Debating the rising cost of Metro Solutions(For those coming here from the Ken and Raheel radio show, welcome to the Houston Strategies blog! Hope you enjoy it. Previous highlights here, newsfeed here, and we have a signup for our twice/week posts via a Google Groups email list on the bottom of the right-side column.)
Kuff recently posted his thoughts on the spiraling cost estimates for the Metro Solutions plan. He raises a very good point that our core surface streets (as opposed to the freeways) are getting more and more congested as the core densifies. I've wondered myself about their carrying limit. Are they doomed to get as bad as Uptown? Or worse? His solution is rail transit to carry more of those trips, while dismissing buses (also stuck in traffic) and bus rapid-transit/BRT (politics).
First, the unfortunate results from cities like LA (with even worse street congestion) is that transit-oriented development only shifts a tiny fraction of those residents onto transit. The vast majority still use cars for most of their trips. Sure, a little bit is better than nothing, but its not going to be the solution. I was also hoping it would be the answer, but all the results I see from other cities are discouraging. Heck, even NYC with it's incredible transit system has gridlock in Manhattan and is trying to get congestion pricing to alleviate it (a friend of mine says his daily 1.5-mile Manhattan commute in a taxi takes 30-40 minutes!).
Second, the streets with the congestion problems are served by the Universities line (was always going to be rail), and maybe to some extent by the Uptown line (was BRT, now rail). It's not really a valid argument for the North, East, or Southeast lines, since their streets have little congestion.
Third, people weren't happy before, but they did come around to BRT eventually. As I pointed out before, $50K per daily rider - or a new Minute Maid Stadium every 2 miles (new data: every 3.5 miles) - is just a crazy amount to spend for rail on those low ridership lines. The public can be convinced, it just takes officials concerned with fiscal responsibility who are willing to educate them.
Yes citizens have shown a preference for rail over BRT. But it's been framed as "given this route network, which would you prefer?", when the real question should be (with BRT so much cheaper), "you can have small route network A with rail, or much larger (1.5x+) route network B with BRT - and then we'll upgrade lines to rail that have enough ridership to justify it." That makes the BRT case a whole lot more compelling by tapping many more neighborhoods, people, and destinations. It also better fits Mayor White's motto when he first modified the plan to BRT: "We want more service, sooner rather than later."
Houston has been extremely successful with our starter light rail line on Main Street. Of course, that line picked the "low hanging fruit" by connecting many key destinations in a very short distance (including acting as a parking shuttle for the medical center). I am very concerned that that success is leading to complacency with this expansion, and that we're going to wake up in a few years with many billions down the drain (far more than originally estimated) for very nice but sparsely occupied trains - and the cost overruns will make the public lose any appetite for expanding it further. Will it take our own "Big Dig"-level crisis before we learn our lesson?
Update: I've gotten some new info that LRT may stay around $70m/mile, and that BRT-convertable (with the tracks under the pavement) would be about 70% of that. If that's the case, combined with the politics and peoples' LRT preferences (inc. developers), this may not be as worrisome as I had feared from Sallee's columns. But it's certainly worth keeping a close eye on...
Update 2: Kuff's response.