Are we setting up commuter rail to fail?That's the headline of Christof Spieler's recent article in Cite magazine. For those of you who don't know Christof, he used to write excellent posts about transit over at the Intermodality blog before being recently appointed to the Metro board. The article was written and published before that appointment. In it he raises a lot of critical issues regarding Houston's long-term commuter transit solution. Here are some of the excerpts that jumped out at me:
Houston already has two fixed guideway transit networks. Park-and-ride buses run from the suburbs to Downtown on 100 miles of HOV lanes and light rail traverses 7.5 miles of track due to be expanded to 38. Is commuter rail-a third technology-needed or would Houston be better served by expansion of its existing systems?
Rail has traditionally stirred controversy in Houston. But one thing is clear. There’s a broad political consensus in favor of commuter rail. The clarity ends there. A dozen different corridors are under consideration; out of several possible central station locations, none connects easily to any of those corridors; at least three different agencies are vying to design and operate the system, but nobody knows how to fund it; and it’s not clear how commuter rail will connect to the existing transit system.The last page has a nice map of the proposed lines as well as four key questions for evaluating proposed commuter rail routes:
Unfortunately, a lot of the discussion of commuter rail shares a widespread misconception of Houston as a city where most people work Downtown and live in the suburbs, and where most traffic is commuter traffic. In reality Houston is a multicentric city. The Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza, Uptown, Westchase, Energy Corridor, and Greenspoint each has as many jobs as other cities’ downtowns.
Serving a multicentric city requires frequent two-way service that connects not just to Downtown but to other activity centers as well. Unfortunately, that’s not what has been proposed.
An infrequently available, rush-hour only, Downtown-focused system will not be very effective. The entire 250-mile [Houston-Galveston Area Council]-proposed line would carry only 36,000 people a day—fewer than the 7.5-mile Main Street light rail line. And it would cost a lot of money—$3 billion in construction costs (compared to a tenth of that spent on the Main Street line) and $35 million a year, which comes to nearly $10 a trip in operating costs (compared to $1.30 on Main Street line), of which maybe 60 percent would be covered by fares.
Other technologies — single-car diesel trains, express buses — could offer similar advantages: more frequent service, fewer transfers, faster acceleration, fewer emissions, and the ability to run outside existing railroad corridors to serve other destinations. But the HGAC and Galveston studies considered only locomotive-hauled commuter rail.
Houston, in fact, already has very successful suburban commuter transit. METRO, Trek, and Woodlands Express buses leave suburban park-and-ride lots every morning, running as often as every three minutes, and provide nonstop trips on free-flowing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes right onto downtown streets, a short walk away from 140,000 jobs. A 2009 Central Houston study found that over half of Downtown employees who live 20 to 70 miles from Downtown use the HOV lane buses. These 33,000 daily transit trips are in addition to 179,000 trips in local buses, vanpools, and carpools that also use the HOV lanes. If those vehicles ran on tracks rather than rubber tires, this would rank among the top ten U.S. commuter rail systems. The current service is more frequent, more convenient, and faster than most commuter rail systems and equally reliable.
An ineffective, expensive commuter rail system will not improve the region. Rather than rush ahead with a system based on preconceived, often faulty assumptions and driven by political urgency, we need to engage in a discussion about what we want to accomplish and how best to do that. Unfortunately, that discussion is harder to fit into a soundbite than “We need commuter rail.” And while good transit with a high level of service and efficient connectivity will carry more riders, it is often more expensive and takes longer to implement than a more basic service. A few trains a day running from Hempstead to the parking lot of Northwest Mall from which shuttle buses (frequently stuck in freeway traffic) carry a handful of riders on to Downtown and Uptown is not good transit. But the politicians who backed it would still be able to take credit for “improving transit.”
Decisions about transit are also decisions about urban form. People and corporations alike make decisions on where to locate based on available transportation. Job centers that are easier to get to will attract more jobs than those that are difficult to access.
- Will the route duplicate services? (Park-and-ride buses extend to near the outer limits of suburban growth in most directions with the exception of Pearland and a few other areas.)
- Will the line go where people live?
- Will the line go where people work?
- Will the line connect well to light rail?
5. Are the total trip times reasonable?Just because the lines all connect doesn't mean people when endure hour+ commutes each way with connections. Don't forget the light rail only nets out around 17mph with stops, and commuter rail maybe a little more than twice that.
Even David Crossley has joined in questioning how appropriate commuter rail is for a city like Houston. His post includes a lot of good stats and maps about where the jobs are in this city.
Of course, my regular readers know this fits with what I've been saying for a long time. It's good to see more voices raising questions about these plans before billions are spent. Let's hope the politicians and power brokers are listening.