Monday, July 28, 2008

Adapting Metro Solutions to the new realities

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"
- John Maynard Keynes
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:
  1. To encourage growth and denser development in the core while mitigating the increased traffic load that would normally come from such growth.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
In the five years since that referendum, a whole lot of factors have changed:
  1. Gas has almost tripled to $4 a gallon and rising, creating overwhelming demand for commuter solutions.
  2. The oil boom has accelerated our growth even faster, rapidly congesting freeways and, you guessed it, creating even more demand for commuter solutions.
  3. 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.
So given the new realities, are we still doing the right thing?

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:
  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
If political cover is the issue, one option would be to put a few different solution package options on the ballot this November and let the voters pick.

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."

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21 Comments:

At 10:25 PM, July 28, 2008, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...

Tory,

Never underestimate the allure of wanting to obtain a federal grant - no matter what it takes...

Neal

 
At 2:33 AM, July 29, 2008, Anonymous Bobby Hadley said...

Tory,

Read my post on $500MM a mile light rail. If you had to deal with what we will most likely end up voting for; then you would have a soap box to get on. Granted, I am no fan of bloated transit packages, but if a metro half the size of ours can squander $18B on light rail, $2B doesn't seem nearly so bad.

 
At 6:56 AM, July 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I strongly agree that some of the core LRT lines should revert to BRT (not signature bus as you suggest; the right of way is available for full-featured BRT operating in a median reservation and that's what should be built).

 
At 7:11 AM, July 29, 2008, Blogger ian said...

I know this isn't really going to come as a huge surprise, but $3 billion for a core LRT system and another $2-3 billion for commuter rail just really doesn't seem like all that much money to me, especially for a city as absurdly wealthy as Houston. With those investments, we'll be serving a lot of Houstonians who currently suffer from pretty nasty highway congestion problems. We'll also be serving the poor who need a fast and reliable transportation system arguably more than any other sector of the population. We'll ALSO be encouraging denser growth so that people can choose to live closer to town and cut down on their driving.

Heck, for all that, a couple billion dollars to build a world-class transit system for such a world-class city such as Houston seems like a bargain!

 
At 8:06 AM, July 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

kneejerk reactions are rarely the correct reactions. It took us 5 years to get to this point after a vote. Lets not do a 180 now.

Not saying that commuter rail isnt important too, but one step at a time.

If you keep changing the gameplane, nothing gets done. Remember light rail was supposed to be built in the 90's....

 
At 8:26 AM, July 29, 2008, Anonymous kjb434 said...

When has METRO ever truly been concerned about the commuter?

We must stop this commuter rail business and focus on the HOT lane concept and HOV concept we currently use that move so much of our commuters very effectively.

The reality of gas prices is that we just found out our market can't bear $4 gas for long time (which is why it's dropping).

 
At 8:46 AM, July 29, 2008, Anonymous RedScare said...

Gas hits 4 bucks, US vehicle miles drops 9.6 Billion in May 2008 over May 2007, the buses and trains are jam packed with people trying to save a buck on their 20 to 30 mile commutes.

So, what's kjb's solution? HOT lanes. Brilliant.

As for the $4 to 5 Billion price tag for LRT AND commuter rail? Well, Katy Freeway cost nearly $3 Billion. 290 and I-45 rebuilds will most certainly cost even more, given construction inflation. In comparison, I don't think $5 Billion is out of line.

I also have to say that just because suburbanites misjudged fuel costs on their commutes doesn't mean the entire rail plan must be shut down to accomodate them. It is not even remotely clear that METRO should be the entity that runs the commuter rail system, given that METRO does not even cover all of Harris County, and an effective commuter rail system will need to extend into Galveston, Brazoria, Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties. Time should be of the essence, but both systems can be designed and built simultaneously. It probably wouldn't hurt for residents to let their elected representatives know that they now support mass transit. It was only a few years ago that transit was fought by large majorities of the same people Tory now wants served. They need to tell their reps that they've changed their minds.

 
At 12:06 PM, July 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

as a comment on the linked article at the end of the post,

American metropolitan transit athourities (2000)

"Not enough people are riding we need more money"

American metropolitan transit athourities (2008)

"Too many people are riding we need more money"

 
At 12:25 PM, July 29, 2008, Blogger Tony said...

Tony; I almost lost it when I read,"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."

I've got to read the rest of your Post before commenting as to viable solutions, BUT, when I read the above, I couldn't help but be pleasantly surprised. Finally, at least to my knowledge, you "get" it. You see the "core" problem. I've tried before to articulate what I've known all along to be the core problem, but usually get not much but angry flak when I do. My "gut" reaction is, yea, it's going to happen regardless of what is done about transportation because you can't do anything about the transportation/housing/schooling problem fast enough to stop the trend. You know, if you look at what's been happening in Illinois, and Ohio, you will see this "company" town pattern of development outside the major metro areas that started in the 1990's. I think that one of many reasons it's happened is that it's faster/easier/cheaper for employers to move out than it is to "re-develop" the old cores. One of the other major reasons is of course, the elephant in the room no one is talking about, i.e. schools and taxes. And they go hand in hand. My dad and I had this discussion just last evening as he urged I move closer in; I explained that with a home paid for in Spring and an average annual property tax bill of $1,500.00, I couldn't see trading in the inconvenience of a 4 day commute on a van pool for the opportunity to pay $5K to $6K a year in taxes to fund a failing school district. Now imagine how a young couple with two kids and their first mortgage look at that equation.

I'll move on to study more.
Thanks

 
At 2:21 PM, July 29, 2008, Blogger Andrew said...

Tory,
Very valid concerns raised. I think, though, that we cannot afford not to include the east and north sides of Houston in the future transportation system, and the time to build that is now.

The commuter-oriented investments are incredibly important, but there are better options than METRO for getting those built. More on my blog: http://neohouston.wordpress.com

Thanks for the post!

 
At 2:23 PM, July 29, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Employers in the core have a good amount of inertia to stay. They have employees all around the metro, and if they move to one suburb, it's going to seriously disrupt all the employees on the other side of town (imagine Sugar Land employees if a company moves from inside the loop to The Woodlands?). That said, they will do it if things get bad enough. They start by adding new expansions in the 'burbs, but then slowly transition other employees to the 'burbs over time, shrinking their footprint in the core as space comes off lease. It's happened in Detroit and many other cities. To keep it from happening here, good commuter options are critical.

 
At 5:42 PM, July 29, 2008, Blogger David said...

Well, this is big, wild thinking, but I believe it's seriously off in the notion that some sort of serious choice has to be made. While I don't agree with everything he said, Andrew, in NeoHouston , makes some excellent inroads toward thinking about this stuff. (http://neohouston.wordpress.com/2008/07/29/commuters-instead-of-circulators-bad-idea/)

A quick note that Metro would have a great deal more money if it didn't have to give a quarter of its sales tax to various cities to help them lower their property taxes or create competition for transit.

Then, there is something I've been yelling about for a long time that is nicely explained in NeoHouston:

"Help METRO capture some of the value it creates

The beauty of light-rail is that it sends property values sky-high. METRO should get a cut of that. METRO and the City of Houston should put a TIRZ over each of the light-rail corridors, extending about 1 block off each of the line segments, and about .25 mi out from each station point. The total value brought in by the TIRZ should be split to two recipients, METRO (to help pay the capital cost of rebuilding city streets - the same incentives suburban developers get on a routine basis) and a Houston Redevelopment Authority. That authority should use the transit-TIRZ money to help assemble land for redevelopment, especially in proximity to the stations, and also should invest in urban ammenties like smaller neighborhood parks around some of the station areas. This could accelerate the tranformation of the rail-corridor neighborhoods and help METRO stay awash in cash at the same time."

 
At 10:05 PM, July 29, 2008, Anonymous jboyd said...

"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."

Having employers move closer to their employees is a good thing. We can treat the problem of "mobility" from the demand side as well as the supply side.

I think we should give serious consideration to commuter rail service, but it should be secondary to METRO Solutions 2012, and maybe two additional LRTs.

 
At 10:14 PM, July 29, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree Metro should capture more of the value it creates, and a TIRZ would be a good way to do it.

 
At 8:46 AM, July 30, 2008, Blogger engineering said...

Thank Tory. It is challenging reading your posts.

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" You assume that the facts have changed which I think they have not. The posting by 'tony' brings reality to the table:

"can't do anything about the transportation/housing/schooling problem"

While property taxes continue to increase and quality of schools continue to be worst than the suburbs, Houston will continue to have auto commuters. The price of gasoline will not be a determining factor and the quality of life offered by areas such as Sugar Land and The Woodlands will attract their own.

METRO's light rail plan will be an inside the loop plan and, if history repeats, commuter transit will not happen in our lifetime.

The most interesting fact is that in light of the automobile vs. public transit debate, 1/4 of the gasoline/diesel fuel taxes are being used for transit. So IN FACT 25% of the taxes that automobiles drivers pay are used to finance public transit.

The more interesting factor is that as gasoline prices increase the tax revenue from gasoline/diesel fuels decrease while inflation increases the cost of infrastructure.

We have some fascinating challenges ahead.

 
At 10:41 AM, July 30, 2008, Blogger Paul said...

Seems like everything we do in Houston on mass transit only adds to the congestion. Main Street in the Downtown area still has not fully recovered from the installation of our "Bullet Trolley". I call it that because it "looks" like a Bullet Train but it "operates" like a trolley. The more trains we put in at ground level, the more it will congest traffic. Period. Look at the REALLY successful mass transit systems around the world. All of them are either elevated or sunken in dense traffic areas. THAT is the key to their success, being able to bypass the congestion makes it more attractive than sitting still on the freeway.

 
At 12:55 PM, July 30, 2008, Blogger ian said...

Paul, I don't know how you quantify "REALLY successful" mass transit, but our 'lil ole pokey Red line is pretty damned successful, on par with the best transit lines built in the United States recently. And the congestion argument is getting really, really tired and old. Congestion is a symptom of moving lots of goods and people on very limited public right-of-way. You wanna see real congestion? You try moving as many people along Main Street as our "bullet trolley" does and then you'll see real congestion. For awhile, and then Tory's thesis comes into play: if people can't move around an area, they'll find somewhere else to go. Our rail line is playing a strong role in keeping historic Houston areas alive and kicking -- and that's a good thing, because there's a lot of taxpayer money invested in those area. A lot.

 
At 8:38 AM, July 31, 2008, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Tory, you can pretty much rule out a new TIRZ ever being created in the City of Houston. The City Park TIRZ E TC Jester south of 18th street) what such a disaster for the city that they will probably never allow the creation of another one.

They'll mostly likely expand existing ones like TIRZ #5 which will add mass pedestrian improvements to give access to Buffalo Bayou trails downtown access for residents by bike.

As for as gas being $4, what we have seen is the free market has adjusted for this. It appears $4 gas is the limit for drivers in the US which means it will max out there and go lower as people adjust there driving habits (which is happening). It won't push people to use mass transit more. And if common sense prevails (which it is), the current massive refinery expansions in Louisiana and Texas will provide more gasoline/diesel/jet fuel on the market. Louisiana has paved the way for a 100% increase in gasoline production output.

And for people out there against the HOT lane concept, then they seem to be against the most effective mass transit system for a city like Houston. Brazil has shown how auto based large cities can use buses to move massive amounts of people on it's existing road system. I would look into Curitiba. They essentially created a form of mixed BRT/HOT lane concept that drastically cut back commute times in their city and they much larger than us.

HOT/HOV is essentially flexible commuter rail. The current HOV system is quite effective and is heavily used. Commuter rail will not make their transit times any faster and will actually make many slower.

The transition to HOT lanes still keeps the HOV bus component in place but allows citizens willing to pay for it a way in to the city. The commuting price on the bus would need to be less than the toll to encourage the bus use.

 
At 11:17 AM, August 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Culbersons and Delays will laugh at you while you spend 4 years redesigning everything. The current plan is still pretty good, and you really have not demonstrated that your new plan is more cost-effective. Look, you have already won. Let's get on with it.

 
At 2:18 AM, October 22, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

What you propose, then, is essentially building light rail in white areas and "signature bus" in black and hispanic areas.

Yes, I realize that's not your aim - it just so happens that the developers of "major employment centers" like to locate in white/asian neighborhoods - but that's what deleting the North, East, and Southeast lines would do.

L.A. already tried this, building a subway to Beverly Hills and an LRT to Pasadena while leaving some of the country's highest-traffic bus lines to wade through traffic. They now have to contend with the Bus Riders' Union, a perennial anti-LRT force that mobilizes community opposition against the "white man's trains."

METRO has taken the opposite tack, pushing rail down Westpark (where it belongs) but caving to the black gentry in moving the tracks off Wheeler and onto Cleburne. Which perhaps gives us a slightly more convoluted route, but also keeps public opinion in favor of further expansion.

 
At 9:42 AM, October 22, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

It's all about ridership for the cost. The Universities line would still serve minority areas on the east side. And I'm not talking about canceling the lines - just delaying them with signature bus in the interim.

The LA BRU was a response to bus service cutbacks to enable LRT building, which is exactly what Metro is doing.

 

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