, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> much of the population growth in places like Houston and DFW over the next several decades is not likely to reflect affluence.

Much of the new population may not, but the existing population is always moving inexorably up in a steady flow. We're not static. And most newer suburban/exurban construction is aimed at housing upgrades for the middle class and above, as poor immigrants fill in older, smaller, existing housing.

 

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