After Years of Conflict, Houston's Transit System Advances

Houston Light Rail Network» Tom DeLay’s departure from Congress has made the project’s implementation quite a bit easier.

Houston is America’s fourth-largest city and one of the nation’s most car-dependent. That’s because for the past sixty years, the city has invested in almost nothing other than new highways. Only in 2004, with the opening of a new light rail line running 7.5 miles down the city’s Main Street, did the trend begin to reverse itself. Though the region remains committed to the construction of huge expanses of asphalt, for the first time in decades, a large transit expansion program is under way.

The biggest news came last week, when the federal government announced that of the five New Start corridors for which it would be approving construction in FY 2010, two would be in Houston, providing a guarantee of $900 million. Construction on the system’s north and southeast lines will begin this year. The other corridors projected to receive light rail in Houston — the Uptown, University, and East End lines — will follow soon after, and all are expected to open for business by 2012.

Though Washington is playing a primary role in assuring the project’s financing, Houston’s own voters approved the system expansion in November 2003, even before the first line opened. That project, running down Main Street, has more than lived up to expectations, even though its route serves only a small number of the city’s major destinations. In fact, while the system was expected to attract 40,000 daily boardings only by 2020, it achieved that ridership in its second year of operation. It attracts more riders per route mile than any other light rail corridor, with the exception of Boston’s Green Line. Continued public support for the project undoubtedly is a result of the Main Street line’s success, and Houston is raring for more of the same.

Yet what’s interesting about Houston’s story isn’t so much the strong ridership along its light rail line — many cities have seen similar success. Rather, Houston’s ramping up of its light rail construction comes after years of strong political opposition both from within the city and from without.

In fact, though Houston had the first operating monorail line in the country in 1956, hopes for expansions of that project — which was closed eight months after it opened — were quickly forgotten. Yet by the late 1980s, Houston was refocusing its efforts and started pushing a 22-mile transit project that would extend from the Texas Medical Center, through downtown, to the Galleria. Voters agreed in 1988 to fund a “light rail” project, but by 1991, Congress added $500 million in the transportation bill for a monorail whose total cost would rise to $1.2 billion once completed. A dedicated city revenue source would cover the gap.

Just when the city seemed to be on the cusp of a serious transportation program, though, Bob Lanier (D) won the Mayor’s seat in the city in November 1991; the position gave him chairmanship over Houston Metro’s board. His principal campaign plank was opposition to the monorail project. It’s not surprising, then, that Mr. Lanier took Congress’ $500 million and stuck it elsewhere: fixing potholes and filling a gap in the police department’s budget. Monorail plans were abandoned.

Like an eternally optimistic child, though, Houston was at it again by the late nineties, this time planning a full-scale light rail project, starting with the Main Street corridor that is in operation today. The plans would need federal funding, of course, but that would require support from the area’s congressmen, something that would not be universally forthcoming.

That’s because while the new mayor Lee Brown (D) was a proponent of light rail expansion, Tom DeLay (R), who represented Sugar Land in the U.S. House, was adamantly opposed. Sugar Land is a suburb southwest of Houston that is too far away to justify extensive transit investments there. In 2000, the congressman killed $65 million appropriated by Congress for the now-planned Main Street line and proceeded to write language into the federal transportation bill effectively making it impossible for Houston to receive money for light rail from Washington. The Houston Chronicle quoted congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee (D) in reaction: “I will not tolerate, no matter whether he is in the leadership or not, some Texas congressperson blocking federal funds coming into the 18th District. I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Ms. Jackson-Lee, far less powerful in Congress at the time, actually represents Houston.

Without federal funds, Houston began construction in March 2001 and opened the project in January 2004 at a cost of $300 million. Though the line has been plagued by car-train accidents, it has otherwise been an unambiguous success.

Even before that line opened, voters agreed in November 2003 to support a $7.5 billion plan for 73 miles of light rail that would connect all of the city’s major destinations. The city’s public clearly is in support of transit expansions. Yet with continued problems being assured federal funds, that plan fell apart, and in 2007, the transit authority announced that it was switching those proposed corridors to bus rapid transit, claiming that the lack of federal matching funds would simply make funding for light rail impossible. The BRT lines would be designed to switch relatively cheaply to LRT in the future.

The Houston public and its government weren’t satisfied with this result, however, and clamored for LRT instead. The embarassing departure of Tom DeLay from Congress in 2006 opened up opportunities for federal funding for the city’s transit lines. Mayor Bill White (D) has become a strong supporter of the project. As a result, Metro revised its temporary 2007 plan, deciding instead to build 30 miles of light rail, 28 miles of commuter rail, and 40 miles of bus rapid transit (pictured in the map above). This project, though not as extensive as once envisioned, still would make Houston a far more transit-friendly place.

The good news Houston received earlier this month — guaranteed 49% federal New Starts funding for both its North and Southeast light rail lines — puts a firm foot down for the city’s transit legacy. With these new lines in place, it’s hard to imagine the rest of the projected corridors not being built by 2012, and it’s likely the city, with strong public backing, will want to invest in more. Houston’s success in the New Starts ratings shows just how far it has come since just ten years ago, when the federal government was instructed by Mr. DeLay to pretend the agency didn’t exist.

Yet there will always be obstacles ready to make moving forward difficult. Earlier this week, opponents of the project in the Texas legislature proposed preventing Metro from using its powers of eminent domain in the construction of its light rail lines, an action that would make the completion of the University line (and the connected Uptown line) a virtual impossibility. As with any major government investment program, conservatives are likely to stand in the way as much as possible. Houston’s politicians, in other words, shouldn’t be celebrating too much.

Houston’s example demonstrates that a truly auto-dependent city can make significant steps towards improving transit capacity, but that those advances are unlikely without support at both the local and federal levels. Cities whose excitement for transit is ephemeral, or worse, not particularly strong, are unlikely to be able to move forward quickly.

4 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Woody

    Thanks for a “good news” report. Too often the transit news just makes me angry! But yes, in Houston we saw how “elections have consequences” can work in favor of the good as well as the bad.

    Taking note of how the ridership on H-town’s Main Street line has blown past the projections for 12 or 15 years out reminds me of your most recent post on the 80/20 or not funding scheme.

    Others commented how often the estimates are inaccurate, whether for the number of riders or the amount of allegedly transit induced development.

    Maybe some equity would come from rewarding systems that actually, measurably succeed.

    So how about giving some funding based on actual numbers of new riders for a few years after a new line opening? You could allow the transit agencies to use that ‘reward money’ with very loose strings — to buy more streetcars, hire more drivers, and run trains more frequently perhaps. Or use it toward the local share of the next new set of tracks or similar expansion efforts.

    The ‘reward for success’ would recognize the difficult-to-forecast externalities, the benefits from energy and pollution savings, lower oil imports, etc.

    Big projects like the Second Avenue Subway would get huge ‘success rewards’ if the subway system got a huge increase in passengers.

    Of course, the economic cycle could override any success or failure of a given new line, but there might be a way to adjust for that. The new SAS riders measured at the three new stations could earn ‘rewards’ in some ratio to the total riders in the subway system. Details can be worked out.

    But small systems could also get huge benefits. Phoenix is already boasting rider totals far ahead of projections. They could easily use ‘reward’ money to expand with new tracks, or added cars and more frequent service. The Hiawatha line in the Twin Cities was a similar success, confounding the skeptics. If those new riders earned ‘reward funding’, that money could have helped to pay for the discussed and delayed Central Line linking the Hiawatha line in Minneapolis to St. Paul.

  • Ned Carlson

    Ugh. Congrats to Houston and all, and I do like the idea of success rewards, but honestly, you have no idea how good the US has it with the FTA. For all it’s problems it is a reasonably (ok, vaguely might be more fair, but still) stable system with an actual grant process. What does Canada have exactly? Nothing.

    Whenever something needs upper level funding here its quite literally a matter of begging the appropriate minister for an individual grant. Operating subsidies are negotiated annually, and have in fact been completely revoked by certain governments.

    Federal funding is almost nonexistent with no operating grants, while some capital has recently been commited in BC and Ontario. Legally transit shouldn’t be Federal I grant, but the fiscal reality is the Feds are the only ones with the cash, and isn’t it the same way in the US anyway? As for the provinces, none have real long term arrangements for operating costs, and capital is completely arbitrary. Honestly I’d take the FTA wtih all its problems, even the BRT obsession, if we could just HAVE operating aggreements and New Starts.

  • The Salt Lake example is an interesting one. They are building five new lines and having 20% of the total funded by the feds. They signed a deal that would fund 80% of the West Valley line and 20% of another line but it only worked out to 20% of the overall program. This allowed them to not have to wait for federal funding on the other lines which actually i think will save them money since they can do it faster.

  • @The Overhead Wire
    Do you think you could do it better?

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