Comment of the Day: What It Would Take To Build a Subway in Houston

COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHAT IT WOULD TAKE TO BUILD A SUBWAY IN HOUSTON Houston Subway“A subway WILL work in Houston, albeit at a significantly higher cost. I’m a civil engineer who builds tunnels, nationwide. They’re not even significantly more expensive in Houston than elsewhere. Tunnels in LA, NY, Chicago, Montreal, London etc all have to deal with bedrock — which is very expensive to tunnel through. Instead, Houston uses open-cut excavation and massive soil amendments + ground water pumping to tunnel. For example — the depressed portions of US-59 from Shepherd to Montrose (or the depressed portion of Beltway 8 from Boheme to I-10) are essentially a tunnel with no roof because they’re lower than the bayou and the ground water table; it took expensive soil amendments and pumps to build that, the same as a subway. Our commuter rail tunnel projects in LA are bidding for between $18M-$20M per mile of track, while the at-grade portions are only about $4M per mile. We consistently find that tunnels cost about 4x-5x as much as at-grade track. Meanwhile, elevated track costs roughly $25M a mile (6x at-grade costs). . . .” [Ornlu, commenting on Comment of the Day: How About a Rail Line Along the Bayou?] Illustration: Lulu

40 Comment

  • No subway stupid houston already hides enough in the stupid tunnels downtown…people need to be seen outside and walk around outside..not like a bunch moles

  • Thanks for those per-mile figures. I always wondered what they were. With chronic funding fatigue, Metro will be lucky to add a handful of BRT lines in the next 20-40 years.

  • We can’t get rail built here without WW III, what on Earth makes you think anyone would ever go for a subway??? Do you understand Houston politics at all??? Be a realist! Hey, I know, let’s build a EuroRail in the air and have it like hover over the city on like a monorail track, it would be awesome–100 billion is all it would cost –let’s do it Houston!!!–sigh*

  • I’ve been saying this for years. This would be an Amazing alternative to the Richmond/University line that has so much opposition from the buffoons. Build it! Build it! BUILD IT!

  • Thank you Ornlu for an educational comment about the difference in costs by method. I can see why ground level rail transit has been the choice, comparing the significant pricing differences. When you consider Houston is a sprawling city with abundant land options, which we are compared to a denser, fixed size city such as New York who relies heavily on below ground transit, it makes more sense financially.

  • That is a very interesting statistic that elevated track costs more than tunnels. Having portions of a line go underground makes a lot of sense. Tunnels actually improve the above ground pedestrian experience since there is no rail to compete with the people on the street.

    Anyways Houston is too short sighted and not interested in long term growth to do anything correct the first time. The business leaders of the city stand to make more money rebuilding infrastructure every 5-10 years than building something once to last 60-100 years. And they easily get the public to go along by giving large financial numbers that the average person cannot comprehend or compare because they don’t manage a city size budget.

    While the city is in a large growth period right now, it will stop and it will be stunted very soon for lack of foresight.

  • @Shannon, as this commenter stated his background is civil engineering and tunnel construction specifically, the comment clearly was addressing only the physical and cost aspects of a subway, addressing those that frequently blame the high water table as to why they aren’t suitable for Houston. If you re-read the comment, he made no comment as to political viability so not sure why you got yourself in a lather about that.

  • Great let’s run a subway from Downtown Houston to Uptown/Galleria, with a couple of stops along Buffalo Bayou/Allen Pkwy., then to Montrose, and several stops along/under Westheimer or Richmond Ave, including at Shepherd, Wesleyan, Kirby, Highland Village/River Oaks District, and the Galleria…then the subway could come up to street level outside loop 610 as it goes further out into the Westside. This would probably satisfy John Culberson, Houston’s most vocal rail killer, since he does not want rail ‘seen’ in the pristine filthy rich areas he represents. Presto…put it underground and he won’t see it. It’s about 8 miles from DTH to UTH/Galleria, so the subway would cost about $160 million (the street level portion thereafter only $4 million per mile as it goes further West beyond the Galleria)…that’s peanuts for booming Houston…and lonnnnnnnnnng lonnnnnnnnnng OVERDUE!

  • Shannon….Do you understand politics? Advocating for change is the first step to changing things. There might be structural problems within the political realm that make said changes less likely to happen but that is not a complete blockage to change. Let’s identify the things that stand in the way of the changes that we want to see and start hacking away at them! Perhaps your comment was simply to illustrate that YOU don’t see things changing because you think that the way things are, are just the way they are for better or worse….

  • This is from the Chron’s chat with Mayor Parker this afternoon:

    Q: Mayor Parker, what are your thoughts in regards to expanding our rail system in Houston? Thus far, we have the Red Line running with the East (Green) and Southeast (Purple) joining very soon. Unfortunately, I do not feel that this City is being progressive in their stance with public transportation. We cannot keep expanding our roads forever and with the continuing growth of Houston, we need to give the people of Houston a more efficient option to get around (thus expanding our rail). Although I am not a huge fan of METRO’s leadership, how can the City provide more funds to METRO to pay for more public transportation infrastructure?

    A: The backbone of any public transportation system is busses. METRO is engaged in a complete rethinking of its bus routes to maximize ridership. With two lines of light rail currently running and two that will open this summer, our rail options will be significantly expanded. But Houston will still be the largest U.S. city in area that is not a combined metro. And we have to recognize that rail will not be the ultimate answer for us. That said, we’re also working to create a commuter rail corridor, with 290 being the most likely. METRO is receiving more money from local transportation funding than it ever has thanks to the referendum in 2012.

    The most damning part (which I was surprised she said) to me was “..rail will not be the ultimate answer for us.”

  • we could have a subway tomorrow, just move that toy train from memorial city mall and have it start doing loops through the downtown tunnel system.

  • Shannon. He’s not saying we should. He’s saying we could and what it may cost. Settle down and get the knot out of your panties.

  • I just spit up a bit of my beer at the “…not like a bunch moles” comment.

  • Very subjective I know, but no one ever seems to put a dollar value on the Quality of Life you might have in a urban neighborhood with subways AND WITHOUT lightrail and/or buses. As Honest Truth said, a $160M subway from downtown to Galleria and points west could tie into existing downtown light rail, and make a large portion of city available to mass transit. Oh wait, it seems like that would require some ‘vision’ from our transportation planners and city/county bureaucrats. Nevermind. Hey! how bout a rail line connecting the airports, running thru downto

  • I always thought Houston could have a “subway system” very easily, if METRO chipped in for moving sidewalks in our downtown tunnel system.

  • Interestingly, due to term limits, Mayor Parker will also not be Houston’s ultimate solution, so I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on what she says. Maybe if Culberson had some constituents who could make money off of light rail, then we might have a chance.

  • While it can certainly be argued that Houston is going to need expanded rail and BRT (it could be argued that it needs it now) beyond what is already being completed, the Mayor is correct in talking about the changes to the basic bus system. Look at Los Angeles and Chicago – basic bus forms the most widespread and essential components of their transit systems and helps to make their rail systems much more functional. Yet both of those cities do basic bus way, way better than Houston in routing, service quality, frequency etc. We have tons of room for improvement there.

    If METRO can’t even get basic urban bus right, why should people trust it to do fancier stuff? This Re-Imagining effort is going to be a real test, and the citizens should grade the agency rigorously.

  • “Rail will not be the ultimate answer for us.” “The backbone of any public transportation system is buses”
    “METRO is engaged in a complete rethinking of its bus routes to maximize ridership” says the mayor.
    Where is the Vision? Maybe the mayor should completely rethink her Metro Board appointments.

  • why is elevated transit more expensive than underground? that seems counter intuitive.

  • I’m think his idea is great, it’s just so absurd to think that in this political climate this would have a ice cube in hell. I could say, wow Houston should build a 3000 foot skyscraper, wouldn’t that be cool!!–it’s viable if we could get the FAA to go along–it would only cost about 7 billion…

  • It’s annoying that people make statements that I’m against rail etc–if you’ve read ANY of my comments in the last 2 years you’d know I’m very pro rail–I just think it’s absurd to act like Houston support a subway!–especially out on the Westside –the people are staunchly! against rail–GET REAL–and yes I do understand politics –do you?????

  • Does anyone know why the depressed portion of Beltway 8 from Boheme to I-10 was built below ground? This is the only part of the Beltway that is below ground level, and I have always wondered why?

  • As most Houstonians and pointed out by this Civil Engineering discussion, we can do subway and would cut down on accidents!
    If they can bury 59 south at Shepard and rework the floodway for both White Oak and Buffalo Bayou, I’m sure they could engineer it… they are already having power line failures and digging up track before the Purple or Green line are even operational, hehehe! METRO is a JOKE and always has been. It won’t be any better util you make it a non-private-business enterprise. Similar to the CTA in chicago.
    As for re-imagine / re-brand METRO, how about increasing your hiring standards. I ride metro all thru college and missed or was late for classes because the busses are NEVER on time! I would often see operators stop for smoke breaks or to go into a fast food place and grab a bite. I had even seen them drive with their shoes off or even blatantly not stop for me if they were running behind schedule. Don’t get me wrong, some were GREAT operators and I would even chat with my regulars. That was often the exception and not the rule… Until you fix that, people will never buy into METRO, especially when you don’t even offer all day transfers anymore! Ant least rail operators can’t stop to smoke…
    Good luck HTX!

  • I got tired of waiting for better public transit in Houston and moved to the Bay Area. I ride the subway whenever I want. It’s awesome.

  • My concern about this “comment of the day” is that it was made in the context of a discussion of a tunnel that would be cut through park land. The route being discussed has exceptionally few pre-existing underground utilities that would have to be relocated during excavation. We wouldn’t be tearing up and replacing a major thoroughfare at the same time, and that matter, there are only a handful of road crossings in a stretch of several miles. It’s not greenfield, but it’s darn close!

    If you take away all of the things that make light rail construction so prohibitively expensive (excluding ROW acquisition for the purpose of comparing elevated vs. subway), then yeah it wouldn’t surprise me the least bit if subway turned out to be less expensive than elevated rail.

    However, for purposes of comparing practically every other route where you might want to put some configuration of light rail in Houston, I think that elevated would still end up being significantly less expensive than subway. All of this being a moot point…because if you can develop eight miles of at-grade for every mile of subway (which is the figure that I hear used most often), then we should almost never desire to build a subway. And if elevated costs four times as much, then we should only very sparingly desire to build elevated. And if BRT costs a fraction of either, well then fuck light rail. Fuck it.

    BRT is cheaper to build, cheaper to operate (in terms of non-linear systems optimization approach), if you need the same capacity as light rail then you can run more vehicles and reduce headway, and it is just as fast as light rail. And with new transit apps from Google, frankly even a non-English-speaking child can figure out how to use buses so that the coolness factor underlying ‘rail bias’ premise needs to be weighed against the advent of also-very-cool new technology.

    (We also need to be talking about ride sharing programs and jitneys, because that’s also a transportation solution that becomes really practical and cost-effective using very-cool new technology.)

  • I suppose I should issue a caveat: Those are just the rail costs – it doesn’t include stations, crossings, environmental impact assessments, ROW aquisition, etc. What’s driven the previous metro rail costs sky high is the ROW. The costs of those other items tends to be the same regardless of whether it’s elevated/at-grade/underground, so drumming it down to just the differentials makes sense to engineers. ..
    But if you want to back-of-the-envelope figure up the total cost of a significant section like “8 miles from DTH to UTH” (as Honest Truth suggest), better throw in $100M for ROW acquisition, $30M per station times 4 stations, $50M for electrical substations, about $50M more for environmental impacts, and another $100M for street replacement & utility relocation… That’d put the real differential at ~$470M for at-grade, $566M for submerged, or $640M for elevated.

    @htownproud : Tunnel is cheaper because it has more bearing area against the soil, so the stress forces are less concentrated –> Less steel for structural support. Plus elevated lines typically require sound abatement (big vertical walls to block sound and/or special rubberized footing on the structural supports to stop vibration). The loud noises of rail are now treated like pollution, so you can’t have any adjacent lots with sound levels over the OSHA limits.

  • Why is elevated rail more expensive? From a casual/ecucated observer, it seems with elevated rail there is minimal excavation of existing utilities along the route compared to all utilities being relocated along a surface route. (example: every street in Houston where there is light rail, there has been excavation of utilities and reconstruction of the streets) Supports for the rail could be located mostly in medians along roads, not interfering with traffic or reducing traffic lanes. The one extra cost I see would be for elevated stations along the routes/ although in some places the stations could be at ground level. Right now we are building elevated lanes on every freeway for contraflow/HOV lanes on all the freeways, which this same type of construction that could be used for rail. Take the cars off these and put in the rail to the park and ride lots and create bus routes in the neighborhoods to bring the people in to the park and ride stops.

    If you need to stick to light rail, then do it like San Diego “trolley”. In San Diego, there are only trains/trolleys on a few streets downtown, and the rest of the system is in existing rail right of ways, or new right of ways created for the trolley. Stops are near parking lots and are serviced by bus routes.

    Also, if the system was a mag-Lev system, there would be no wires above, no dangerous 3rd rail, and only be powered immediately behind the train to push it along. Less energy used, less energy costs. This type of rail system is used in Shanghai.

    With an elevated system, trains run faster and faster service will create more ridership. If you can get there faster then driving, people will ride it.

  • @ Bill: I always have heard that section of Beltway 8 was below grade because the wealthy neighbors around Memorial Drive were concerned about noise and visual pollution from the highway running through the neighborhood. Same as the Beltway makes a jog around Jersey Village due to neighborhood opposition.

  • In answer to Bill, the reason the tollway is below grade at Boheme is that there was very strong neighborhood opposition. At the time the Memorial Bend neighborhood was begun, the road where the tollway is was envisioned as a 2 lane boulevard. Thus there were strong voices against the structure it later became. There are some interesting insights in the book Houston Freeways by Eric Slotboom. I believe some portions of the book are on his website.

  • I was composing my comment about the tollway as Shady Heightster’s was posting. However, I would challenge the comment that the neighborhood then was wealthy. Although housing values have gone up lately, they weren’t built as expensive homes, and were in fact values were rather depressed after the tollway was built.

  • @TheNiche:
    I’ve never done a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) project before. Presumably, costs for that would be more in line with highway costs, right? That’s RADICALLY cheaper than rail per mile ($2M/mile vrs $4M/mile with 1/4 or less of the station and utility costs). If it moves the same people with less operating expenses (not my area of expertise, but I believe that), then I agree: BRT’s the way to go.

  • This reminds me of people who claim you can’t have a basement in Houston due to the high water table. Houses from the 1930’s and 40’s in my hood have basements and are fine. Houses on the east coast right near the ocean have basements, and their water table is just as high. The reason we don’t do basements in Houston is because they are expensive and take a lot of time to install. Here, we pour a cement slab and start framing on it one week later in order to finish a new house in under 4 months.

  • I do think we should be looking at much more BRT myself – but only if we do it as true BRT, meaning an exclusive guideway as will be done on Post Oak Boulevard. Some places get away with calling something BRT when it’s just limited-stop service in mixed-flow traffic. That doesn’t count, in my mind.

    Of course, doing BRT the right way means it can get pretty expensive, especially if you want to preserve all the regular lanes on the street, meaning acquisition of right of way (again, the Post Oak Boulevard example). Plus providing traffic signals etc. for people to safely cross the street at stations. And a high-volume BRT corridor will have high operating costs since you’d need a lot of buses, each of which will have a driver (at least until self-driving buses become the norm).

    If you really want to do something special, do BRT as a guideway completely separated from the street , such as in Los Angeles (Orange Line) or Pittsburgh. That’s probably even more expensive unless you already have some sort of right of way available and have a pre-existing way to avoid conflicts at street crossings.

    One potentially really nice thing about true BRT is that you could possibly use it for “trunk line” service of multiple lines at high frequency, which then depart the guideway to provide lower-frequency service in lower-density areas.

  • @Superdave,
    Which neighborhood do you live in that has basements? If anyone else knows of any neighborhoods with a lot of basements, please let me know where. I’m ignorant of this.

  • I know of several houses with basements over near Rice, and they are not unknown in the Heights – I had one when I lived right off of White Oak.

    One reason basements are so prevalent in the north is that by the time you dig down far enough to get the foundation well below the frost line, it’s not a huge additional investment to dig out the rest of it, pour a floor, and have a bunch of additional room.

  • If we build a subway, it ought to be a bored tunnel system, not cut and cover. Run it about 100 ft underground, like the latest London lines. London has a very clay like soil, which is easy to tunnel, and I suspect it would work well here. boring tunnels also causes less disruption to the surface.

    Many of the houses in Avondale have basements.

  • @Progg – Riverside Terrace. There are also a few with elevators. Both features tend to occur in the larger, more prominent homes. Mine only has a crawl space (though a nice one, as far as crawl spaces go).

  • Houston is one of the lowest density cities in the world. Building a subway here would mean a select group of people could afford to actually live within walking distance of a station. Therefore, a small group of people would benefit while everyone must pay. There is a reason people leave LA, NYC, Boston, DC, and Chicago to live here.

  • To all the naysayers on this thread who somehow believed back in 2014 that subways were Not The Texas Way:

    Greetings from 2017! As of the time I am writing this, Dallas has now committed funding for an underground rail tunnel to carry parts of the LRT system. Yes, it will almost certainly come in over budget by the time it gets built, but even though the process may not be pretty, the fact remains that Houston’s primary southern rival has beaten it to the punch — all because Dallas was willing to seriously suggest big solutions to big problems while Houstonians sat on their hands urging “realism.” Dallas will now move forward as an increasingly viable urban core while Houston’s self-proclaimed realists continue to scratch their heads, wondering why their “city” can’t seem to convince others of its international-level greatness.


  • @ Bara Rihter: How many miles of LRT or BRT or ordinary local buses or bike paths or sidewalks could Dallas afford to build and operate for each mile of subway? If their budget is finite, then the deciding factor as to whether subway is a good idea or not is its opportunity cost.
    Now, on the subject of being unable to convince other people of Houston’s “international-level greatness”…I have zero fucks to give toward that cause. The City and its denizens really ought to just focus on it being a comfortable place for themselves to live. Good things will follow from that.