June 7, 2024

Gulfton Extension of the Uptown BRT

Gulfton Extension of the Uptown BRT

The Uptown BRT has been such a raging success that the previous Metro leadership decided it should be extended to roughly four miles on the south end to the intersection of Chimney Rock and Bissonnet. The principal justification for the line is that it would serve the Gulfton area, which is home to many of Houston’s immigrant families who need access to public transportation.

The new Metro leadership, appointed by Mayor Whitmire, has indicated its skepticism of all the BRT extensions previously proposed by Metro. The Uptown-Gulfton extension sparked an exchange at City Council last week, between Whitmire and Councilmember Pollard who represents the area.

In an interview with Houston Landing, Whitmire made the point that he doubted many people would ride the extension because few wanted to travel to the Galleria. The Landing reported that Whitmire said that the immigrants from that area would not be welcomed in the Galleria. There is apparently some dispute about whether Whitmire was quoted correctly. But the reported quote was enough to set off the dust up at Council about whether his comments are sufficiently politically correct and to inspire several media stories over the “controversy.” What Councilman Pollard, nor anyone else at Council, nor any of the media coverage, addressed was whether the extension actually makes sense from a cost-benefit analysis.

In August last year, the previous Metro board approved this four-mile alignment of the extension:

Metro estimated the cost at $220 million, which is almost certainly a gross underestimation. The most recent estimates for the University and Inner Katy BRTs are now right at $100 million per mile. So, this project would likely be closer to $400 million.

The only ridership estimates I have been able to find were those done in 2019 that evaluated a host of potential projects ahead of the referendum that year. According to that report, the extension would generate 3,800 new riders and eliminate 1,550 car trips by 2040.

As I have previously pointed out there are many assumptions in those 2019 projections which are questionable, especially in today’s environment. You might also be interested in knowing that these projections are made by the same engineering firm that made the projection that the Uptown BRT would be carrying 14,000 riders per day.

The bottom line is that the capital acquisition cost of each new rider would likely be well above $100,000, before we even start looking at ongoing operating costs. At this cost and with anemic ridership, it is highly unlikely the FTA would provide any funding.

The proposed alignment would also create a nightmare on Chimney Rock from Westpark to Gulfton. I previously lived close to the area and regularly traveled that part of Chimney Rock. It already has narrow lanes and is very congested with a lot of retail. One of the plan options showed reducing it to one lane in each direction, which brought howls of protests from businesses along the street. It would have also significantly reduced the green space that currently exists in the median on Hillcroft.

I have no doubt that the folks in Gulfton need public transportation. But before we go off and spend hundreds of millions of dollars for a BRT that even Metro’s “experts” show would have tepid ridership, perhaps we should conduct a survey of the residents in the area to see where they actually need to go each day. I suspect that we would find that Whitmire was right, and few need to travel to the Galleria.

But what is most disappointing to me is that City Council has increasingly turned into a performance stage for councilmembers to audition for their next office when they are term limited, instead of a serious deliberative body that tackles the difficult challenges our City is facing.

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