Adapting Metro Solutions to the new realities
"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"We need a new conversation in this town, and we need it very soon before it's too late. When we passed the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum, gas was a $1.50 a gallon and commuter demand was low, so we focused it on a core light rail network. I believe there were three main drivers behind that choice:
- John Maynard Keynes
- To encourage growth and denser development in the core while mitigating the increased traffic load that would normally come from such growth.
- As a city amenity to enhance quality-of-life (not unlike a new stadium or park), as well as make it a little easier for out-of-town visitors to get around without a car.
- As a system to get transit commuters around the core during the day for lunch, errands, or meetings (which actually increases the demand for commuter transit).
- Gas has almost tripled to $4 a gallon and rising, creating overwhelming demand for commuter solutions.
- The oil boom has accelerated our growth even faster, rapidly congesting freeways and, you guessed it, creating even more demand for commuter solutions.
- Cost estimates for light rail have more than doubled to over $100m+ a mile (although there are claims Metro will get under this). Even with federal funding, it is now possible Metro will be tying up almost all available funds for the next decade or two to pay off the construction bonds. That means we will be hamstrung from doing any major new commuter transit projects without raising taxes.
I don't think so. It seems clear to me we need to free up as much money as possible, as soon as possible, for new commuter solutions - including express bus and some commuter rail in existing freight rail corridors. We need more express buses from more and larger P&R lots to more job centers on a more comprehensive network of managed lanes. If we don't, I think we're going to see more employers considering places like The Woodlands, Katy, and Sugar Land to cut their employees' commutes while still giving them nice, new, affordable homes in good school districts - to the detriment of the core City of Houston tax base and vitality.
Where is the money for those new commuter solutions going to come from? My proposal would be to scale back the core LRT network to connecting just the major job centers and destinations. That network would still address the first three reasons given at the beginning of this post, but would free up money by temporarily switching the North, East, and Southeast lines to signature bus - saving 15 miles of line and potentially more than $1.5 billion ($900 million local and $600 million federal). None of those lines connect up a major destination that will not also be served by the Main, Universities, or Uptown lines. They have relatively low ridership projections and are through neighborhoods with uncongested streets where buses work just fine for the demand. In this new reality, we can no longer afford speculative rail lines through uncongested low-density neighborhoods without major destinations, while hoping for long-term densification.
That leaves four messy issues to deal with:
- The FTA applications are already in the pipeline for a 50% fed $ match on the North and Southeast lines. They've both been rated "medium." If we don't get the money, the decision has been made for us. But if we do, it's pretty much impossible to turn it down. Any way we could get them to redeploy it for better uses?
- East End line construction has already started. I don't know how much has been spent or what kinds of contracts we're locked into.
- Political backlash from those communities, who voted heavily for the lines. We're not eliminating the lines - just delaying them as higher priorities have jumped ahead of them - but we still need to offer compensation. I think, with a small fraction of the money that was going to go to the LRT lines, we could create vastly improved bus service in those neighborhoods, with far greater frequencies, new routes, more high-speed signature lines, and improved stops and shelters. In fact, I'd bet we could create better overall service for most riders than they would have gotten with the new LRT lines.
- Christof and I's starter plan for commuter rail would have to be modified, since it assumes the North and Southeast LRT lines for connections. But the good news is that the money could be freed up to connect the 249 and Galveston lines together through downtown from day one.
Like I said at the beginning, there needs to be a citywide conversation about this, and soon. Autopilot is not an option. Otherwise we may find ourselves locked into some very limited and painful choices in the near future. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Update: an article on transit agencies across the country struggling to meet the surge in demand.
Update 2: Backing up my assertion that employers will consider leaving Houston for the suburbs if their employees don't have fast, affordable commuter options, an excerpt from this Chronicle article on the top-in-the-country job growth in Ft. Bend County:
Fort Bend officials acknowledge that most county residents still work in Harris County and will for some time but think that high fuel prices could accelerate employers moving to the suburbs.
"We think more companies will look to locate closer to the work force rather than making the work force travel to them," Wiley said.
"I think that bodes well for us in the future."