Monday, June 16, 2008

Pros and cons of the new commuter rail plan

Last week H-GAC recommended five commuter rail lines (nice Chronicle map in pdf form here - thanks for getting them to put it online, Rad). I'm sure Christof will have a much more detailed and thoughtful commentary soon, but until then, you're stuck with my amateur analysis.

I still have grave doubts about the appropriateness of commuter rail for dispersed city like Houston, with only around 7% of jobs concentrated downtown. And $3 billion is very nontrivial money. It better have very high projected ridership to justify that. That said, if somebody put a gun to my head and insisted I map out 5 commuter rail lines for Houston, this might be pretty close to what I would choose.

What I like is that they avoid areas that are already well served by big freeways and HOV/HOT lanes, like the 59N, 45N/Hardy, 10W, and 59S corridors. That's why I'm not as upset as the article that Sugar Land, The Woodlands, and Kingwood/IAH are not included (a connecting shuttle to Hobby is possible). Those communities have plenty of good options today. Now, it's true 290 and 45S have HOV lanes, but there are other reasons commuter rail might work for them. (the 45S HOV does not go much beyond Beltway 8, and the rail line won't come inside the Beltway on Texas 3, so they're somewhat complimentary)

First, Galveston. My previous thoughts are here and here, and Christof's are here. From my earlier post, here are the reasons this route has potential:
  1. local transit at both ends to get you to your final destination
  2. highly populated corridor with heavy traffic flows both directions
  3. regular congestion on the existing freeway
  4. tourism potential in addition to commuters (better overall utilization for the capital cost)
  5. existing tracks that make the cost much more reasonable
  6. job centers at both ends and in the middle (Clear Lake/NASA)
Second, 290. Rumor has it that the planned Hempstead toll road won't happen because costs have risen too much for tolls to cover it (very unfortunate, IMHO). That leaves a gigantic swath of highly-populated northwest Harris County (check the map) with very limited (and congested) options to get to the core job centers (Downtown, TMC, Greenway, Uptown). The 290 and 249 lines could move a lot of people, and, when connected to the core LRT network, get them to all the core job centers (not just downtown). Piping them all on buses down a couple HOV lanes (290 and 45) may not be adequate.

I also like that the Ft. Bend line, by using the Almeda corridor, will offer good access to the Medical Center in addition to Downtown. That county will be even more popular with TMC employees than it is now.

One bit of irony I noticed. These lines go way the heck out to far Waller, Montgomery, Ft. Bend, and Galveston Counties. Usually anti-sprawl people are also pro-rail, but in this case, if these lines are built, they will open up previously unimaginable areas for living and commuting into the city - areas that very few people would contemplate driving from, but they might be happy sitting on a train with their laptop or Blackberry for an hour+ each way.

There are still a lot of issues to be worked out:
  • Since they go far beyond Metro's territory, who will run them an how will they be paid for? Other cities have proliferating numbers of transit agencies (like Chicago), and it generally seems to be a bad thing. Better for Metro to strike deals with adjacent counties and keep everything integrated.
  • Can these routes really co-exist with the freight on them? The study seems to think so, but it's gotta be tricky.
  • Many of the existing freight tracks seem to be single tracks. Will they be upgraded to double tracks? ($$$) If not, will trains have to be all-inbound in the morning and all-outbound during the afternoon? (which kills part of the value of the Galveston line) Or can special passing zones be set up and the trains timed right? (seems like it would be very tricky and dangerous)
  • Some of the connections will require all new track through residential and commercial areas (249 to 290, The Heights, 45S to Pearland). Always contentious. Just ask Metro...
  • Will end-to-end trip times really be competitive with driving or HOV express buses? I have concerns that stops and transfers will create painfully long trips, while Metro will cancel all competing HOV bus service on 290 and 45S.
As always with transit, it all comes down to speed and cost effectiveness (people moved for the money).

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At 8:33 AM, June 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A note about freight rail, UPRR is pretty far in its planning stages to double and triple track several of there freight lines in the Houston region. Their original plan essentially just was to handle the exploding demand created by the Port of Houston and didn't considered any future transit agreements with METRO.

One of the big hold ups with UPRR's expansion plan is that if METRO is going to want to share the tracks, UPRR wants them to help pay for this massive expansion (part of this massive $3 billion).

I understand UPRR's position. They currently have many clients being served by "their" tracks. They have schedules and deadlines to meet already on their fairly congested system. METRO wanting to jump in with an extremely tight fixed schedule doesn't help. UPRR won't let this happen unless there is plenty of capacity to ensure the two systems work.

With the cost of sharing the UPRR tracks which will essentially be paying for massive capacity expansion, METRO might as well build their on system. Cost will still be massive, but they won't have to share it.

Either way, there are plenty of hurdles to overcome on this massive venture and we on the public end are seeing very little of the work (even with these studies being released).

At 11:23 AM, June 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice analysis! I am particularly enthusiastic about the Almeda Road route because there is so much more real estate to work with; it will be much easier to lay down rail there without disrupting the existing traffic; at the same time, it is a useful corridor. I am also enthusiastic about rail up 249, because existing streets have been and probably always will be inadequate. But those are just my preferences.

What I really wanted to get to is that commuter rail goes to the heart of our urban/suburban future vis-a-vis energy, gasoline, and the private automobile. Among the many great allures of suburban living, and there are many, is the allure of cheaper housing. A person who can afford to buy only a very mediocre house, in a rough neighborhood inside the Loop, can afford something much nicer in Fort Bend or Brazoria County. The tradeoff, as you know, is the drive.

Until recently the primary tradeoff has been driving time lost. Now it is such a financial burden that the allure of cheap housing will be insufficient to keep some folks out in the burbs unless it can be somehow balanced financially. Looming even more ominously is the very real possibility of gas rationing, either government- or market-imposed. I don't know how old you are, but I sat in gas lines for hours at a time in the 1970s, so I do not doubt it could happen again today, even worse. If that happens, people won't be able to get to work at all, and the economy starts grinding down even further.

Enter the true value of mass transit: a realistic alternative when the viability of personal transportation continuously declines. I predict there will come a time that we will look back and be quite happy with our prescience at realizing the future value of rail. As China becomes more like us, we become more like Europe. What goes around comes around! China would be smart to remember that.

I would love to be wrong about all this ... I am curious which, if any, of my assumptions you disagree with.

At 11:24 AM, June 17, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks. I did a little Google satellite map digging on the Almeda line. Unfortunately, it peters out kinda early inside the loop. An old rail corridor exists up through the neighborhoods around TSU, but I'm pretty sure they will raise bloody hell if Metro tries to put tracks in it (it's a bike trail now, from the looks of it). What would probably happen would be it curving over to meet the end of the Main St. LRT by the old Astroworld site, with a transfer. Probably fine for Med Center commuters, but I doubt anyone going downtown would use it given the LRT end-to-end is 30 mins for 7 miles.

I agree with you on the 249 line. It makes a lot of sense, because 249 is not a freeway inside the Beltway, and even then it connects to an already overcrowded 45N.

I agree on the suburb problem, but there are other answers: people will buy high mileage small cars (like Europe), or they can carpool, or they can ride much cheaper express bus/HOV services (which can be actually faster than trains *and* circulate at destinations to get you to your final building). I also think more employers will embrace telework.

At 10:29 PM, June 19, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can see more details on the recommended routes at the HGAC web site

This plan would involve quite a bit of new track, even assuming that existing track will be used whenever it is available. The Almeda tracks currently stop at Holcombe. This plan runs the track along SH 288 (I suppose in the median that is planned for toll lanes) and then just east of downtown. The planned hub near northwest mall would involve a major right-of-clearance of warehouses. Then there's the new track near Mangum that Tory mentioned, new track through the Heights (on the abondoned ROW), and new track along the Gulf Freeway where clearance would be required.

The report states "Regarding the specific alignment considerations inside of Loop 610, this part of the system infrastructure will be most difficult and costly of the system elements to implement,
especially with the extent of grade separated aerial structures that would be required along
the service roads of I-45 and US 59".

After seeing all this, I'm thinking that a $3 billion cost estimate may be low.

At 6:09 AM, June 20, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For commuter rail on an active freight route with frequent lineside industries, the general rule is you can have single-directional on doubletrack or bi-directional on tripletrack.

Most of Houston's existing rail corridors have enough right-of-way for 3-4 tracks, but actually utilizing them would require changes in Texas state law dealing with how the freight railroads share liability for passenger trains operating over their trackage. A lot of the expense of the inner-loop improvements is going into maintaining a large separation between commuter rail and freight rail tracks, as much as 80 feet. This isn't an FRA standard, but a byproduct of antiquated laws which put UP (and HB&T, and BNSF) on the hook for errors caused by the commuter rail operator.

Amtrak's Northeast services operate at 125+ mph on shared trackage only 13 feet away from Norfolk Southern freight trains. British Intercity 125 services run even closer (narrower trains).

Changing Texas law to provide a liability shield to the freight operators would save an immense amount of money on capital costs.


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