Metro Light Rail Construction Slows to a Crawl

METRO LIGHT RAIL CONSTRUCTION SLOWS TO A CRAWL More repercussions from Metro’s Spanish-train procurement fiasco and the transit agency’s ensuing budget crisis: This morning CEO George Greanias announced dramatic cutbacks on all new light-rail construction until the future of the project’s federal funding becomes clearer. This year’s expansion budget is being cut by almost 70 percent, but the project is not shutting down completely — because doing so would cost an additional $200 million, Greanias and board chairman Gilbert Garcia said. Left to lope along until the end of the year: Utility work on the North and Southeast Lines, and utility and road work in “select areas” of the East End Line [Hair Balls; previously on Swamplot]

68 Comment

  • METRO is always disappointing and it’s ridership is falling continuously.

  • sad houston has no surrport for light rail

  • Who needs the dang rail anyway, it’s useless, inconvenient and takes 3 times longer to get anywhere then a car (even in traffic)

  • Yes, it’s sad we don’t support a 100+ year old technology that doesn’t improve the movement of a large amount of people….

  • rail works. if we just built the damn system, ridership would be higher than it was before. rail moves more people faster and more reliably than buses. “doesn’t improve the movement of a large number of people” is a bullshit statement, sorry

  • mfastx,

    How is it BS? Do you have studies based on the failing light rail systems throughout the country? The failed systems of Phoenix, Charlotte, Dallas, Portland just to name a few.

    I love how you use the idiotic argument rail supporters always default to: If you build it, they will come. Stay in your field of dreams, I choose to live in reality.

  • Metro are a bunch of incompetent idiots, to put it mildly. There’s a rat in here somewhere, and I hope the government finds them and brings them to justice.

  • The two RATS were fired by Mayor Parker. I guess former Mayor White’s business acumen was very lacking. He appointed the two cronies that were fired from their last positions in other transit agencies before METRO took them them on.

  • kjb,
    Well sure, if you build one light rail line, it’s not going to make much of a difference. You have to build a system. Portland has higher tranit ridership than us, and their region is much smaller. Dallas’ system failed because they used light rail in a commuter rail format. Charlotte has lower transit ridership, but their region is much smaller. Take a look at this:

    Denver’s light rail works, they have a higher transit ridership than us (while having less population) Same with Salt Lake City. If you want transit ridership, eventually you will have to build rail, it’s just a better quality service that more people will ride. BTW Dallas will have more transit ridership than us when they finish their rail extensions. Sure light rail takes longer than a car, but for some people, it’s worth the trade off of not having to pay for gas, and having less transportation costs. Of course, heavy rail is better than light rail. (Every public transit agency in the US that has heavy rail has a higher ridership than METRO) Rail results in higher ridership, and frees up space on the road for car drivers like yourself.

  • kjb,

    BTW the daily ridership reports start on pg. 10 of the document. As you will see, METRO only has about 278,600 daily boardings (pg. 27). Are you satisfied with that transit ridership? What would you suggest to improve it? What other cities have a higher transit ridership without rail?

    Of course, even though heavy rail is MUCH better than light rail, light rail is still better than buses (light rail has higher capacity, better on time percentage, and faster than buses – this is from my own experience as a former daily METRO rider).

  • mfastx,

    Maybe I should clarify what failure is. Failure is that these transit agencies are tip toeing on default of their bond debt.

    Just check the profile in Forbes of the system in Phoenix which translates very well to Houston, Denver, Portland, etc.

  • kjb,

    I agree. As the funding for transit is currently structured, most transit agencies cannot afford a decent rail system. But why not be a proponent of more funding for transit agencies? I think these new light rail lines will improve the public transit situation in Houston, but I also think that METRO should get it’s whole sales tax, not just 75% of it. We certainly could have afforded these lines with the budget situation of the 1980s, when METRO had it’s whole sales tax. In this country, the funding for rail and public transit is miniscule in comparison to roads, highways, airports, etc.

  • From mfastx:
    rail works. if we just built the damn system, ridership would be higher
    METRO’s own studies show that ridership on these 3 lines would be dramatically less than the Main St line which is why they couldn’t get funding on them.

  • Actually METRO does have more than 75%. Houston hasn’t taken over a $100 million dollars in the revenue and METRO has been spending it.

    Your assumption to throw more money at it means that rail transit is going help. Yet over and over it again it wouldn’t help in cities like Houston. New York? yes, Chicago? yes, Many European cities? yes.

    A city like Houston it benefited by a comprehensive bus system (which those riders have been declining in Houston since 2000 anyway). The only truly successful thing METRO has done is it’s Park-n-Ride service which is much more flexible and helpful than commuter rail.

    The irrational passion for rail has no real basis for implementation when facts are considered.

  • Matt,

    I meant that ridership for METRO as a whole would be higher than it is today. In other words, ridership for those lines would be higher than the current bus routes.


    Is there a link you could provide me with for that info? It was my assumption that Harris County did not take their 25% until after the road projects were completed, then METRO would give them the money. I recently read an article (I believe it was from today) that changes that, so that the 25% of METRO’s sales tax revenue will go to Harris County upfront.

    How do you know it wouldn’t work here? I just gave you a link proving that cities like LA, Atlanta, Miami, Denver, Salt Lake City, Portland, etc. (all cities similar to Houston IMO in terms of density) have invested in rail transit and therefore have higher transit ridership than us.

    Houston’s only bus system has resulted in one of the worst transit ridership of any large city. Yes, ridership declined from the mid 1990’s to around 2004, but ridership was as high as it ever was for METRO in 2007, which was around 350,000.

    My “infatuation” for rail stems from the desire to someday be able to get around the major parts of this city reliably without a car. The last time I rode METRO (last week) I waited at the bus stop for about 35 minutes while about three buses on the other side went by. The schedule at that time of day was a frequency of about 10 minutes.

    Look at the Katy Freeway. Before it’s 2.8 billion dollar facelift, it’s AADT was 238,520 daily cars. 2.8 billion dollars later, it had increased it’s daily car usage by a whole 37,000 cars. I could by every one of those people a hell of a lot more that a Prius. But it’s not about that. It’s about improving the quality of transit. That what light rail is doing for Houston.

  • So wait, a couple hundred million to move about 60,000 people versus 2.8 billion to move about 300,000 plus handle vital economic traffic that boosts commerce. Hard sell pal.

  • Uh, the Katy Freeway’s cost is a hell of a lot more than 2.8 billion. You have to factor in the original construction cost, plus all maintanance costs between 1956 (when it was created) and today. Plus, rail lines bring so much economic traffic it makes the freeways seem insignificant.

  • mfastx,

    Once you learn what economic traffic is, you understand how a rail line can’t compete.

  • Mfastx,
    No, if you count the original construction cost, then you can count the prexisting traffic too. If you count only the 2003-2008 construction costs, THEN you only count the delta(veh/day).
    And I think there is plenty of commercial development (read: almost all commercial development in Houston) along Houston’s feeders or within 1/2 mile of a freeway. This compares to, for rail … a couple of fountains along Main street, and three stores (mentioned in Gus’s article this week) which appeared after 7 years, and oh, a CVS which is 5 blocks away.
    Also, where are 2009 AADT?
    Are they published yet?

  • Many thanks to the smart guy Bill White for bringing this fiasco to our doorstep. His poor judgement in appointing his cronies to run METRO brought us here. We should all vote for Bill White next month. Thank you Bill White YOU MORON!

  • kjb,

    I meant freight rail lines, sorry for the confusion. Shipping freight by highway is horribly inefficient, and seeing how a large part of Houston’s economy is created by the Port of Houston, most of the items don’t arrive/depart by freeway, but by rail. Yes, freight rail is unrelated to the light rail, but you are the one that brought up economic traffic. Look, I know that you are probably the most anti-rail person on here, and the most vocal, so you will probably never change your stance. I just hope you understand that light rail will improve our public transit situation in Houston, and will result in more riders. If we keep building rail lines, we won’t have to spend billions to maintain our freeways every 20 or so years. In the early 90’s, Los Angeles was in the same boat as we are in now, but since they started to invest in rail, they haven’t had to spend as much maintaining their freeways, and now do not have nearly as much major freeway construction as we do. The whole region is behind rail now, simply because it’s the most reliable form of transportation. Highways only cover 51% of their operating costs, they are subsidized just like light rail, and every other mode of transportation. Besides, one would argue that they are FULLY subsidized, since I pay gasoline tax, yet my daily commute doesn’t involve a highway of any sort. I am paying for the streets I drive on through the City of Houston, and am paying for the construction of highways I will never use all over the country through my gasoline tax. In fact, the government didn’t even start to collect “user fees” until the 1970s, before that, the interstate highway system was just a big public works project. Read this:

    I hope you read my entire comment, and not just nitpick/take out of context. Thanks in advance.


    You misunderstood me. Kjb counted total traffic, but NOT original cost. Total traffic is the number I posted, the 2.8 billion dollars only added 37,000 cars/day. That’s just an example of the high maintinance costs that you get with highways. Of course most development is going to be around highways, we only have 7.5 miles of rail line, folks. And if you are going to count developments within 1/2 mile of freeways, then you have to count developments within 1/2 mile of the rail line, which includes countless infill developments in Midtown, lots of construction along the TMC corridor, MainPlace, OneParkPlace, etc.

  • Mfastx,

    You seem very confused by a simple argument. The economic business case for rail (cost of construction vs. expected revenue and total impact) is not there.

    If you want to improve public transit in Houston, rail is a sexy idea, but ultimately an unprofitable one.

    In order for the City to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on an unproven mode of transport (vs. highways, where there is established demand), you have to make a compelling economic argument.

    Based on Metro’s duplicitous behavior in the past, and the lack of a sound economic argument, I do not think the current plans for light rail expansion will impact public transportation as much as you think it will.

  • The biggest impact the current light rail has had was to drive small businesses out of midtown and the museum district and help remove a few cars out of the parking garages in downtown and the parking lots near the med center. This just makes room for more cars….That’s a lot of money to make some room for more cars.

  • Houston had rail at one time, and the bigwigs in charge saw fit to dismantle it, mostly so their buddies could get rich.

    Now the bigwigs want to bring it back, mostly so their buddies can get rich.

    Go Figger.

  • markd,

    The bigwigs didn’t dismantle it. Back then the rail system wasn’t a public disaster, but a private service that wasn’t tax payer funded. It went out of business because it couldn’t compete against the new modern technology of the buses that could easily be tax payer funded. It’s a simplified explanation but accurate.

  • I would argue that rail helped entice some development in Midtown, Museum District, and even Med Center (it certainly was one of the reasons I bought my townhouse in Midtown). I don’t live “right on it”… but I’m within walking distance and use the rail. As mfastx mentioned, look at all the infill development in Midtown. The Museum district now has “Venue” as well. Of course development along it will take time. Houston has been a car town for the past 50 years, and it’s only natural that it takes banks and developers time to get used to developing along a rail line in what were spooky areas. As the areas continue to improve, development will continue to pick up. Yes, rail is costly… but it has created a higher tax base along it that will continue to benefit the city for decades to come.

  • Public transit systems are not in the business of infill development. They are in the business of moving people around efficiently and safely.

    Re: Main Street. I think we need to see the forest for the trees. A nightclub, record shop, taco joint and vintage clothing store is not significant development. The increase in the tax base is minimal. Sitting there and saying that this is just the beginning… well, I wouldn’t put $1B at risk.

    The “if you build it they will come” mentality is dangerous. Holding that point of view from the get-go, then using random facts to back into a justification, is just plain wrong. Sorry.

  • Jeff, there is more development than just a taco shop that rail helped entice. In a recent article: “Midtown’s population increased from about 500 in 1994 to more than 9,500 in 2006, and its tax base grew from about $157 million to more than $800 million during that time.”I would venture to guess the tax base is now close to $1 billion due to all the new development since 2006 (Camden, Farb, Crosspoint, more townhouses, etc). Granted, rail was not the primary reason for this dramatic change (the TIRZ and MMD played a huge part)… but rail does sit in the minds of anyone that buys/develops land in the area. Now, think of what the Red line will look like in another 10 years and where the tax base will be at (and how many more people will be riding it). Our rail is easy, reliable, and very convenient as it joins Reliant to the Med Center to Museums to Downtown… and it moves people around while increasing Houston’s tax base. As far as I see it, it’s a win win win for everyone today… and especially for Houston in the future.

  • brian,

    Nice stats, much of the development that handled that influx occurred prior to the rail being operational and is several block from the rail line (i.e. the rail line didn’t spur anything). There is more hard evidence of the rail line destroying existing businesses. Of course these were small and weren’t trendy, so urban planner types don’t care.

  • “You misunderstood … 37,000 cars/day.”
    Fair enough, just wanted to clarify.
    “That’s just an example of the high maintinance costs that you get with highways.”
    The rebuild cannot be called maintenance. If it hadn’t been expanded, then yeah, you’d have to repave eventually, but that would be much cheaper.
    Regarding the 1/2 mile to 1/2 mile comparison, I don’t think that’s a useful comparison. 1/4 mile from stations (not from the line itself) is comparable to half a mile from a freeway. Both are going to take about 5 minutes when you factor in parking. If you look at development in Midtown, it is not centered within 1/4 mile of rail stations. In fact, most of it is outside of this distance.

  • It’s simple: If rail can get people from desired point A to desired point B quicker than they currently do, it will work. The problem is that it doesn’t.

    It also doesn’t help that it’s become a second home to many homeless. There needs to be a system that forces you to buy a ticket.

  • So kjb434, are you saying that having rail in the middle of Midtown does not cross anyone’s mind when buying property or renting an apartment in Midtown? I live 6 blocks from a station, but it was a determining factor on why a bought a townhouse in Midtown over Montrose. What about the new “Venue” in the Museum District? The front page of their website likes to show they are along the rail: Without it they’d just be another apartment complex with nothing to brag about. The Red line became operational in 2004 (and construction started well before that)… so developers knew about it for a while. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that the rail played a small role in at least several hundred million $$$ of development since 2004. Just think over the life of the line (and the newly added ones) what type of tax base it will help create relative to the initial investment long term.

  • 500 people in Midtown in 1994. That explains to me increased development more than anything else. The Houston area has grown by 2.2 million people since that time. They have to live somewhere. They could pick a previously uninhabited area to live in away from the core (as probably 90% of them DID choose to do) or they could move into a basically uninhabited area right next to where they work. In fact, the population density of The Woodlands in 1994 was almost 3 times that of Midtown, so there was plenty of room in Midtown.
    Also, there were no major employers in Midtown then (except St. Joseph’s at the edge), and no large industrial areas. It was a perfect place for growth.
    Growth occurred closest to the west side of downtown, and residents from these areas choose to live here because they can walk to work. This is almost the default place to live for every young single person I know who works on this side of downtown. They almost never mention then rail. If it’s too hot, they just drive; you still sweat when you walk to the rail station.
    The Southeast side of downtown is also adding many new residents. I think it has a lot more to do with Baldwin Park than any rail, as most of these townhomes are 10+ blocks from any rail station (13+ minute walk).

  • I think that rail will be in some people’s minds (as a positive factor) when they’re thinking of living in Midtown. It’s a very, very small segment of the population, but they still exist.
    However, you really can’t replicate this development everywhere. Does anyone here really think that Scott at McGowen in the 3rd Ward will look anything like (the best examples of development in) Midtown after the Southeast line is built there?
    Or that Leeland at Scott will become a walkable neighborhood, with the large Oak Farms Dairy factory, El Dorado used tires, and “Cuz-N’Laws Food” as anchor tenants?
    Or maybe on Fulton north of the North Loop? For that matter, does anyone envision anything remotely resembling the (organic and not rail-driven) growth in Midtown as a result of the Southeast, East, or North lines?
    I anticipate a major charlie foxtrot in the Galleria area, and possibly even decay there as a result if the design is not changed.
    tl;dr Rail works well in some places and not very well in others. Don’t expect it to do magic.

  • From eiioi:

    I think that rail will be in some people’s minds (as a positive factor) when they’re thinking of living in Midtown. It’s a very, very small segment of the population, but they still exist.
    However, you really can’t replicate this development everywhere.
    You seem to be missing the fact that the street grid system is the reason behind the design, not light rail.

  • From Brian:

    I would argue that rail helped entice some development in Midtown, Museum District, and even Med Center
    Brian what happened to Waddler Kaplan Music, Vietnam Restaurant, numerous galleries on main, original po boy, mexican restaurant on main, frankel’s, numerous flower shops, etc?

  • The development was mainly town homes, but the businesses took a big hit. Had my first spring roll at Vietnam Restaurant in the early 90s.

    That being said, I bought my Midtown town home before we even voted for Rail. I remember voting for rail at HCC and thinking “this will never pass”.

  • eiioi,
    Yes, I do think the areas you mentioned will become walkable neighborhoods one day. Like you said… people need a place to live in this big city. Whoever would have thought Montrose would be what it is today? What about the Heights? Downtown? East Downtown? The Museum District (Binz area)? As a taxpayer, I’d rather the city invest in infrastructure now instead of playing catchup years down the road when land costs are higher. I’m not saying the rail drove the development you see in Midtown… I’m saying it just was a sweetner to help entice some of it. Also, I live near Baldwin but walk to the rail… humans were made to sweat a little bit… it keeps us from becoming obese suburban folk.

  • Remind me again why Rail is better than bus? I’ve been riding the bus for a long time and mine is always on time. I only have to walk 1/2 a mile from my front door to the stop. How long do you think it will be before they build light rail down Memorial Drive so that I can ride the train and figure out why it is so much better.

    The one problem I have with Metro buses is that if I want to ride one for 10 blocks in downtown and it happens to be a bus that came from way out in the country like The Woodlands it costs something like $4. They are useless for shorter trips. I have to walk an extra 8 blocks every morning because if I jump on a bus for a short trip it will cost me several more dollars a day. I’ve lost a bunch of weight since I started doing this though. :) 8 blocks in the morning and another 8 in the afternoon every day makes a difference.

  • jgriff, Metro cut bus service to subsidize their extremely expensive, but cool looking, light rail. You should thank Metro for the health benefits you have received from more walking.

  • mfastx,

    Why are you so mad for…typical angry WASP

  • jgriff,

    The only way rail is better than bus is getting stinky buses off the main urban corridors.

    That’s precisely why we have rail where it is today.

    I question the expansion all the time, especially when looking at how efficient the HOV buses are.

  • The only way rail is better than bus is getting stinky buses off the main urban corridors.
    You’re correct; buses are stinky. They’re also loud and they often block traffic. I hated them before I started riding. Now that the rest of you guys are subsidizing my trip into work everyday I love them. I have everyone’s tax dollars to thank for keeping the miles off my brand new 911. Those tires are mighty expensive. :)

  • Brian said…

    “Yes, I do think the areas you mentioned will become walkable neighborhoods one day. Like you said… people need a place to live in this big city.”

    Is that why you support the light rail? To create walkable neighborhoods?

    I find that extremely naive and irresponsible.

    We are talking about hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars over the next couple of years. Billions of dollars over the span of a generation.

    Public transit should be optimized based on where people live — not the other way around. And if population density isn’t enough to support a long term infrastructure like a light rail, then it shouldn’t be built.

    I like clean buses and paved roads.

  • We don’t need clean buses, clean vans would be fine. I don’t know the cost of a typical city bus, but I know a van would be cheaper. And a van might actually reach its seating capacity.

  • Jeff,

    I am far from confused. Kjb brought up that economic traffic (which I assumed meaning freight cargo, etc) is higher for highways than a light rail line. Then I argued that freight rail lines bring FAR more economic traffic than highways do. If Kjb meant something other than that when he said “economic traffic,” then I misunderstood. Please be more specefic in your arguments.

    “The economic business case for rail (cost of construction vs. expected revenue and total impact) is not there.” And how exactly do you measure this?

    So you think public transit in Houston is just fine the way it is? If not, how would you improve it, and how do you know that your idea works (examples from other cities).

    “If you want to improve public transit in Houston, rail is a sexy idea, but ultimately an unprofitable one.” Stop right there. NO mode of transportation is profitable, in fact, the government subsidizes roads/airports MUCH more than all the rail in this country.

    You don’t think that the new light rail lines will improve public transit in Houston? Have you heard of LA? They have about 500,000 more public transit riders due to their investements in rail. What makes you think it will fail here? (Again, examples of other cities, please).


    You act as if taking cars off the road is a bad thing.

  • Jeff,
    I support rail for a ton of reasons… walkable neighborhoods is just one of them. I like clean buses and paved roads as well, but I would like less buses on the road. They take up too much space (try driving next to one on Westheimer), pollute, block traffic as they sit at stops, require homework to figure out your route, and they tear up curbs and roads. It’s fine if you don’t like subsidizing the rail that I use. However, I have no problem with my tax dollars subsidizing roads to suburbs that I never use.

  • Let’s look at the pros and cons of light rail:

    Pros- Improves reliability throughout the corridor.

    Improves speed throughout the corridor

    Improves transit ridership

    Improve the quality of transit our METRO sales tax is subsidizing.

    Allows the city of Houston to grow denser (which it naturally will) without creating gridlock.

    Decreases the amount of money spent on highways.


    Construction is temporarily desrupts local traffic, possibly cutting off business.

    Very expensive; your tax dollars could otherwise go to other rail projects in other cities, or widening freeways accross the country (keep in mind that widening freeways does not really add riders, it just improves traffic flow temporarily).

    For me, the pros outweigh the cons. I don’t really see why people are getting worked up about cost, it’s not like taxes will increase because of these rail lines, you’re going to pay the damn tax anyway. Wouldn’t you rather improve the city of Houston with your tax money? I know I do.

  • you’re still working off a lot of biased and unbased assumptions though.

    improving transit time for a few folks at the expense of others is not a positive. have you seen how many new intersections on richmond will be put up? there will be a lot of displaced traffic zooming through neighborhoods in futile efforts and a lot more cars idling at a lot more stoplights with rail.

    citizens subsidizing better quality transit for the sake of a few lucky people is not a positive. if it’s tax subsidized that money should obviously go to those most in need, but these are the folks that will have thier services reduced so the fancy parts of town can have better transit and new development thanks to a bankrupt metro.

    increasing ridership is also sketchy. people drive because they have to, not because rail is so much better than buses.

    you should clarify your con as construction is guaranteed to shutter small businesses. it’s already temporarily choked off development plans along the richmond corridor and many are now waiting for the rail to materialize.

    i’m amazed at how blithely you glaze over the cost efficiency of such massive projects. we are already living in a broke country that is in desperate need of raising taxes or cutting promises and kicking bankrupt public service companies down the road will lead to a lot of wasted money. wasted tax money is wasted profits for the businesses that are needed to keep this city growing.

  • joel,

    You are thinking in the short term. Yes, construction will be disruptive, but they will have to redo Richmond one day anyway, right? It’s a shitty street. There will still be the same number of lanes. You are overestimating the traffic impact that the light rail will have. How much worse is the traffic in the TMC? Not noticable to me.

    Your second paragraph doesn’t make sense. You claim that the light rail will only go through the ‘fancy’ parts of town, yet 3 of the 5 lines are going through lower income neighborhoods. In fact, much of the University line is also going through low income neighborhoods. In this case ‘most in need’ are transit riders. This will improve public transit for the city of Houston. What does “we need to improve transit for those who need it most” even mean. Poor people? So only poor people are allowed to ride transit? In what way will they have their services reduced? WHO will have ‘services reduced?’ People that won’t ride the METRORail, but other bus routes? If anything, their service will improve, since their will be more buses available to other areas of town.

    ‘Services reduced’ is just complete BS. Look here:

    I posted it before but apparently nobody read the report. From pg. 10 on it lists total ridership for transit companies in the US. Notice how low METRO is at about 270,000. I would think that higher ridership stems from increased service, no? Then explain why there are SO MANY transit agencies with higher ridership than METRO and THEY ALL have rail systems.

    I don’t drive beacuse I have to, I drive because the bus route I used to regularly use was too unreliable, I have to get to where I need to go on time. If there was a more reliable option, I would gladly take public transit.

    You are already subsidizing a shitty public transit system. Why not subsidize a better one?

    In no way, shape, of form is transportation the reason this country is ‘broke.’ Transportation is exactly 2% of the federal budget, and most of that is highways and airports.

    But let’s forget about all this. I’ve asked this question on here, but nobody seems to answer. How would you improve public transit in Houston? Or do you not think it needs to be improved at all? Fine, let’s just go with the status quo and keep pouring billions into continuous freeway renovations. Every other major city must be doing it wrong.

  • having rail = more ridership = better for everyone

    That relationship is the most hilarious one mfastx has come up with yet.

    Using the logic that other cities have rail so we must also is also pretty weak.

    Also, instead of utilizing data from some other source, why don’t you use the data directly from METRO which shows ridership dropping since about 2002 and continued to drop after the rail went into service. Much of the new riders on the current rail replaced the people who truly need transit service that had their bus lines cut. METRO cut many lines and re-routed some to funnel passengers on the rail. Their rail numbers are up but their overall ridership has plummeted.

    The transit Utopians need realize that transit agencies and the cities they are in are typically viewed as economic redevelopment engines (although this never works). The lines to the east side of town are built on the assumption that many of the current residents will be displaced with newer and denser development and not serve those in need of public transit and would gladly take a bus (if METRO didn’t cut the service).

    There also have been volumes written on how to make our bus system WAY more efficient than METRO currently operates it. Those analysis often fall on deaf ears at METRO.

    A city like Houston would best be served by several limited lines that have have neighborhood circulator that feed the limited lines. This concept works well in other large cities that don’t have rail such as Curitiba, Brazil. The German rail lines use the same concept, but it would work much better in as a bus system.

  • kjb434,

    Yes, more ridership is better for everyone, because there’s less cars on the road, and we don’t have to spend billions all the time maintaining our freeway. Hilarious.

    We only must use rail if you want an increase in transit ridership. If you don’t, then fine, different strokes for different folks.

    What data directly from METRO is available? Link?

    The APTA (American Public Transit Association) has been taking daily ridership statistics since the mid 1990s. I would think that their ridership numbers would be more credible than METRO’s, especially considering all the other times METRO has lied.

    If you actually look at the reports, you’ll see that ridership a few years AFTER the rail opened was as high as it has ever been for Houston.

    If newer and denser development displaces current residents, so be it. If not, then the current residents have a damn good way to get downtown. But I think you’re reaching a little far here, it’s all speculation.

    I agree that we could (and should) improve our bus system. But I believe that for a city this size, we must also invest in rail. From looking at other cities, that is the way to imcrease our transit ridership, especially in the long term. The main thing that I notice in cities with good transit systems is that they don’t have tons of freeway construction going on all the time. Since people ride transit, they haven’t had the need to spend billions expanding freeways. Also, I would prefer to get around without a car, I just don’t like driving as much as walking/riding a bus or train. I like to be with people. I generally feel happier when I don’t drive, as well, since there’s so many things you have to worry about when you own a car.

    Sure, if we spent billions on an extreme bus system like Curitiba, we will also have higher transit ridership that way as well. But that option is not (and will probably never be) on the table. Transit systems in the US know that rail works, based on other cities in the US.

    You need to look at the big picture. Houston is growing denser, and as time goes on, we will benefit from the rail system more and more. Rail systems appreciate over time as cities build around them, and unlike highways, they don’t need to be constantly upgraded with billions of taxpayer dollars.

    In Washington, DC everyone there hated the idea of rail, just like you. But now, the system has over a million boardings daily. Add the bus system, and that’s 1.5 million daily boardings (Which is more than the entire city of Curitiba). People rely on it there, because it’s the most convenient way to get to work. In the 1960’s, they were at a crossroads, either expand the freeways, or build a rail system. They built the rail system, and we built the freeways. Now, one of those cities is constantly haveing to spend billions re-doing their transportation system. I’ll let you figure out which one.

  • mfastx,

    More ridership equaling less cars on the road (or less traffic) is the biggest myth of rail transit or any form of public transit. The reality is that it never has occurred this way.

    No self respecting transportation engineer could ever make that claim. I’ve even posted in another swamplot post sources from college transportation textbooks about this myth.

    If you look at it simplistically with static mathemics, it should work. All empirical data though has shown transit does nothing to reduce traffic. NOTHING.

    Also, if you think the DC Metro isn’t spending billions on their freeways like Houston, you are living in a dreamworld. I’m quite familiar with the history of the DC Metro development from rail and freeway angles. The beltway and periphery of DC are constantly spending money to expand and modernize the freeway system. They’ve built HOV lanes on I-95 along that extend to Quantico. They’ve built double freeways that combine toll and free lanes through northern Virginia to head toward Dulles Int’l.

    The rail system is needed in DC because there virtually is no other way to get into the city with the volume of people trying to get to the city center. Houston doesn’t have that problem. A rail system that focuses on moving people to the center of the city like Houston is a waste since only about 7% of our jobs are downtown. In DC, rail has allow people to move even further away making Houston’s sprawl look adolescent compared to the DC Metro.

    Most of the arguments you are bringing up have been argued time and again with the facts siding with the no-rail option.

    P.S. METRO release their stats once a year, but they don’t post it publicly on the website because someone like you might learn how horrible their numbers truly are. Every year, several watch dogs (a popular name is Tom Bazan in Houston) make public information request to get all of the METRO’s ridership data then in turn post it for all to see. post this data every years. These watch dogs are pretty much the only accountability of the slight of hand and spinning of information that comes out of METRO.

  • I ride the metro rail to and from work daily and believe me it works better than busses. This is bad news, but hopefully that federal funding will come through.

  • kjb434,

    Yes, as more people ride, it DOES take cars off the road. BUT, actual numbers of cars don’t go down because of new population moving in that use cars. The fact is, that if METRO’s 270,000 daily riders took a car to work, then there would be more cars on the road. I don’t see how anyone can dispute that.

    And I can GUARANTEE that Washington DC has spent less on freeways than we have. The amount of construction projects that the Houston area has been through far outnumber freeway projects in the DC area.

    A rail system was *not* needed in DC, but since they built around it for almost half a century, it appears that way. If we would have done the same thing in the 1970s, then it would appear that Houston’s rail system was ‘needed.’ The reason only 7% of our jobs are in our CBD is because of the massive freeway construction we undertook. Freeway construction that displaced thousands of homes, was 100% federally funded/subsidized at the time, and was basically a public works project. This allowed other business districts to form closer to suburban residents.

    I reference APTA’s statistics because when we are comparing METRO to other transit systems, I would like to have the transit systems’ ridership to be measured by the same metric. Again, according to the APTA, ridership was as high as it ever was for METRO a couple of years after METRORail opened, presumably due to high gasoline prices. As gasoline prices go back up, ridersip will increase.

    Is there any other reason that you are opposed to light rail other than cost? Total cost for the 5 light rail lines would be about (guesstimate) 2 billion dollars. That’s less than the cost to renovate the Katy Freeway. How is that bad? And why do you think that it will not increase transit ridership, have you seen other cities’ ridership before/after a large rail project? Why do cities around the country keep building rail, are they just stupid? How do they have higher transit ridership if rail is not the solution?

  • “Total cost for the 5 light rail lines would be about (guesstimate) 2 billion dollars.”

    Strike that, the real number is closer to $4 billion. Stop drinking the METRO Kool-Aid and maybe read the FTA’s comments on METRO’s recent submissions.

    $4 billion to build 30 miles of rail that’ll move a fraction of the people and none of the goods that about $3.5 billion on the Katy Freeway will surpass easily.

    METRO has been criticized over and over again from many angles of opinion about the lack of reality in their cost estimates. Only a few ignorantly believe everything METRO spins out of their PR office.

  • I don’t believe everything that METRO says, that’s why I took ridership numbers from a 3rd party in the first place. My understanding is that METRO would recieve a ~1 billion dollar grant for the north and southeast lines, another ~1 billion dollar grant for the University line, and the Uptown and East End lines would be payed for locally. OK, maybe that’s about ~3 billion, but I’ve never heard that 4 billion number before.

    Don’t know where you got 3.5 billion from, according to TxDOT, it was only 2.8 billion. But since TxDOT isn’t transparent, I wouldn’t be surprised if that 2.8 billion number is too low.

    BTW, the ~3 billion dollar investment in the Katy Freeway didn’t really add anything, it just made it wider. All of those goods went on the Katy Freeway BEFORE ~3 billion was invested in it. Don’t get me wrong, I was 100% FOR the Katy Freeway expansion, I just would also like money to be invested in other modes of transportation, so we don’t have to spend billions on every freeway every 20 years.

    Just today, a relative of mine got in a car wreck and is in the hospital, which reminds me that transit is safer than driving. Yes, rail has a higher cost per capita, etc., but it is safer, more convenient, cheaper, greener, etc. than driving your car. That’s really the reason I’m for it, simply because through personal experience, riding a good public transit system is more convenient/desirable to me than driving.

    BTW, that point you made about Washington DC’s sprawl making Houston’s look “adolescent” is just BS. DC’s metro area is less than half the size of Houston’s.

  • You are sorely mistaken if you think the Katy Freeway didn’t add anything. The project took an aging 6-lane freeway with undersized interchanges and feeders roads that were crammed into the existing right-of-way of the old US. 90 route and built a modern freeway. Past the Beltway, rural interchange configurations were converted in to modern urban configurations that handle a much larger traffic load. Ramp and feeder road configurations had a major geometrics overhaul for ease of traffic flow and safety. The upgrades of the HOV system to a HOT system dramatically increased capacity and prevents the occasional backup that can happen on older HOV lanes.

    Being in support of the mass transit primarily for safety reasons is probably the silliest line of reasoning. Your other arguments in support are much better legs to stand on.

    There are not independent sources (3rd party) of ridership numbers as you claim. The source you sight gets its data from the same requests as others here in Houston make to METRO for data. It’s the same yearly Excel Spreadsheet that gets release when request is made. It all comes down to how you present the data. METRO’s sheet is raw data.

  • Also, when there is a large commuter base going into the Beltway in DC from Leesburg, Chantilly, Centreville, Manasas, and Fredericksburg, the sprawl in DC is much larger than Houston. I had family that lived just outside of Fredericksburg in a large residential development that most of the residents commuted to the DC Beltway. That’s similar to commuting from the south side of Huntsville. Chantilly, Centreville, and Manasas to the DC Beltway is like commuting from Conroe to downtown Houston. Much of the DC suburbs on the Virginia and Maryland sides have strict zoning which enforce lower densities than suburban Houston. The larger lot requirements raise the values of homes closer in the older suburban areas which force affordable homes to move further out. It’s either live in an apartment closer in or live in a house way out in the middle of nowhere. Most families want to live in a home which means massive commute times. Of all these cities I’ve mentioned, only Fredericksburg has a connection to a commuter rail line which very few people use and it was considered to be eliminated. While that’s happening, Virginia has been widening I-95 and I-64 out in these really far flung suburbs and adding in HOV lanes. DC sprawl is way larger than Houston to the point where the Census Bureau is trying to re-assess the limit of the suburbs. The problem is that they’ll have to swallow up other Census tracks that were pretty much independent until all the new residents that moved in and now commute great distances.

  • I just said I was FOR the Katy Freeway expansion. I was just pointing out that cost per capita (which is many folk’s argument against light rail) was quite high for the project, when you consider that only 37,000 more cars/day travel on the refurbished road. I fully understand how much better the Katy Freeway is now, even though I hardly ever get out there.

    Safety is not one of my main points of argument, I just mentioned that since I realized that traveling by automobile is the most dangerous form of transportation, and it’s safer to take public transit.

    Have you even looked at the ridership report? It’s raw data as well. You can also go through different ridership reports by quarter, dating back to the mid 1990s. It’s really interesting to see how different transit systems have grown over the last decade.

    BTW I still think that the sprawl in DC is less than Houston. We have people commuting to Houston from Galveston, and you mention commuters coming to DC from cities like Chantilly is like commuting from Katy, not Conroe. Just measure it using Google Maps. Also, if you look in actual DC, you’ll see that there aren’t nearly as many freeways as in Houston, since nearly their transit system has nearly 1.5 million boarding/day.

    On a side note, perhaps some of DC’s sprawl is stemmed from the inability to build tall in DC, since there are hight restrictions on buildings there, for federal reasons (obviously).

  • BTW that first sentence might be confusing, what I meant was that I was IN FAVOR of the Katy Freeway project, the wording is weird.

  • I know that it was mentioned in conversation before, but it has been a while since, so I might as well ask again just to regain mental bearing: in a city with a population of 5.8 million, how does light rail improve anything by helping move only 4.748% (278,600 boarding/5,867,489 pop) of the population on a given day? Unless I miss my mark, common sense says that’s a failure to be attracting so few people, and as far as I know, there’s nothing to count who are actual citizens and who might be tourists to the city. Any given day there is the possibility of up to 95% of the population using their vehicles, depending on circumstances (bike, carpool, etc.), and that mingles with interstate traffic, be it commerce or tourism.
    A swift comparison to Amtrak, I believe, would at least give a proper idea as to what really happens with rail. Granted Amtrak is interstate travel and covers points a to z in 46 states, but the numbers are way too similar to METRO’s to be ignored. In their FY2009 report, ridership was 27.2 million, down from 28.9 million. Unfortunately that means that Amtrak serves only 8.757% of the US population (27.2 mil boarding/310,607,000 US pop).
    This isn’t enough to show a clear picture, though, so let me focus in on the corridor with the most riders, the Northeast Corridor (NEC). Ridership between FY2009 and this point has grown from 9.2 million to 10.36 million. Were the FY 2009 numbers stagnant into 2010, 38.088% of the passengers in Amtrak’s system ride either the regionals or the Acela. While that’s a good number for business, it truly only accounts for 3.335% of the 8.757% of America served, and only 20.715% of the actual cities served (ridership/50.01 mil NEC pop.) Its daily ridership on both regional and Acela are just as dismal as the Red Line and more: 28,404. (At this rate, we ought to consider sending comparable trains down the Red Line and charge as much – this seems to bring in $750 million [ – scroll toward the bottom] in subsidies from the gov’t for the NEC. Since I see no other space to do so, here’s another take on the Acela: According to the High Speed Rail Vision released 9/28/10, the new next generation plan does reach to an anticipated 37.5 million, but not until 40 years from now. Furthermore, they are already off on their FY2010 numbers by 1.5 million, and while I’m only in college currently, common sense tells me there’s already a net loss incurred; if falling short remains a trend, all the money that will and already has gone into it has been for something worthless because all the hype and/or services are not what the people are looking for presently, despite any increases. It’s kind of like my college: planned on a certain number of students (400+), came short by at least 100, now over budget in one area alone by $100,000 and liable to fall short by $1 million by the semester’s end.
    I will cede a point made in the United Rail Alliance source for the Acela subsidies: “If a business has found a way to make money, it doesn’t just sit on its product.” (I’ve more than certainly paraphrased, but the gist is there). Good as the point might be, the numbers reveal the truth.
    If there’s anything I need to clarify, don’t hesitate to let me know.

  • Darious,

    Part of the reason why we have so few rail riders is that our rail system is one of the least developed in the world (in comparison to other developed countries). In places like Europe and Japan, intercity rail travel carries by far the majority of travelers (for example, in Japan a high speed rail route between Osaka and Tokyo carries 80% of the travelers). People want to build rail because it’s the most convenient mode of transportation, whether it’s between two cities or intra-city.

    BTW, METRO’s current ridership numbers only strengthen the argument in favor of rail. People will say that we can accomplish the same with buses, yet that is what we have been doint so far, only to have 4% of the population using transit. If we build an extensive rail network, that percentage will go up. In Los Angeles (where they’be actually been investing in rail) ridership is about 10% of the metro area population. As they build more rail, that number will only go up, since it’s well known that rail generates more ridership than buses (because of speed and relibility). The more we invest in rail, the less we will have to invest in our freeways. We all know that at any point in time, there is construction on a freeway here in Houston, and it ain’t cheap, either.

    As cities build around a core rail system, ther percentage of commuters riding transit will only go up. That is the difference between rail and highways. With highways, you will always have to expand as the population grows, costing billions of dollars each time. With rail, you pay billions of dollars once, and then maintanance (which is covered by the 1% sales tax). Also with highways, as ridership increases, the cost of maintanance (reconstruction) goes up. With rail, the operating costs go down, since more riders = higher farebox recovery.

  • Also, the problem with an analysis like that is that an intercity rail system can only carry passegners that actually travel between the cities, and that is never the entire population. You have to look at percentages (for example, the percentage of rail/air traffic on the NEC, which is 47%-53%). I’d say that is pretty damn good, considering how outdated the NEC is, and how even though the Acela has a high speed of 150mph, its average speed is only about 80mph.

  • This is why I hate writing at night: I tend to be a few blinks shy of sleep when writing. Let me clarify my comparison between the two, as you are right regarding the comparison you refer to, mfastx, but missed the comparison I was trying to make.
    The numbers were simply a way of saying that each method seemed to have the same problem: ridership. Each have their own reasons, too. Obviously something has to be done to rectify it, and thus I refer to Amtrak because they have the same vision that we do here in Houston: get people riding the rails. It’s the fact that Amtrak is being realistic and showing that massive ridership spikes from the 20% number I gave above for corridor service to a 60% number won’t happen until about 40 years from now. If that is the reality with rail on a larger scale than light rail, just how long before METRO actually begins to see the results of its strides? We say we have results as a result of the rail, but then why the trouble with the rail itself in the first place?. Is it that we need more, or is it that we should improve what we have already (e.g. the basis for the North Line extending the Red Line)?
    Mind you I am an avid fan of railroading, hence my continuation in my education in the next two years so as to improve Amtrak when I get out. The reason I want to improve Amtrak is the same reason I think we need to rethink light rail in Houston: under current models, something went wrong; what did we do, and what do we change to fix that?

  • Darious,

    Well, for Amtrak, the reason it has such low ridership is because it has had such low funding over the years. By far, the government has invested so much less in rail than highways and airports. I guarantee that if we actually invest in HSR, Amtrak will be the major mode of transport between major cities. HSR has proven itself to be the #1 option for travelers around the world, it would be no different here. That’s why Southwest Airlines lobbied to kill HSR in the 1990’s, because they knew that if true HSR was built between the major Texas cities, they would lose the majority of their passengers on those routes. If you’ve ever ridden HSR before, you’d know that it is BY FAR the most convienent mode of intercity transportation.

    Same with METRORail, to get a majority of people to use transit in this city, we have to build LOTS of lines. Even after we build these lines, we will have more transit riders, but it still wont be a significant number in terms of percentage of total metro area population. But the more lines we build, the higher that percentage will be. For example, Washington, DC has built tons of rail lines, and as a result, they have an extremely high transit ridership (over a million daily rail boardings; 1.5 million total boardings). These 5 lines are just the first (or second, if you count the Red Line) step in building a total transit system. The more we build, the more will ride, transit investments like this pay off in the long run. On the other hand, freeways are cheaper in the short run, but far more expensive in the long run.

    Most people are naturally shortsighted, and will only look at initial cost. They do not realize how they could benefit from these investments in the future.

  • I forget if it was here or on another site, but I do recall that the Japanese are interested in setting up high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas as a start. I know it was a Shinkansen 6000 or something that they’d want to use at a 186 mph max. It would be a completely private venture, too.
    Speaking of which, I’ll have to dig through some past sources once the holidays roll around, but I recall an article that mentioned that the Japanese railroad was one of the railroads that was hailed as busting the myth of needing government funds and/or subsidies to operate with a profit. That’s about as much as I can say on that until I can look it up again, but if that is the case, perhaps Amtrak should be looking for similar models such as that, too. It’s because of the investment in the NEC that a conservative nickname that I’ve heard some christen the service is “black hole.” However, if this be the case should I find the sources, what guarantee do we have, built lines and all, that even a smaller scale won’t run the risk of a similar hazard?
    On a lighter note, I almost rode the NEC one Christmas, but because of the impending blizzards that winter, it was called off on account that I didn’t want to be stuck at an airport when trying to fly over there in the first place. Hence my only knowledge is numbers and information that I read.

  • Darious,

    Yes, I’ve heard about the possible Houston-Dallas line. Hopefully it won’t meet as much opposition from airlines, since Southwest has expanded its service so much that losing most of their ridership in Texas would not make as big an impact as it would have in the early 1990’s.

    Something else that’s interesting is that Acela Express, the lone high speed rail line in the US, actually is profitable. It’s the lower speed long distance routes that lose money, I mean who’s going to take a train to New Orleans from Houston if it takes 9 hours? HSR will take massive $$$ from the government initially, but it’s long term benefits outweigh the initial cost IMO. Besides, the massive initial government investement is no different than when the Interstate highway system was created.

    Also, part of the reason why the NEC has such a high maintenance cost is because it is so outdated. It’s Great Depression-era construction.

    Basically what I am trying to say is that once we start building a public transit sytem, we have to finish it. We can’t build a few lines and expect it to make a difference. It is an investment that I believe will make the city of Houston better; basically the reason why I’m for these light rail lines.