Friday, July 27, 2018

First reactions to the preliminary METRONext 2040 draft transit plan

On Thursday the Metro board got their first look at a preliminary draft of the 2040 METRONext transit plan leading up to a 2019 bond election.  Unfortunately, there are no public maps or slides to share (UPDATE: now there are here), just the 1.5 hour video you can find here - look for the METRONext Board Workshop on July 26, 2018 (I recommend adding the Video Speed Controller extension to your Chrome browser which will allow you to watch it at a much faster but still perfectly understandable speed - or you can just jump to the time points I list below). I should pass along that Chair Carrin Patman is super careful to emphasize at that this is very preliminary and subject to change based on feedback and better financial projections (which are all over the place due to high economic uncertainty), and they expect to hold a second board workshop on the plan next month.  She also points out the substantial uncertainty around technology change (mainly autonomous vehicles), which makes a lot of this subject to change over time.  This plan is based on current technologies.  With all of those caveats out of the way, let's dive in.

I think they've done a very clever thing, which is create a fantasy plan with everything they'd love to have to meet the region's mobility needs through 2040 (including plenty of rail, ugh), but then they scale it way down based on financial reality, which I really applaud. I say this is clever because when they show the plan to the public and someone says "why doesn't it have X?", they can say "here's X over in our dream plan, but we can only afford the projects with the absolute highest bang for the buck," - which will either be mollifying or inspire them to lobby for more resources for Metro, a win for Metro either way.

First the $35 billion (!!) dream plan (UPDATE: complete presentation here):
  • Map at the 17:28 point.
  • Starting at 19:26 they build up the layers one at a time to show how they got to that dream map.
  • I will quibble with their assertion that light rail (LRT) is fast. Maybe compared to buses, but net speeds under 20mph with stops is not fast compared to 60+ mph express buses in MaX Lanes. This is particularly relevant to airport service.  Who will ride rail from Hobby airport to downtown that is likely to take an hour?!  And IAH will certainly be longer than that!
  • Extensive improved bus network which they call BOOST.  Good stuff.
  • Great regional express service at 25:05 - essentially MaX lane express bus services.
  • Metro makes it very clear they need financial partners to step up for a lot of the services that go outside their service region, including proposed rail along 90a.
  • At 28:47 they quickly build the master map with all the layers.
  • At 29:30 is a great summary stats slide: 200 miles of 2-way HOV (MaX Lanes!), 100 miles of LRT (!! - minimum $10 billion, probably more like $15B or closer to $20B with future cost inflation), 90 miles of new BRT, and more.
  • Benefits slide at 29:39, including 460% increase in people served and 120% increase in employment served.
I'm actually not going to bother spending any time critiquing this plan, as it gets radically slimmed down after the financial check.

At the 30:40 point, the CFO comes in for a harsh reality check: Metro can only realistically afford 3-8% of the $35 billion dream plan.  That leads to two new versions of the plan, optimistic Plan A and pessimistic Plan B (a literal "Plan B" - nice humor Metro ;-)

UPDATEMetro has now posted good slides with Plan A and B details here.

Plan A (~$2.5 billion?)
  • Map slide at 1:03:58
  • Universities line converted to BRT (smart as long as it doesn't disrupt the already heavy-and-growing-heavier traffic loads on the north-south streets like Weslayan, Buffalo Speedway, Kirby, Shepherd, and Montrose)
  • BRT from downtown to the northwest transit center and the new high-speed rail station at 290 and 610. More on this later
  • Extend the Uptown BRT down to Gulfton (high transit ridership there)
  • LRT extension on the north Red line up to a Tidwell transit center. This is pretty short and reasonable.
  • LRT connecting the south ends of the Red line (near the old Astroworld site) and the Purple line (Third Ward past UH) out to Hobby airport through Sunnyside.  While I can see a little bit of the logic (connect downtown, UH, and the Med Center/Rice to Hobby), it's a lot of money over a lot of miles through a very low-density part of Houston.  And as I mentioned before, the trips will not be fast.  I think this would be very expensive for pretty low ridership.  Airports are not as great connections as people think: the slow trip times and hassle of hauling baggage are discouraging vs. family or leisure travellers getting picked up or dropped off by friends/family or parking or using Uber/Lyft, and business travelers are usually happy to expense a faster taxi/Uber/Lyft ride (or rent a car depending on how much they're getting around).  Here's the question I ask everyone when they suggest rail to the airport: Metro needs to put limited resources where it will do the most good. With that in mind, how many times per year do you commute to work vs. commute to the airport? (probably 100-to-1 for the average person)  Connecting job centers makes far more sense than airports.
  • IAH connection converted to express bus. Smart.
  • Misc other improvements, including improved bus network (BOOST).
  • Summary stats slide at the 1:08:19 point, including 12 miles of LRT and 34 miles of BRT.
The more realistic Plan B (roughly $1 billion)
  • Map at 1:23:18
  • Universities BRT removed (this may be wise with all of the traffic disruption I could see it creating)
  • LRT to Hobby converted to BRT, which is far more affordable and makes more sense, although I still think express MaX Lane services make more sense to/from airports.
  • Stats slide at 1:29:42, including only 1 mile of LRT (kudos!) and 11 miles of BRT.
Now let's discuss that Inner Katy BRT connecting downtown to the northwest transit center and the new high-speed rail station that's in all three plans.  The planning models show it attracts high ridership. Here's my concern with what we'll end up with: a downtown commuter on the west (I-10) or northwest (290) sides will take a park-and-ride express bus to the northwest transit center, where they'll be forced to switch to this relatively slow BRT that then will transfer them to the downtown LRT west of the theater district, and then they have to walk many blocks from an LRT stop downtown to their final building.  That's two transfers (three if they have to get on the Red line) plus a long walk, and it will make for a very long, very painful commute - then they have to reverse it at the end of the day!  Compare that to putting MaX Lanes on I-10 inside the loop and allowing an express bus to go 65+ mph directly from their park-and-ride lot to downtown where it can circulate to get them pretty close to their final building (similar to today's HOV service).  That commute is probably half the time, maybe less depending on transfers and walks.  It would also be easy to have special luggage-friendly express buses meet the incoming high-speed rail trains and run people very quickly down the MaX lanes to downtown, again circulating to get them close to their final destination.  This service is superior and should be a heck of a lot cheaper than a BRT line.  It lacks a couple of local connections in the Heights, but does that really add much value with low-density residential and few jobs?  I'm skeptical but still open to this BRT line, but I just don't want Metro to build it and then try to force a bunch of connections to it that build ridership but dramatically slow peoples' daily commutes vs. direct express bus service.

Overall I've got to give Metro a lot of credit for thorough analysis, openness to new technologies, and financial realism leading to only the most efficient projects (Plan B).  I certainly have some quibbles with B, serious concerns with A, and massive issues with the unrealistic dream plan, but at the end of the day I think Metro has the right priorities and is going in the right direction.  Those are my first reactions, but I'm looking forward to the next METRONext board workshop in August to see how it evolves.  Stay tuned...

UPDATE: Metro has now posted the presentation slides here.
UPDATE 2: Good summary from Kinder.

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