Pros and cons of the new commuter rail planLast week H-GAC recommended five commuter rail lines (nice Chronicle map in pdf form here - thanks for getting them to put it online, Rad). I'm sure Christof will have a much more detailed and thoughtful commentary soon, but until then, you're stuck with my amateur analysis.
I still have grave doubts about the appropriateness of commuter rail for dispersed city like Houston, with only around 7% of jobs concentrated downtown. And $3 billion is very nontrivial money. It better have very high projected ridership to justify that. That said, if somebody put a gun to my head and insisted I map out 5 commuter rail lines for Houston, this might be pretty close to what I would choose.
What I like is that they avoid areas that are already well served by big freeways and HOV/HOT lanes, like the 59N, 45N/Hardy, 10W, and 59S corridors. That's why I'm not as upset as the article that Sugar Land, The Woodlands, and Kingwood/IAH are not included (a connecting shuttle to Hobby is possible). Those communities have plenty of good options today. Now, it's true 290 and 45S have HOV lanes, but there are other reasons commuter rail might work for them. (the 45S HOV does not go much beyond Beltway 8, and the rail line won't come inside the Beltway on Texas 3, so they're somewhat complimentary)
First, Galveston. My previous thoughts are here and here, and Christof's are here. From my earlier post, here are the reasons this route has potential:
Second, 290. Rumor has it that the planned Hempstead toll road won't happen because costs have risen too much for tolls to cover it (very unfortunate, IMHO). That leaves a gigantic swath of highly-populated northwest Harris County (check the map) with very limited (and congested) options to get to the core job centers (Downtown, TMC, Greenway, Uptown). The 290 and 249 lines could move a lot of people, and, when connected to the core LRT network, get them to all the core job centers (not just downtown). Piping them all on buses down a couple HOV lanes (290 and 45) may not be adequate.
- local transit at both ends to get you to your final destination
- highly populated corridor with heavy traffic flows both directions
- regular congestion on the existing freeway
- tourism potential in addition to commuters (better overall utilization for the capital cost)
- existing tracks that make the cost much more reasonable
- job centers at both ends and in the middle (Clear Lake/NASA)
I also like that the Ft. Bend line, by using the Almeda corridor, will offer good access to the Medical Center in addition to Downtown. That county will be even more popular with TMC employees than it is now.
One bit of irony I noticed. These lines go way the heck out to far Waller, Montgomery, Ft. Bend, and Galveston Counties. Usually anti-sprawl people are also pro-rail, but in this case, if these lines are built, they will open up previously unimaginable areas for living and commuting into the city - areas that very few people would contemplate driving from, but they might be happy sitting on a train with their laptop or Blackberry for an hour+ each way.
There are still a lot of issues to be worked out:
- Since they go far beyond Metro's territory, who will run them an how will they be paid for? Other cities have proliferating numbers of transit agencies (like Chicago), and it generally seems to be a bad thing. Better for Metro to strike deals with adjacent counties and keep everything integrated.
- Can these routes really co-exist with the freight on them? The study seems to think so, but it's gotta be tricky.
- Many of the existing freight tracks seem to be single tracks. Will they be upgraded to double tracks? ($$$) If not, will trains have to be all-inbound in the morning and all-outbound during the afternoon? (which kills part of the value of the Galveston line) Or can special passing zones be set up and the trains timed right? (seems like it would be very tricky and dangerous)
- Some of the connections will require all new track through residential and commercial areas (249 to 290, The Heights, 45S to Pearland). Always contentious. Just ask Metro...
- Will end-to-end trip times really be competitive with driving or HOV express buses? I have concerns that stops and transfers will create painfully long trips, while Metro will cancel all competing HOV bus service on 290 and 45S.