Doing commuter rail right by 2012
OK, after attending a couple of public meetings, reading the H-GAC report summary, and having an in-depth meeting with Christof (and thinking about his five questions), I think we've come to a consensus on what the right answer is for a "phase 1" commuter rail program (here's my first post on the topic). Those who remember my "Commuter rail is the wrong ride" op-ed from a few years ago - which Barry handed out at the H-GAC public meeting - might wonder why I've changed my mind. I will lay out the reasoning, as well as the narrow set of circumstances where I think it makes sense. I'm not now a blanket supporter of commuter rail. HOV/HOT express buses that travel nonstop at high speed and circulate at their destinations are still the best overall commuter transit solution for the many decentralized job centers of Houston.
The reasons commuter rail can make some sense now for Houston:
- I agree with County Judge Ed Emmett that our metro growth is so fast now, and projected to be so large over the next few decades, that we will really need to tap all sources of mobility capacity that we can.
- Freight track corridors have been identified that are underutilized, and can support scheduled commuter services. The capacity is there, and we can tap it at marginal cost.
- For the most part, the new services will not overlap or eliminate Metro express HOV commuter buses. The goal is to add all-new service and capacity, not replace what we already have.
- Commuter rail is more comfortable for very long haul, connecting to places well outside the Beltway. In particular, passenger service stretching from TAMU College Station to Prairie View A&M to NASA JSC Clear Lake to UTMB Galveston is attractive for economic development purposes by tying more academic and technological brainpower to our city. (similar to how Yale and Princeton are tied into NYC)
- $4 gas (and increasing) is driving up demand for commuter transit, and Metro cannot buy buses or expand P&Rs fast enough. In fact, some of these rail services may free up more express buses for other in-demand routes.
Here are the elements of our proposal:
- Galveston line that comes all the way in to just east of downtown, with transfers to the new East/SE LRT lines to get into downtown. Christof has worked out how this is possible without using busy freight lines or building elevated structures (which he will detail in his own post soon). The line will have few if any stops inside the Beltway and will not replace Metro HOV services inside the Beltway.
- Since a 290 line cannot (currently) make it to downtown, would not actually reach the Uptown LRT (it stops at the NW transit center), and is already well served with HOV bus service, it should not be part of a phase 1. Instead, some freight track improvements need to be made first inside the loop (along the Terminal subdivision - and they're needed regardless of commuter rail), which Christof will articulate in detail. Those will pave the way for a future 290 service that does not use the empty RoW through the residential Heights.
- Instead, the real short-term opportunity is a 249 line to Tomball through the vast 1960-area suburbs, as well as picking up the back side of The Woodlands. This would attract many riders who do not currently have good access to HOV express bus service, and it would take traffic pressure off of both 290 and 45N. In fact, 249 ranked higher than 290 in H-GAC's study (see figure ES-7) This starter line would be used as is, and new track would not be rammed through the neighborhood north of the 290-610 interchange (as shown in the H-GAC plan). Instead riders would ride it all the way in to the North Metro LRT and transfer near Northline mall. A bus transfer stop would be an option down Mangum for those going to Uptown.
- As part of this phase 1, Metro would experiment with running express LRT trains from the Northline transfer into downtown. The idea is that, after transferring off the 249 commuter train, most of those riders would want an express direct to downtown, with no slowing stops along the way. Also, even if the train stops normally from downtown on, it would make connections from the 249 commuter rail to the med center tolerable (vs. 45+ mins with all local stops). There are different ways these express cars could be run, even without a third track, via simple timing or using crossover tracks for passing (or maybe even via third tracks at selected stations). The expresses might be slightly disruptive to the local trains (making them crossover and/or freeze at certain points for a couple minutes), but it would be worth it for the enhanced commuter service, and would only be used for a handful of inbound trains in the morning and outbound trains in the afternoon rush hours that connect specifically with the infrequent commuter trains. If the expresses can be made to work well on the North line, they could be considered for other LRT lines in the future as needed for other new commuter rail connections.
- For phase 1, no expensive hub, and only minimal maintenance facilities. Each of the two lines might have separate small maint facilities, or they could be routed at off-hours along the freight tracks to a central facility inside the loop (like Eureka yards). The freight tracks inside the loop are too congested to support scheduled commuter rail, but they still have enough capacity to shuffle around out-of-service commuter trains when needed (as long as they are not in any hurry).
- The phase 1 target is 2012, to coincide with Metro's LRT plan, since it obviously relies on those connections.
Long-term potentials include a 290 line that connects on to Prairie View and College Station while continuing through the core on to Galveston (parents: easy-ship your teens to the beach and theme parks during the summer!), a downtown connection at Amtrak/UHD that would be more effective than Metro's northern intermodal terminal, and maybe lines to Alvin/Pearland and Ft. Bend. That's all speculative at this point, and I'm not prepared to pass judgment on their cost effectiveness. But this 2-line, "lite phase 1" proposal seems like it could be a cost effective way to "test the waters" by going after the low-hanging-fruit commuter rail opportunities while taking advantage of the Metro Solutions core rail network to save money and neighborhood disruption.
I will update this post with a link to Christof's excellent new maps when they become available (and here they are). If you know anyone attending Judge Emmett's commuter rail summit this coming week, please pass this along for their consideration. Much appreciated.
UPDATE: Christof's much more detailed explanation of this plan, with great maps.