I suspect that those of you who have followed my critiques of Metro over the last year or who read my arguments against Metro's proposed LRT program in Sunday's Houston Chronicle (see the article here
), will be surprised to hear that I was glad to see Metro's go forward with the environmental studies on a possible rail line along US90 to Fort Bend County. While we do not have enough data yet to make an informed decision, there is a good chance this will prove to be a reasonable transit investment for our community. So, you are probably wondering, why is this different from Metro's proposed LRT? Well, since you asked:
3. Congestion Reduction.
1. Cheaper. The cost of building this line along an existing freight rail line is likely to be much less expensive than the LRT. The preliminary numbers I have heard suggest that it could be as little as one-third of the per-mile cost of the LRT. Assuming the line will qualify for FTA funding, which is likely, the local portion of the per-mile cost could be as low as 20% of the cost of the LRT.
2. Grade Separation. There will more opportunities to separate the grade of this rail line from the existing vehicular traffic. Much of the existing freight rail right-of-way is already grade separated. Assuming that the line is built in or adjacent to that right-of-way, the line could take advantage of existing grade separations and might have a partner in the railroad and local communities to add additional grade separations.
While we have not yet seen any traffic studies, it seems likely that this line would, unlike the proposed LRT, result in a reduction in traffic congestion. It would become an alternative for the Southwest Freeway, one of our most congested roadways. By connecting this line to the existing Main Street line, it would become a "mini-commuter" line, giving Ft. Bend County residents a rail alternative to get to jobs in the Medical Center and Downtown.
4. Line Length.
When it comes to rail, length matters. Rail is most efficient when it is carrying its passengers longer distances. Because rail must follow a single, fixed pathway, there is some inefficiency in getting passengers to and from the rail line. The longer the potential ride, the less significant this inefficiency becomes.1
Also, if you look at other successful rail programs, they rely on, and typically began with, one long "backbone" line and then were expanded off that main line. Dallas' rail system is a good example. Adding to the existing Main Street line would create a line that would be approximately 16 miles, far longer than anything contemplated in the proposed LRT. I can find no other city that has attempted to build a web of lines out in short segments as proposed in the existing Metro plan.
But whether this line makes ultimately makes sense or not is not the real issue. What I find disappointing about the current transit policy debate in Houston is that it has devolved in two "knee-jerk" camps. You are either for rail or you are against it. I recently corresponded with a popular blogger who favors Metro's LRT proposal. This individual is a thoughtful, well-intentioned person. In our correspondence he admitted that he had never read any of the traffic studies that show that the LRT will make congestion worse, he did not know how much the project was going to cost or have any idea how we would pay for it. Nor had he reviewed any ridership projections or considered if the money might be better spent on some other mobility project.2
But he knew he was for it. In some quarters support for Metro's proposed LRT has become an article of faith.
Frankly, we cannot afford to be making our mobility investments on projects that we like. All of the projections show that Houston's traffic is going to get much worse and soon. We have gotten a little bit of a respite with the current economic downturn, but before you know it the rest of Houston's freeways are going to look like Highway 290 does today. Also, as economic activity picks up, there will be even greater demand for transit from our fellow citizens that cannot afford to own an automobile. We do not have luxury or time to try to use transportation policy to change Houston’s development patterns. That is a multi-generational task, if it can be done at all. We better get about the business of making good, hard-nosed transportation decisions that rigorously look at the cost-benefit ratio of every single investment. If we continue to make investments based on blind faith in any particular mode, be they rail or highways, we are doomed to LA-like traffic in our near future and Houston's poorest families will continue endure unfair hardships trying to live in this City without an automobile.
ERRATA: In my most recent blog on Metro (Metro's Train Wreck
), I had a bust in my spreadsheet and overstated the amount that Metro's grants have declined in recent years. The following paragraph has been substituted in the on-line version (see http://billkingblog.com/
). The numbers in this paragraph come from the 2000-2008 Metro audits that can be found on Metro's website.
"Less Federal Dollars
. When the current administration was put in place one of the promised benefits was to be its prowess in obtaining federal funding. We have been repeatedly warned not to interfere or criticize Metro's policies because it might reduce our chance for federal funding. However, during the last six years, grants from federal and state transit assistance programs have steadily declined. In 2004, Metro received $140 million in grants. By 2008, that number had dropped to $90 million, a 35% decrease. Based on the average grants received in 2001-2003, Houston has lost nearly $100 million in grants since Wilson arrived."
If you doubt this, think about your own experiences in Manhattan. If you are only going a few blocks, you are much more likely to walk and catch a cab than to take the subway.
For an excellent discussion of alternative investment analysis see Tom Kirkendall's last blog at http://blog.kir.com/archives/2010/03/the_metro_train.asp