If you missed it, the Houston Chronicle published an op/ed for me last Sunday on the possibility of elevating Metro's light rail through the Texas Medical Center. See http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/outlook/6574074.html
Any of you who have driven down Fannin know what a nightmare it is. The experience raises the broader question of the efficacy of "at-grade rail" especially in corridors that are already highly congested. If you like the experience of driving down Fannin, you are going to love driving down Post Oak with two train tracks. The Westheimer/Post Oak intersection should be a particular treat.
Virtually all of the world's great iconic transit systems have been built in a different horizontal plane than the existing vehicular traffic. Most of the systems have been placed underground, but many have segments that are elevated. Even portions of the much heralded Paris Metro are elevated above the city. But these have been beautifully integrated into the city's architecture, proving that elevated rail does not have to be ugly.
Of course, the problem with grade separating rail is that it is more expensive. However, I think we need to take the longer view here. The truth is that a rail system in Houston will not make any meaningful impact on congestion in most of our lifetimes. It is infrastructure that we are building for future generations.
Elevated Section of Paris’ Metro
Houston currently has over 1,200 at-grade rail crossings. I have been told that we have the highest number of at-grade rail crossing per capita of any major U.S. city. They are a major cause of congestion. Metro's proposed light rail will add hundreds of new at-grade crossings. We have so many at-grade crossings currently because, frankly, our forefathers were not willing to spend the money to do it right. Now we are proposing to repeat the same mistake. Is a system that adds hundreds of new at-grade crossings really the system we want to leave to our child and grandchildren?
Of course, to build a grade separated system, we will have to slow down and make the investment over a longer period of time. In the meantime, we might consider getting busy overhauling our bus system, a mode that could give us some short term relief from congestion and provide working families a real transit alternative. Siphoning money off the bus system to build an at-grade system that is going to make congestion worse is a lose-lose scenario.