Was It a Good Idea to Derail I-10?

WAS IT A GOOD IDEA TO DERAIL I-10? Earlier this week Harris County Judge Ed Emmett appeared to pass judgment on one aspect of the Katy Fwy. widening completed almost a decade ago: “We cannot go back in time and undo some poor decisions, but we can learn from those decisions. One of the most glaring mistakes was the failure to convert the abandoned Katy rail line to commuter rail. Think about it, we had a straight shot from Katy all the way into Downtown.” But ripping up the tracks did not render a future rail line along the path of I-10 completely impossible, notes Dug Begley: “Though the rail line was removed, Metropolitan Transit Authority paid for overpasses along I-10 to be built to rail standards, meaning that if the region ever wanted to use the freeway for light rail, that is possible. Larger, commuter, trains, however would not be able to operate in the freeway.” [Houston Chronicle] Photo: cemaxx (license)

37 Comment

  • Thank John Culberson for the short-sightedness. He can’t seem to see beyond his nose.

  • That, of course, we owe back to x-TXDOT Chief, x-Mayor Bob Lanier, who didn’t like trains. He had too much money invested in roads. Although the citizens cast votes time and again for rail, Lanier took that money and paid Police instead. We citizens wanted rail but politicians didn’t – they prefered to have the extra money that roads would give them.
    So – here we are – bound up again.
    It’s taken Emmett 20 years to speak up about it.

  • Not to mention Sugar Land’s favorite son and exterminator, Republican Sen. Tom DELAY, who as head of the Senate Transportation Committee refused to allow any federal funding for Houston until Metro promised the first rail line ran from downtown out to his bedroom community. Meanwhile almost EVERY MAJOR CITY in the US received 90% matching taxpayer money to build out and upgrade their rail systems while Houston had to pay 100% of the costs of theirs. Just think, today it could have been 900% larger if the Republicans hadn’t had their panties in a wad.

  • Did the Judge have a stroke? I guess now that he’s done with his pet Astrodome project he can start talking reasonably again..

    Living along I-10 and working in the energy corridor it would be amazing if there were pedestrian bridges to get to the middle of I-10 where trains would take me to work..

  • Rail would obviously be nice. I-10 is backed up as I write this. But, let’s be honest about how much denser we’d be if loop real estate wasn’t mostly chained to failing schools. Why can’t we address that albatross?

  • So why aren’t we preparing I 45 N for commuter rail? More importantly why would you pay to have I 10 bridges designed for a 35 mph light rail train on a trip of 20 miles? We obviously need to bring in some pro-rail who also know something about designing rail.

  • Traditional commuter rail (as opposed to other types of rail transit like light rail, heavy rail / subway, and streetcar, each of which have their own issues) is definitely not a good fit for the I-10 corridor or Houston generally, in comparison to the service offered by the express buses. Why would someone choose a train that leaves at best 3 times an hour (the typical for commuter rail in the U.S.), has to crawl inside the Loop at slow speed, and drops you at a station outside the CBD from where you have to transfer to a bus or Uber or something to go to your destination, over the pretty awesome Park-and-Ride service we have now? If the plan was to bring the tracks into the middle of downtown or something, that might help, but honestly would that ever happen? And this isn’t even considering the cost factor for commuter rail (or any kind of rail) – just the quality of the service.

  • There were lots of people back when the freeway expansion was being planned calling for commuter rail but no, they wanted the super parking lot model.
    The good news, maybe, is that making a statement now acknowledging a “poor decision” might mean the next freeway expansions will include commuter rail as an option at some point and also since I-10 will only have light rail then one day… it would be able to slide off the freeway and work the streets too unlike commuter trains.

  • A lot of people would love for Houston to have viable mass transit, but building a rail line and having a workable transit system are not the same thing.
    First, no one boarding a train along the Katy Freeway is walking to the platform. So you’re basically running routes from existing P&R sites to downtown. Second, you haven’t done anything about adding density along the corridor or around the stations. So most of the universe of people who would take commuter rail from Katy to Downtown are probably already taking buses along the HOV/HOT network. In fact, I’d be very surprised if dedicated commuter rail would move (not could, would) even a fraction of the people the current HOT lanes carry at a much lower operating subsidy.
    What city and county officials seem unwilling to grapple with is the fact that density is upstream of transit. You can have density without transit, but you can’t have transit without density. And until we get rid of the policies preventing density, we’re never going to have workable mass transit.

  • @localplanner: Rail from Katy to downtown could cut the commute time in half, all while you sit and play on your phone. There is no need for rail to “crawl” inside the loop if some much needed bridges and grade separations are put in to take the rail lines off the streets (this already needs to be done regardless of commuter rail). The Washington Ave Amtrak station would be the logical station for the CBD. From there, it is a short walk to the tunnels or the Greenlink bus could get people to where they need to be.

  • Traditional American commuter rail works with traditional American urban centers, but is useless for suburban employment. A spread-out, polycentric city like Houston needs a rail system to connect all of the multitudinous employment centers together. You use a car, uber, local bus, etc to get to your nearest “Edge City,” then a train whisks you from there to whichever of Houston’s myriad downtowns is your destination.
    To do this, you need speed (80-100mph cruise) and acceleration (3.0mphps or better), which means you need electric and lightweight. Two systems fit the bill. Midcentury American heavy rail (BART, DC Metro, MARTA) works well, but is obscenely expensive because 100% elevated. High-speed interurbans can switch between at-grade light rail and BART-style air lines, but we haven’t built a new one since the Electroliners debuted in 1941.
    The shortest path to the ideal Houston rail system is to work with the Japanese manufacturers to adapt their existing domestic commuter rail offerings (130km/h to 160km/h cruising speed, 2800-2950mm width, 1500VDC overhead) to be compatible with US-spec low floor light rail platforms. Then you need to rebuild all of the turnouts on the southern portion of the Red Line, because a wheel profile designed for 100mph cruise won’t work with our abrupt departure rails. Interoperability with the Green/Purple Line is impossible because of minimum-radius curves near the GRB, but the Red Line spine from Fannin South to Quitman can be combined with new high-speed alignments in freeways (45 North, 59 Southwest) and rail ROWs (Westpark, 90A) to make a regional train that’s faster than DC Metro at 1/3rd to 1/5th of the cost.

  • @Commenter7: The urban core of Houston has been densifying despite the schools; a relatively small share of households include children aged 4-18.. While having better-reputation schools would help to elevate prices even further, thereby encouraging more densification to some extent, there’s still a factor of non-substitutability for many parents regarding housing type – they want a minimum 3 BR detached with a yard, and nothing else will do. So the role this market segment would play in densification is limited.
    I’m more worried about the impact of low-reputation schools in a large share of our suburban areas, where you have little other value generator for the housing market. Most of the schools in the inner and middle suburbs these days have reputations similar to HISD’s schools. The “good schools” are now located in the outer parts of Fort Bend, Katy, Cy-Fair, The Woodlands, Friendswood etc. Most of what’s in between those locations and the urban core has pretty poor school reputations as well. It’s pretty depressing.

  • This “run it from X town to downtown” misses the picture. Houston Tomorrow has a good presentation showing the areas in Houston that have the highest “activity”, i.e. people working and/or living there. Those areas don’t necessarily match up with all the areas you might expect, but they are the areas that need to be connected by commuter rail (or light rail).

    With all these miniature downtown areas Houston has, it seems like we’re better set up for a multi-hub wheel-and-spoke system, kind of like the east coast megalopolis in miniature. Have frequent commuter connections between the larger hubs (I’m betting CityCentre or at most the Energy Corridor are farthest west on I-10), and light rail/bus service radiating out from those hubs. With our sprawl, I don’t see any other way to make transit viable.

  • @Old School: Why would it cut commute time in half? The train isn’t going to travel that much faster than buses, if at all. Also, buses in the Katy corridor make just one stop at most between the burbs and Downtown (the major route is express from the Park-and-Ride lot direct to Downtown). And people play on their phones on the bus (have you never been on one? the park-and-ride vehicles have nice cushy seats and baggage racks). And unless one’s destination is outside the CBD, no transfers are required; you are likely dropped off within a few blocks of your destination, an easy walk. Furthermore, on the highly used Park-and-Ride routes the buses leave every several minutes; you don’t have to time your arrival, the wait time to depart is minimal. Commuter rail never works like that (though light rail can).
    The assumption that rail is going to provide superior service simply isn’t true. In fact, it’s likely to be worse service for the patrons than what we have now with the Park-and-Ride buses. Especially since most everyone will have to drive to the station anyway, so no difference there.

  • We will probably have teleportation devices long before Houston reached a density that would support any kind of heavy rail like a commuter rail. Transportation will be changed dramatically enough to make mass transit irrelevant.

  • What does rail really offer that buses can’t accomplish? Especially considering we like to mix our rail with car traffic in Houston. I can’t imagine what things would be like along the I-10 corridor if we still had the tracks plus frequent commuter train traffic. The buses rolling down the HOV lanes separate from the rest of the traffic seems like one of the easiest (and cheapest) to implement solutions. You don’t have to build expensive dedicated rail lines that can only service the corridor they are in, you can easily have varying departures and destinations, can easily reroute if needed. Run the things on biofuel if you want tick the pollution/emissions box.

  • It’s almost like the people in this comments section have never traveled to other cities outside of Houston and always point to buses or why mass transit can never work in a humid car oriented city like Houston. Look, if congestion is bad, buses are stuck in the same exact traffic like the rest of us. Going to an extreme case, all it takes is one hazmat related event on a highway to bring a good portion of this city to a crawl as we saw this week. There are several prime examples of cities in the US that are car-centric cities but have mass transit systems that lessen the load on the freeways and make commuting a lot simpler. I’ve been on many of them from Denver to DC to San Francisco, etc. etc. etc. Take DC Metro (WMATA)…. sure, we can’t build subway here but the commuter rail runs in the center of the highway out to several stations in the suburbs. Some hubs have massive parking garages that allow people to only commute maybe 5 minutes to home from a station… sounds perfect for a car centric city, right? People skip the traffic on the highways, work/play on their phones or laptops, police have a presence to also make sure people have a valid ticket, and it only takes about 5 minutes to each stop. DC has several office and mixed use areas spread out across the city just like Houston and it’s quite simple getting around without having to spend extra money for Uber or having to walk a long way in whatever weather may hit DC (Their problem is snow). Whatever system we devise, it can’t be anything like the current light rail we have. Too slow to compete against a car, nearly zero police presence so people sleep on there constantly, and it also has to stop at lights periodically just like a car… how can we consider that to be good mass transit? We can do better and other cities across America have shown us its possible. I also highly encourage people to stop beating on Republicans about this issue. This should be a bi-partisan endeavor to bring greater options to the Houston community.

  • I really don’t understand why our commuter bus system isn’t more heavily used. Now I understand that only Downtown, Greenway, Uptown and the TMC are served however the effieciency when it comes to speed and cost can’t be beat. We don’t need any rail in Houston this is a automobile city. And like others said commuter bus is just as fast, cheap, flexible and convenient as any rail. The Katy Corridor carry’s over 6,000 daily between the GPPR, Kingsland and Addicks PR. Way more than any rail could. We need BRT heavily expanded to connect all the centers so that one would want to ride commuter knowing they could easily get to other destinations outside of just Downtown and the Med Center

  • @Triton
    …. if the shoe fits, it fits. Perhaps the Republicans will turn over a leaf and allow those long denied funds to provide a workable rail system for Houston, but given their natural tendency to try to “punish” this city over the years, I seriously doubt anything will change.

  • @ Triton: You are conflating another technology (heavy rail / subway) with commuter rail. The two are not the same. My comments on this topic have been specifically about commuter rail, which is a specific technology that functions in a specific way that is different from what the WMATA Metro does in the DC area. Commuter rail runs on the same type of tracks as freight trains. Our geographically closest comparable is the one between Dallas and Fort Worth. The one in Austin is sort of commuter rail, though they have it function similar to light rail as it enters downtown.
    For what it’s worth, I would rather see us spend transportation funds on an extensive BRT system on existing streets covering all of our densifying areas in the urban core. Politically difficult due to idiots who can’t stand dedicating street space to transit (or bikes or pedestrians for that matter), but could give Houston local transit several orders of magnitude better quality than what we have now. And, while quite expensive, still considerably less expensive than light rail, so we’d get similar quality of service over more area.

  • If you want to see how heavy commuter rail works in a humid, hot, not extremely dense but populous city, you can look at Miami. There’s elevated fast rail up the A1A corridor, that feeds into an elevated light rail system downtown. There’s now also heavy rail up to Ft. Lauderdale, about 25 miles away, the equivalent in distance of a Katy or Sugar Land, though with a bigger population.
    And not to flame you Adoile, but if you think buses carrying 6000 people daily have more capacity than rail, please think again. The average 6 car train set can carry about 800 passengers on each trip. Rail has much higher capacity than 50 seat buses. Buses do have the advantage of being able to adjust routes easily, unlike fixed track rail, though electric rail is more fuel efficient on a per passenger basis.

  • Adoile: Houston being “a automobile city” is not a given. It is a choice. The City can either subsidize hell commutes on roads or build rail. Only in a magical-thinking world does a city Houston’s size continue to grow without densifying. So the roads are only gonna get worse. We can do better, from an investment standpoint. Consider, too, the private investment in cars. Now push that to investment in public transport (but omg yah taxes bad). Get real.

  • I’m learning to like Emmett; when he is talking about anything besides the Astrodome.

  • The real question isn’t (or shouldn’t be) rail versus bus. It’s at-grade versus non-at-grade. The foolishness of the Metro trains being at grade is beyond me (those really are just really expensive buses that aren’t as versatile). We can argue single purpose v. shared lanes for buses, but even single purpose lanes (like the BRT on Post Oak) will need to cross road traffic (like the Red llne). The Park and Ride buses are fast because they don’t have to deal with cross traffic on the freeways and they normally run in dedicated shared lanes (HOT or HOV). But since those lanes are shared, they still can (and do) suffer gridlock delays. A commuter (or light passenger) rail wouldn’t have those issues, but, where we are at today, it might also not be worth the investment to put in now to replace Park and Rides.

  • We don’t really have the momentum to build commuter rail in Texas, however buses could operate much better on I-10 with freeway restriping and dedicated lane (reversible depending on time of day)

    Right now outbound buses regularly get caught in back ups in the center tollway lanes in the evening which mean it is still faster to drive a personal car than ride a park-and-ride bus for many commuters that live in the west. Similarly, inbound bus journeys regularly get stuck in inner-loop traffic before the HOV downtown connector kicks in.

    Surely one lane in 20+ won’t be missed?

  • One more quick point about the rail connection inside 610: The right-of-way being discussed here was the old MKT (Missouri-Kansas-Texas) line, which ran along the Katy Freeway outside 610. Inside 610, you can still see where the right-of-way was. It continued to the rail yard next to TC Jester. East of that, it is now the Heights Bike Trail, which runs all the way to UH-Downtown.
    It also intersects with the tracks that run along Center St, which also skirts the north edge of downtown. While most commuters would still need a connection to light rail to get to their destination, it was possible to run rail all the way downtown.
    A test if Emmett’s serious: the Hempstead rail corridor still exists, and has access to the same RoW inside the loop.

  • @ ShadyHeightster: The Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-W. Palm Beach CSA is an excellent example of where heavy rail works well. Lots of people (approx. 6.7 million, so more than the Houston MSA) are jammed into a fairly narrow strip of land, in this case bookended by the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades. Geographical analogues can be drawn in the Northeast Corridor, in the SF Bay Area, and the main island of Japan. In Texas, the best analogue is the I-35 corridor…but Texas’ last mile problem is far more pronounced.
    Also, that a rail car can carry 800 passengers per trip doesn’t mean that that occurs on a regular basis. To make capacity utilization sufficiently high to justify the higher cost of heavy rail by comparison with bus systems, it would be necessary to increase headway between departures. That’s not good for the system as a whole; if implemented in a city laid out more like Houston, one should expect more money to be spent on fewer routes and for there to be less transit use in general.

  • @Niche, using US Census Bureau records, the 2016 estimate of the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale/West Palm Beach MSA is 6.06 million people. The Houston/Woodlands/Galveston MSA is 6.77 million people.
    Yes, people there are geographically constrained, but analogous to Houston, they picked two congested corridors US1 ( Dixie Highway) and I-95 to build rail and improve commute times. Houston has similarly congested corridors, notably I-10 and I-45, along with US 290, that could benefit from a parallel rail line not at grade. It’s just a matter of political willpower. However, I think in the main, that ship sailed with the reconstruction of the Katy Freeway, Westpark Corridor, and US 290. I really only could foresee some type of rail in the future either on the US90 Sugar Land corridor or along Highway 3 to Galveston.
    You’re welcome to shut down debate on the topic of rail when you win John Culberson’s House seat or Emmet’s Judgeship.

  • Was this a bad decision to use the old rail R.O.W? Let’s rephrase this; Was this a bad decision to double the width of I-10? The old 1-10 was a congested 3 lanes each direction highway. And a HOV lane squeezed in there. Now we have a congested 6 lanes (4 main lanes, 2 toll/ HOV) with a ridiculous amount of feeder lanes. I-10 needed an extreme overhaul and it was easy to gobble up 100 ft (?) of R.O.W. from an abandoned rail line.
    No need to condemn dozens of property (ie. 290 and most freeways) to expand 1-10. I am pro-rail, but this was just too good of opportunity to an extreme overhaul of a major interstate. If Houston had a more developed rail network, the story would had been different.

  • If some of that freeway space were dedicated to the use of the commuter buses, some of that capacity could be recovered and integrated into a system that already has ridership. Some could even be integrated into the Uptown dedicated lanes for Post Oak. Separating the buses from traffic would allow them to at least have the reliability that rail lines would have allowed.

    With all the ride hailing and potential for self-driving cars, what Houston is going to need is a large framework network of fast, reliable transit (separated from traffic) that connects different existing concentrations of activity. Then those could be jumping off points for shorter local trips.

  • @ ShadyHeightster: You’re right. Somehow I had remembered that I like the Miami CSA better than the MSA for something — but it wasn’t this. I must concede that only the six million people living sandwiched along a very linear geography are especially relevant. Anything else?

  • I recently was staying outside of SF (San Carlos) and took Caltrain into the city every day for a conference. The train was packed with some commuting as far away as San Jose. They had train cars dedicated for bikes as well and a fair amount of people who brought their bikes. Each station had a small parking lot. I didn’t enjoy standing the entire time, but I’m sure those who chose this method of travel also enjoy not sitting in traffic.

  • It’s not too late, though it needs to happen urgently. For those of you saying that “this is a car city” and that it would only help people going downtown, you’re right. That’s the point. Fewer people driving into certain business districts means less congestion for those who aren’t. Plus, if this city really expects to function with the consolidation of all downtown freeways into one big one, plus a million or so more people by the time it’s done, plus another million or so people in the ten years after that, the region needs an “all of the above” approach or it’s going to cost us a lot of economic opportunity in the future. It’s not Park & Ride bus or commuter trains, its Park & Ride bus AND commuter trains. Culberson and others need to stop trying to solve mobility for Houston circa 1998 and start getting ready for Houston at 10,000,000 people. Because that will be here faster than they think.

  • @ Shmoo: No matter what happens, even in a city optimized for autonomous taxis and jitneys, getting Houston ready for 10 million people entails coming to some degree of acceptance about big-city problems. The bigger the city, the longer the commute times and costs. It’s as simple as that. The biggest hurdles aren’t likely to involve getting people clear across town, but rather moving people along surface streets; and no, not just the streets that everybody knows about like Fannin or Post Oak, but far obscurer suburban thoroughfares, some of them located in unincorporated areas. The best solution I can think of is to toll the living daylights out of everything and use funds to build a lot of grade-separated intersections and small toll roads crisscrossing the region in every direction.

  • @TheNiche:
    You’re right, which is why I advocate an “all of the above” approach. When a city gets that big, driving a car can be a hassle. The notion that decentralized cities aren’t compatible with rail transit is not accurate. Tokyo has multiple “downtowns”, so does London, Sao Paulo, and others. This city’s freeway game is at its peak. This state builds freeways like we are the Roman Empire. I-10 is a tenth of a mile wide! The next time they do a monster freeway here, they should put some trenches under the tollroad in the middle for future passenger rail ROW.

    The conversation that needs to be had is; “How do we get as many people as possible into the three main central business districts in Houston (Med Center, Downtown, Galleria), and once they get there, how do we move them between those districts as quickly as possible? This future is no fantasy utopia where nobody drives. It’s a future where Houston has 10,000,000+ people and everyone can get to work in less than 90 minutes. If we can’t agree that we want to function as a single region and not six small cities surrounding and blocking access to a big city, then we deserve whatever stupid consequences that come from our lack of foresight.

  • One group says we only need Park & Ride because a rail ROW leading into the city wouldn’t be connected to anything. Another group says we can’t connect Uptown & Downtown with rail because it doesn’t help suburban commuters. Meanwhile the HSR goes to Northwest Mall instead of Downtown. Do any of our entities talk to each other?

  • @ Shmoo: You just compared Houston (regional population of 6.7 million) to Tokyo (37.8 million), Sao Paulo (22.8 million), and London (13.8 million). And all of these cities also have substantial commuter populations that extend into the less expensive hinterland and even into other metro areas. So…congratulations, you just discovered one of my pet peeves. Stop doing that! If Houston ever gets to be as large as those cities, it won’t be in our lifetimes. Tech is going to change. It is beyond any reasonable time horizon within which any manner of urban planning is possible or useful.
    The “all of the above” approach also creates redundancies. Some projects are mutually exclusive by their nature. P&R and heavy/commuter rail serving the same corridor would certainly qualify as that. They are too similar. Once you have one, you don’t need the other and the resources would be better spent on infrastructure and services that are upgrades upon or complementary to existing infrastructure…or on totally unrelated projects that are beneficial in their own right. For example, you might need some kind of local bus service, even if it parallels the same corridor, if that is what it takes to reduce the frequency of stops of P&R or rail which is intended to be faster. In that case, parallel service is not a redundancy, that’s complementary and it enables an upgrade. Maybe you need better sidewalks or better bus shelters to encourage more systemwide capacity utilization.
    Simply saying that people deserve “options”, which is somewhat common among certain types of advocacy organizations, is goddamned lazy and is something that appeals to lazy people. To promote “options” means that you are either dodging critical analysis or that you are promoting waste. I should personally have use of a helicopter. That should be my option. If you’re in favor of “options”, and that’s the extent of your opinion, then surely you agree with me. If there’s a budgetary constraint, surely you’ll find a way to overcome it. No? Well then you aren’t in favor of “options”. You’re “lazy”.