Monday, October 05, 2009

Thoughts on recent transportation news

The Chronicle has had several transportation and transit related articles in the last few days. The first, on different agencies and plans for commuter rail, discusses Metro vs. the freight rail district vs. the city of Galveston. All three proposed lines have flaws that could potentially make them as stupid as Austin's new line (Christof's word, not mine). Two stop at the 610 loop rather than getting into key core destinations because of inside-the-loop rail congestion. The third, Metro's 90a proposal, stops in Missouri City, rather than continuing to where all those med center workers actually are in Sugar Land. That's because Metro's service area does not include Ft. Bend County.

It's almost like all of them want to build a white elephant so they can then point to the low ridership and make an argument to sink a lot more into extending it to where it actually should have gone in the first place. And nobody is talking about the critical problems of commuter rail in multi-centric, job-dispersed Houston: it is slower, less frequent, far more expensive, and drops you farther from your destination (in the heat, humidity, and rain) than express commuter buses in HOV lanes - all of which will be canceled as the rail lines get built. Why are we so hell bent on rushing headlong to a less convenient and more expensive transit system?

The second story is on the mayoral candidates and their mobility plans. Most of it sounds pretty reasonable. Except this:

[Peter] Brown said, “You can't serve a low-density city like Houston with a bus system.” (huh?!) He did not specify what he wants Metro to focus on instead, but called for the bus and rail systems to be “integrated.”

“We've got to have a rationalized plan for rail, and bus to feed the rail,” Brown said. “We've got to encourage people to live closer to where they work.”

If transit can't serve a low density city with buses, what the heck is the answer? It sure isn't rail, which is all about heavy density and ridership. And if you look at what happened after the Main St. line opened, "integrated" is a code word for "we're going to cut your convenient, direct, single-bus route and make you transfer several times to different trains and buses." Oh, and system ridership will drop sharply as a result. Great plan.

As far as "encouraging" people to live closer to work: it's not like people are idiots and want to live as far from work as possible. They weigh up a lot of factors to make their housing decision, including affordability, schools, home quality, amenities, and balancing the demands of two different commuters that are likely to change jobs several times. Every job center in Houston has tons of housing all around it - but there are very good reasons most of the employees in those job centers don't choose that housing.

Or maybe Peter wants the major employers of Houston to leave for the suburbs where their employees are, draining the city's tax base?

Lastly, there is this op-ed today urging Metro to take care with the light rail planning and construction. It ended with a challenge of sorts:
Our city's brightest minds and most experienced voices need to articulate a vision for the city's future growth and its transportation solutions that is in-step with the historic heartbeat of Houston.
For the record, mine is here and here.

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At 5:21 PM, October 05, 2009, Blogger David said...

Tory said:
"And nobody is talking about the critical problems of commuter rail in multi-centric, job-dispersed Houston."

I have to point out that I and others at Houston Tomorrow have been saying this for 8 or 9 years and while the commuter rail study was in progress we said it repeatedly at the stakeholder meetings and I talk about it at length in my presentations, which are 30 or 40 a year. That is, Houston Tomorrow is extensively on the record about this, often at great length.

At 10:24 PM, October 05, 2009, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

In comparison to other cities of similar size with even larger freight rail networks, what shocked me is how much of the system around Houston is single-track only. On top of that, there are way too many at-grade crossings at major arterial roadways such as 1960. In major rail hubs like Chicago and Atlanta, double-track is the norm, and in some cases you'll find triple-track. Multiple tracks enable much greater flexibility in scheduling to accommodate commuter services because one direction on each trunk line is still operational, meaning freight can clear out of an area without having to stop at a bypass track for another train. Grade separations at major roads are also necessary due to the frequency of trains on such tracks and the fact that coordination between railroads and traffic-management authorities is practically non-existent. Even if Houston had a relatively centralized job market or if downtown were big enough to warrant a system connecting it to the suburbs, that infrastructure needs to be there for any commuter system to be effective.

At 7:59 AM, October 06, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...


I would look to the local freight rail companies for some of the problems and not Houston. UPRR and others are some of the hardest people to work with even if you are a state agency like TxDOT.

At 8:24 AM, October 06, 2009, Anonymous Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

I think the answer is probably closer to the fact that the state of Texas and the DOT have for years ignored the needs of rail transportation and instead focused almost exclusively on subsidizing highways. The new Katy freeway is Exhibit A to that phenomenon.

At 8:59 AM, October 06, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...


My comment comes from various TxDOT projects that have completed and in the works that had major run-ins with RR companies and particularly UPRR.

The project managers and engineers are still fighting UPRR on the Hempstead Hwy underpass (just north of the Washington/Katy Road intersection). If you traveled this section of Hempstead, you know it's old and out of date with current standards. TxDOT is also upgrading the roadway from I-10 to US 290 to be more pedestrian friendly with sidewalks. Funding was there to move forward, but UPRR is the hold up.

Commuter rail will not likely happen without massive upgrades to rails in the region. That will not be paid for by UPRR because they don't need the upgrades right now to keep their freight customers happy.

METRO and other groups coming in and wanting to put commuter rail on UPRR's tracks will have give a lot. UPRR's customers come first, any delay to them by a proposed commuter rail will kill UPRR allowing commuter rail. Whatever coast you see for commuter rail, you can easily add another billion or two to it!

At 7:34 PM, October 06, 2009, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

kjb, I'm not pinning the problems on Houston itself, I'm just stating that for even a decent commuter rail system to take shape, there needs to be a major upgrade in infrastructure. I assume you're mainly talking about all the at-grade crossings in the Houston area.

You're absolutely right to point out that the railroad companies are very difficult to deal with. Almost all of the commuter rail systems that have relatively high ridership are systems that were established decades ago. The likes of UP, BNSF, CSX, and NS had to allow for such passenger operations to continue in order to receive government subsidies back in the 60's and 70's.

At 11:07 PM, October 06, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Union Pacific is generally intransigent when it comes to passenger rail, more so than the other railroads. The problem is that more so than all other Class I railroads, its business model is based on shipping heavy goods at the lowest possible price per ton-mile. Sharing tracks with passenger rail raises costs: it requires schedule adherence and more modern signaling, and may force UP to pay settlement fees when its inevitable derailments clash with passenger trains.

Politically, they're the most passenger-hostile railroad in the US. Before the recession, long-distance Amtrak trains running on UP tracks were always the ones with the most delays. Right now they're trying to ban California's high-speed rail from even sharing right of way with them, let alone tracks; making sure their trains don't derail and foul adjacent tracks is expensive.

At 11:05 AM, October 07, 2009, Blogger googlegrants said...

We built all the highways to connect things and as a result huge job centers emerged adjacent to them. That says that the only right of way that actually connects the places we want to get to is the highway ROW, not the freight rail tracks, which had a totally different center when they were built. So why not just consider that the obvious place to put some kind of high-capacity transit service is in the highway ROW? And stop thinking so much about old-fashioned diesel-based train sets plowing through the urban core to get to the Central Business District?

At 12:59 PM, October 07, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Googlegrants: even in Sunbelt cities, rail lines tend to get higher ridership when they use historic rail ROW than when they use freeway ROW. The problems with freeways are that they block convenient access to the stations, and that the surrounding areas are usually not walkable. The job centers near freeways were not designed with walking in mind, so they're somewhat more dispersed, while the area immediately next to the freeway is blighted. This contrasts with job centers near rail lines, which were built with the idea that people would ride rail to work, and are more amenable to walking-to-rail-to-walking commuting.

At 2:55 PM, October 07, 2009, Blogger googlegrants said...

Alon Levy: Your description of the areas adjacent to freeways sounds a lot like the areas adjacent to freight rail lines. I can't think of a spot in the Houston region that's adjacent to an old rail line that is walkable etc.

All the major job centers in the Houston region have master plans going on that lead to walkable urbanism, and they are the only places where there are large clusters of people, jobs, services, amenities, and even urban green space. We have to get transit into them. How would you do that with freight rail ROW?

At 4:03 PM, October 07, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...


while I'm not a big proponent of commuter rail because of the sheer magnitude of the costs that are needed to be overcome to achieve it, we do have many areas that have freight rail that run near job centers.

Downtown, Uptown, Greenspoint, UofH, Sugarland offices, Northwest Crossing, and Willowbrook all have active freight corridors. Westchase has an abandoned rail line that HCTRA shares with METRO where the Westpark Toll Road passes. While all of these location may not provide easy walking access to all the offices nearby, they could be easily supplemented with circulator buses. METRO actually had a circulator trolley in Downtown that perfectly complemented the light rail, but they discontinued that. It was something they did that actually made sense when it was there.

Uptown had a free circulator trolley that ran mid-day to move office workers during lunch. It has been discontinued by the management district. It could easily provide service from an uptown commuter station to all the offices.


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