Monday, June 13, 2005

Houston's new transit plan

The story just broke on the Chronicle's web site (updated story with graphic).
Mayor Bill White said today that Houston's congressional delegation is willing to help obtain $1 billion in federal transit funds over the next 10 years, including dollars for commuter rail, light rail, fixed-guideway bus lines and other facilities.

At first glance, this proposal seems far superior to the previous Metro plan. Several substantial improvements:
  • The North, Southeast, and Harrisburg lines are converted to bus rapid transit (BRT - possible light rail long-term) - which is far cheaper, not to mention less accident prone. Light rail only starts to be conceivably cost effective if you assume substantial real estate development along the lines, which is just not likely in those neighborhoods in the near term. This approach will keep costs low while ridership builds, and then allow conversion to light rail in the future when the capacity is truly needed.
  • A line that had been canceled - or a least postponed to the far future - is back in: a bus rapid transit line from the Northwest Transit Center through the Galleria area down to the Westpark line. This line actually goes through a fairly dense area (residential and commercial) and will probably get a lot of use. I would also predict it will probably convert to light rail fairly rapidly.
  • The Westpark line (still light rail) will now continue straight through to the UH central campus (probably down Wheeler if I had to guess). This makes far more sense than the previous plan, which would have required two seperate out-of-the-way transfers to make the same trip. It's also smart to keep this line rail for two reasons: they have a dedicated corridor (mostly), so it's out of traffic, and it's through neighborhoods where high-value, high-density new urbanist real estate development is likely to occur (and those developers will only commit to rail, not BRT that might go away).
Other additions include extending the Main St. line a little farther north to an intermodal facility just north of downtown, plus the beginnings of commuter rail out 90a/Sugar Land, 290, and towards Galveston.

This heavy commuter rail on existing tracks has the potential to be somewhat cost effective - or at least not a total waste of money like many other rail projects in this country. Still, they're a stretch. Only 7% of area jobs are downtown, maybe 4% more in the med center, and we're talking some time-consuming transfers here. The heavy rail will probably net out around 40mph with stops, and the Main St. light rail is around 20mph (30min end-to-end). Throw in transfer time, and it's a pretty long commute, especially compared to a point-to-point 60mph HOV express bus. But people like trains - it just might end up working out ok.

Financially, the whole plan is a pretty good deal for the city. We put up $676m going forward, throw in $324m already spent on the Main St. line, and that might get us $1b in federal matching funds. Whether the whole federal program makes sense in the first place is another story, but if the money pot's there, we might as well go after our share. Given that we recently put up somewhere around $1b for 3 new stadiums, it's not an unreasonable spending plan.

In my book, the Mayor's chalked up two good wins in two days.

(Update: Metro press release and detailed map)


At 8:28 AM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

"...those developers will only commit to rail, not BRT that might go away."

I'm not buying it. First of all, BRT requires a fairly considerable capital investment by itself. If developers are thinking it will up and disappear in a short timespan, they're not thinking rationally.

Secondly, BRT lines have claimed developmental benefits on par with rail. (See: A Whole System Approach to Evaluating Urban Transit Invesments, Jonathan Richmond, Harvard University, 1999, 27-28).

Thirdly, your analysis presumes that realaigning development to this "new urbanist" mold is a good thing. Me, I completely disagree with that, and believe that transit should be cost-effective transportation, not a broader social policy (save in the respect that it provides transportation for the indigent).

At 9:01 AM, June 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A quick comment re: Owen's post and "transit should be cost-effective transportation, not a broader social policy" - like it or not, transportation investments in a city are inseparable from broader social policy. They affect how land is used, how resources are consumed, how people interact with each other and their surroundings, whether people will need cars, whether they will have access to goods and services and jobs, and the list goes on and on. Transportation decisions are social policy.

At 9:51 AM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

It may be a simple capacity issue: they may expect much higher ridership on the east-west line than the others, so it actually needs the rail. But I do think developers have a rail bias, whether they admit to it or not.

I'm very sympathetic to the "just build good, cost-effective bus transit" argument. But once that's a lost cause, then I think we need to get as much value as possible out of these high dollar capital investments. That means high-density, high-value real estate development that boosts property values and taxes.

At 3:27 PM, June 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't understand why anyone believes that the rest of us, i.e., the great majority of us outside the Metro district --- ie, the rest of Texas -- are going to allow Metro to use federal tax dollars to continue to finance its rail boondoggles.

Why? To give a bunch of Porsche and Lexus drivers in upscale Metro 'hoods, who knowingly chose to live along clogged freeways and far from the office, a publicly-subsidized ride to work on a nice cushy electric train?

Get real! When Delay, Culberson and the rest of the Texas delegation hear from the rest of us on this, it will be back to the old Metro drawing board.

Advice: want federal funding? Get rid of the rail boondoggles.

At 3:50 PM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

If I thought the federal money would just go back to taxpayers, I'd agree. But that's not realistic. It's earmarked build transit in one city or another. We might as well use our congressional clout to get it here.

At 3:55 PM, June 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Next time I'm over in "upscale" Third Ward - which will be served by the light rail extension - I'll be sure to have a look for all of those Porsches and Lexuses that ttyler5 mentioned. ;-)

At 8:02 PM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

It may be a simple capacity issue: they may expect much higher ridership on the east-west line than the others, so it actually needs the rail.

This doesn't really fly. You can increase capacity by having more bus lines with more buses; the principle of rail is consolidating multiple potential lines into a single corridor, which is terrible for a spread-out city where the weather is poor for walking.

I mean, you know as well as I do that Metro has been turning the Main Street line into a terminus for several bus lines, and also that they've terminated trolley service that ran north/south into downtown. The rail wouldn't NEED higher capacity if they'd keep their heads on the entire system rather than on inflating the ridership of a single transit corridor.

I'm very sympathetic to the "just build good, cost-effective bus transit" argument. But once that's a lost cause, then I think we need to get as much value as possible out of these high dollar capital investments. That means high-density, high-value real estate development that boosts property values and taxes.

First off, as I cited, BRT can produce the same supposed benefits at a lower cost. Secondly, I've seen no evidence that rail actually creates any development as opposed to merely reorienting it towards a certain area. Again -- that's social policy; taking sides in what's supposedly the best way of living rather than providing good transportation.

Since I don't see high density development as a benefit -- and I think it's dubious that rail is superior to BRT or that it's even causing development to begin with -- I fail to see why it's ever smart to jump on the rail bandwagon.

At 8:08 PM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


My argument is that transportation SHOULDN'T be social policy. The goal should be to respond to demand and provide the most cost-effective transportation. Now that it has become social policy in the eyes of so many, we've devolved into a "suburbs vs. inner city" mentality, with the county wanting tollways and commuter rail (the latter of which is very foolish) and the inner city wanting light rail (also silly). What's the best way to spend money gets lost in the equation.

At 9:42 PM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The Chronicle graphic from today's paper claims 2,000 people/hour both directions for BRT vs 3,000 people/hour both directions for LRT. I think they're expecting a pretty heavy load, with the Uptown line, an SBRT line down to the Sugar Land commuter rail, and a transit center all feeding it on the western end. They also have a couple transit centers feeding it on the eastern end too. It's clearly intended to be the east-west backbone to go with the Main St. north-south backbone.

I don't advocate telling people how to live, but I do want Houston to offer a diverse range of lifestyle options, including high-density walkability like people like in New York and DC. I don't think it'll ever be a huge part of Houston, but it would be nice to offer it in a few areas, and I think these LRTs are in the right places to do that.

I agree totally that transit agencies like Metro try to pump up rail ridership numbers by forcing inconvenient transfers. That's why I advocate having Metro only run fixed-base transit, and let free market providers do bus service with a Metro subsidy. Let the market determine where people want to go and when.

There are certainly a lot of rail boondoogles in this country. But this seems to be the "least bad" hybrid solution, if that makes any sense. Metro's plans have gone through a lot of iterations since Monorail in the early 90s, and each iteration has been more cost effective than the last, including this one. It's a better trend than most cities.

One other thing I've come to accept: good or bad, a city's brand/image/buzz matter somewhat, and outsiders evaluate a city on its core. Paris and London are great examples here: their reputation is their core, not their bland suburban swaths like every other city. Houston got some great PR during the Super Bowl, and the Main St LRT was a big part of that. It just makes a visitor's experience more pleasant than wrestling with a rent car and maps (and, let's be realistic: visitors don't do buses). Are a couple LRT lines all that different from a subsidized stadium, convention center, or just having really nice airport terminals, when plain old funtional ones would be cheaper and work just as well? It's all part of the "experience" of a city, and it matters - not a top priority by any means (vs. other infrastructure, education, etc), but it shouldn't be ignored either.

At 10:28 PM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


I think even attempting to design Houston for visitors is foolish. We aren't a tourist town; we never will be. We shouldn't want to be, either -- tourism is not an industry that causes cities to flourish (See New Orleans, Galveston, San Antonio, Savannah, etc). And if we cared about how outsiders felt about Houston, we wouldn't charge them a 17% hotel tax -- the highest in the nation.

The whole "world class city" mantra just rings hollow for me. So many cities have built rail, and it just becomes a continuing money drain. The extensions never end, and eventually it dominates the entire transit network. It is similar to blowing money on stadiums insofar as it's a waste of money (I wouldn't compare it to a nicer-looking airport, though, because aesthetic improvments to essential infrastructure do have value in and of themselves without making things less efficient; it also costs less and doesn't make existing infrastructure less efficient).

And as for high density development, we'd have that with or without rail. On this point, note that most of the new high density development is occurring not near Main, but near Allen Parkway and Memorial. Fast roads leading into downtown attract more bohos and yuppies than a light rail line.

I understand wanting to put a nicer spin on the mobility plan, but the fact remains that we've gone awry. The fact that Dallas did worse doesn't make me feel much better about it.

At 11:09 PM, June 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The high rent car and hotel tax is a nice side benefit of being a pure business/non-tourist town. People in our hotels probably have to be here for business reasons, so we might as well charge them for it. Most other cities, inc. New York, have to worry about scaring off tourists if fees get too high. Not Houston - no tourists to worry about in the first place.

Total agreement on not wanting to be a tourist town. By visitors, I meant business travelers, convention attendees, people coming in for medical treatment at TMC, and even just friends and family from out of town. Those people form an impression of Houston, and then go back and tell their friends and family. That brand/image/buzz has lots of small and large positive or negative ramifications. When Boeing decided they were going to move HQ from Seattle, they decided to look at Chicago, Dallas, and Denver. I'm betting Houston wasn't on the list from simple superficial reputation, not any clear-headed analysis. I imagine HP has a hard time getting employees to transfer here for the same reason. Employers here used to talk about the difficulty of getting college grads to move to Houston. Although I don't hear as much of that these days, we're still no Austin when it comes to attracting twenty-somethings.

I also agree on the "world class obsession" problem. That's actually what I think drove the original large-scale LRT plan. This new plan is a reset to "how can we move a lot of people for not too much money, and get the feds to pay as much as possible?" I think the Main St LRT and successful Super Bowl got a lot of that world class obsession out of our system, so now we're being more clear-headed.

High-density development is probably the wrong term, because what you're describing - high-rise condos with big parking garages - is technically high-density, but not really what people are looking for when they talk about the NY/DC/London/Paris experience. New Urbanism is the best term I know for midlevel 5-10 story density over large areas with walkable retail and transit. Houston is just starting to get it downtown, and it might spread to midtown and the museum district eventually, and probably good portions of the new LRT. It's a niche lifestyle that some people want, and I'm ok with a little city facilitation to help get the private developers started.

Are we going awry? I see your point. Maybe just a little, compared to pure economic rationality. People splurge a little on nice things all the time. Why not cities from time to time too? As long as it's in moderation, and some reasonable cost-benefit value comes out of it, maybe a little extra civic pride is worth it?

At 8:16 AM, June 15, 2005, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

The big problem is that I don't see rail as really being "nice." There was, of course, a time when Houston had streetcars, and then cars and buses came along and the novelty of those drove people away from the old-fashioned street rail system. That's what drives light rail -- the novelty effect. Rail isn't actually better transit, objectively, than buses on well-paved streets. The novelty wasn't there fifty years ago when cities were taking out streetcar systems -- why should we invest in major infrastructure with the presumption that it will be here fifty years into the future?

This is why the phrase "toy train," used as a pejorative against rail, actually has content. If rail doesn't really serve a purpose, then it's merely a novelty. And if it's a novelty, it has a very tenuous support base. This is why I say that "new urbanism" is best left to the market, a better bus system, and better inner city roads (i.e. Memorial and Allen Parkway). To date, this has been more successful than Main Street rail at fostering that lifestyle.

Besides, do you really believe Metro will ever stop building rail? I really doubt it. They've been scaling down their plains since they proposed a 1.8 billion dollar commuter line in the early 80's (right after they were created). Metro has always had gargatuan rail ambitions. It won't end here, and we'll end up just like Dallas.

At 5:11 PM, June 15, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You have to hope not. My own guess is that federal funding will dry up over the next 5-10 years (because of either budget crunches or bad cost-benefit analyses coming out), and when the matching funds disappear, Metro's rail appetite will drop dramatically. But I think the core couple of lines will ultimately be pretty good for us.


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