Sunday, August 06, 2006

Lemons to Lemonade: Salvaging the Metro Universities line

I've been doing a little thinking and research on the most recent developments with the planned Richmond/Westpark Universities light rail line, and there might be an option here that could please enough people to work (or at least not anger them enough to block or sue) as well as create a workable line with sufficient ridership. The saga has had a few twists in the last week, with Culbertson announcing his opposition to a Richmond alignment (and he has the power to block federal funding on the Transportation committee), and a new Clutterbuck/Culbertson proposal that has quickly been opposed by Councilwoman Ada Edwards due to high numbers of private property/home takings. A link to the full-size map of the Clutterbuck proposal can be found in the right-side column of the Chronicle article here. It would involve running it along the north side of 59 from Dunlavy to Edloe, with the loss of 50-75 homes and making a mess of the 59 feeder. I also can't see how it could possibly get on Edloe from the feeder to cross over 59.

Because it hits a lot more jobs and residents, I've generally been supportive of a Richmond alignment if enough traffic lanes could be preserved, and was hopeful that it would work out with a bypass of Afton Oaks. At this point, with Culberson's opposition, a substantial alignment along Richmond looks unrealistic. Another part of me has been supportive of the Westpark alignment, because the transportation nerd in me hates to see perfectly good right-of-way go unused. Is there a way we can run it on Westpark but still get most of the ridership a Richmond alignment would have? I think we can.

If you look at this older analysis map by Christof (full-size link, or click on the image), you can see that the real critical nexus is Greenway Plaza centered at Edloe and Richmond. It's important to remember that it doesn't matter where the route line goes - all that matters are the actual stops. If your building is next to the line without a stop, you have all the hassles with none of the benefits. Metro has been talking about elevating the line to crossover 59 from Richmond to Westpark - an expensive proposition. An alternative, if it ran along Westpark with a stop at Edloe, would be an air-conditioned pedestrian skybridge with moving walkways that would deposit people right at Norfolk/City Club and Edloe between Lakewood Church/Compaq Center and the Renaissance Hotel and Greenway Plaza Food Court. I used to work there, and there are a lot of nice underground walkways that connect up all of those buildings. A pedestrian skybridge should be substantially less expensive than something that has to support the train itself. I think it could fit parallel and just to the east of Edloe. Using Christof's quarter mile walking circles from the intersection of City Club and Edloe, it doesn't capture quite as much as a couple stops along Richmond, but it gets the substantial majority. You can view a Google satellite map here.

(Alternative update: an in-and-out rail spur over the Edloe bridge to near City Club/Norfolk, similar to the Main St. line near UHD where the trains can stop and switch tracks in the return direction)

Taking the line east along Westpark from there, a stop at Kirby is also within walking distance of most of the Kirby office buildings south of Richmond (note the red dots on the map), not to mention tourist-and-local favorite Goode Co. BBQ. That may sound trivial, but I noted on a recent trip to Denver that they hype their historic Buckhorn Exchange restaurant has a light rail stop. A stop at Greenbriar would be within walking distance of many apartments, office buildings, and retail towards Richmond (see satellite map).

The question is how far east on the Westpark corridor to go. The right-of-way eventually runs out, but it's also critical to serve The Menil Collection and the University of St. Thomas (it is the "Universities Line", you know) along Richmond. Metro has shown an alternative that goes up Greenbriar to Richmond, but Christof has pointed out the complexities and traffic nightmare of that option. If you look carefully at this Google satellite map, you can see there is actually enough Westpark corridor right-of-way all the way to Dunlavy. You can also see that Dunlavy has less residential along it than Hazard, Woodhead, or Mandell, meaning less opposition. The line could curve on a bridge over 59 and then run up Dunlavy to Richmond, getting it on Richmond at just the right point to serve the Menil and UST. The bridge would be tricky, but that's what engineers are for. If we really wanted to think a little bigger and out of the box, there was talk in the past of covering the 59 trench to create land. A small portion of that could be done here to double the size of Dunlavy Park as well as create the necessary space to curve the line up Dunlavy street. That extra land for the park could help soften any neighborhood opposition. There may even be enough room for an entire soccer field and an ever-popular dog park.

(update 8/9: drove part of the route tonight. There is definitely enough space on the south side of 59 as far east as Dunlavy, and I believe there is enough space on Dunlavy for two tracks and two narrow lanes while keeping the oak trees but losing street parking.)

So let's sum up the advantages of this routing:
  • Neutralizes most of the Richmond opposition
  • Neutralizes any lawsuit about the Westpark wording on the voter-approved ballot measure
  • Gets Culberson on board to get the needed federal funds (which also helps offset any slight ridership penalties for this routing)
  • Utilizes unused Westpark right-of-way
  • Preserves mobility, left turns, and median trees on most of Richmond
  • Substantially fewer construction hassles with Westpark than Richmond
  • Saves the cost of flying the rail line over 59 at Greenway Plaza (although, to be fair, that same money will go into the 59 crossing at Dunlavy)
  • Still connects the dense residential and jobs of Greenway Plaza with an air-conditioned moving-walkway skybridge (or an Edloe spur)
  • Still gets the office buildings on Kirby south of Richmond (and Goode BBQ)
  • Gets a lot of residential, office, and retail at Greenbriar and the Westpark RoW
  • Menil, UST, and Montrose office buildings connected
  • No crossing and traffic nightmare at Greenbriar/Shepherd and both 59 and Richmond
  • Doubles the size of Dunlavy Park (soccer field, dog park)
I think this could be the consensus solution we've all been struggling to find if people could just back off the rhetoric, politicking, and entrenched positions for a moment and give it some positive, thoughtful consideration. Well, one can always hope...


At 4:33 PM, August 06, 2006, Blogger Kevin Whited said...

Clutterbuck/Culbertson proposal

It's not a Clutterbuck/Culberson proposal, as comments from Culberson aide Nick Swyka to Rad Sallee Friday should have made clear. But if it didn't, Swyka's answer to an email I sent him cleared up all doubt.

Why METRO is suggesting this is a Culberson proposal, and why Chron reporters ran with that suggestion, is a mystery to me.

At 5:00 PM, August 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doing the math based on Culberson's August 1st statement he has received only .27% approval of his no-rail position.
Math done using his numbers:
Population Dist 2000 census: 651,620
90% of the 2000 letters Culberson received=1800
1800 is .27% of Culberson's constituents.
At what point do we stop ignoring the math and build a line advantageous to the entire region? You mentioned politicking-it seems the most blatant and miss-leading has come from Culberson's pandering to his own .27%.

At 5:00 PM, August 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that it is crazy that afton oaks residents complian that the rail will destroy quality of life for their neighborhood. They make it sound like they live in mayberry not a major artery for traffic with cars wizzing by all day and night. I love trees and would be sorry to see some die to provide for a Richmond alignment. With city assurances that the Richmond alignment would be lanscaped with new tree plantings the short term pain is worth the long term benefits. This rail issue expemplifies the issue with Houston that, as a city, we can barely plan past next week to see the beauty of a long term vision play out to the benefit of all.

At 5:51 PM, August 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These numerous pro-urban rail exercises attempting to favor one Richmond Rail plan vs another Richmond Rail plan reminds me of "Fantasy Football" zealots who waste countless afternoons making selections of players likely not eligilbe to play in the upcoming season.

Unless METRO quickly holds another "Solutions" scheme vote, they are bound to the stipulations in what was approved by voters in November 2003.

This includes the whole bundle of "bull chips" which needs to be voted on again. Or else METRO is subject to a legal challenge where they waste more precious taxpayer money that will be diverted from critical services for the poor, minority, elderly and handicapped bus transit dependent riders throughout the service, battling the citizens on a position which they may not prevail.

At 6:11 PM, August 06, 2006, Blogger Max Concrete said...

Your advantage points allude to these benefits, but it is useful to point out that the Westpark alignment should
* Provide faster service (possibly 60 mph)
* Provide safer service (potentially much safer with grade separations at major streets)
* Cause a minimal/neglible construction disruption to homes or businesses
* Not disrupt traffic on Richmond (construction and operation)

Also, it is worth mentioning that vitually all of Dallas' light rail outside downtown is on rail corridors, not on adjacent streets.

Once upon a time I looked at the corridor width west of Mandell and I wondered if it was wide enough for two tracks. I also thought that that required signals at cross streets Dunleavy, Hazard, and Woodhead would not be welcomed by residents.

At 8:59 PM, August 06, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Evidently it is a Culberson proposal.

Metro press release:

At 8:48 AM, August 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like your idea of crossing at Dunlavy much better than I like the idea of running it along the north side of 59, taking out houses and a feeder road with no apparent advantage.

I also like the speed of a Westpark alignment, which should in the long run make taking the train between the Galleria and downtown a more attractive option. The one thing I don't like is that it loses the potential for transit-friendly development along Richmond. That street has always seemed a perfect candidate for an urban lifestyle, except for one cookie-cutter subdivision near the West Loop.

At 3:01 PM, August 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think if I lived in Afton Oaks, I would be ok with a rail line on Richmond but only if it cut down the number of traffic lanes and there was a nearby stop.

Construction issues aside, cars and buses would be the largest noisemakers on Richmond. Fewer lanes would move traffic to 59 feeders or Westheimer. Look at Main St downtown. You avoid driving on it, unless necessary.

Not too mention that at the end of the construction, Afton Oaks residents have great public transportation to several points in the city. That would have to be a plus for home values as well.

At 7:01 AM, August 08, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

It's fear of change, pure and simple. And they probably wouldn't be able to block it if they didn't have Culberson on their side.

Westheimer and Alabama were never really options because their right-of-way is too tight to fit trains and keep any lanes, at least in the Montrose area.

At 3:49 PM, August 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry but had to add my 2 cents; I'm extremely interested in transportation issues in, around and through Houston, though I've lived in Spring for years my favorite place in Harris county is Downtown Houston and my wife and I have had a lot of good times and have good friends Downtown. I live just a few minutes from the Spring Park n'Ride and have been a steady Metro Rider since 1993 and I presently commute to the Galleria area. My observation, though I'm not as up on this as some others, is that it would seem most logical to put the rail where people want to go. I personally think it would be more fun if it were all on Richmond because there are hop off spots I'd go to if there were. I can tell you that since the renovation Downtown (DT) and Midtown (MT) and the completion of Spur 527, if you haven't given Metro a chance of late, you should consider it. Right now, Metro is pretty much at the top of it's game. On time pickup and delivery is better than ever and there's a significan improvement in the attitude and professionalism of the Bus Operators. In short, times are pretty good and it came at a good time with these gas prices. If we want to make Houston a better place, I can tell you the number one problem to address is the grotesque and obvious shortage of Police. I used to work the courts as an Attorney and therefore know a lot of HPD and Sherriff's officers and talk to them regularly. With gas prices the way they are, I'd seriously consider moving in; I've even found affordable housing and quite a bit of it, inside the loop or near it, but with a stay at home wife, I'd not consider it until I see drastic improvement in the Police force. As an example, where I live in Spring, (Precinct 4), we have 4 Contract constables in the neighborhood and depending on the nature of the call, we have an average 3 minute response time, 24/7. Everyone feels reasonably safe. (The downside, you don't "club" after 9 without a taxi, DWI enforcement is bloodsport up there). With Metro at it's best, if you had adequate policing, your inner loop property values would significantly increase and the quality of life would drastically improve. How to do that? Couldn't tell you, but I'd have to guess it's priorities of the budget.

At 3:56 PM, August 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there any chance of having a referendum specifically on a Richmond line?


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