Houston, which currently operates one light rail line along its Main Street corridor, has been planning for a large expansion over the past several years, and it is close to beginning construction on four new lines, all of which will open by 2012. The corridors, summarized in the schematic map to the right, will connect downtown Houston to the northern, eastern, and southeastern sides of the city, as well as provide a connector within the Uptown neighborhood. The University line, which will connect the existing 7.5-mile Main Street line to the Uptown line, will begin construction later as it is still in the design stage after years of conflict over its precise alignment. All together, the planned corridors will add 30.2 miles of light rail to the city.
The Metro Solutions Plan, which guides transit development in Houston, estimated last year that the lines will cost a total of $2.6 billion to build, though the contract which is likely to be finalized over the next few days with Parsons Transportation Group will clarify construction costs for the system.
Residents of Houston approved the transportation plan’s five light rail corridors in 2003 by a 52 to 48% margin, but by 2005, facing increasing problems guaranteeing funding from the federal government, the city decided to transform plans for some of the lines to light rail-ready bus rapid transit corridors. Former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX), from Houston, was an especially strident critic of light rail and single-handedly cut off Federal Transit Authority funding for rail to the city. In 2007, after Mr. Delay’s dramatic fall from power and the takeover of Congress by more transit-friendly Democrats, Metro reversed its decision, deciding finally that building light rail from the start would make the most sense.
Houston’s new push for light rail is good news for the United States’ fourth-largest city, with 2.2 million inhabitants in the city itself and 5.6 million in the metro area. Its Main Street corridor has been incredibly successful, with the second-highest light rail ridership per mile in the country after Boston’s Green Line, serving about 40,000 riders a day overall. Further corridors, especially those connecting to the University of Houston and to the very popular Uptown area, will likely be equally popular.
The city’s light rail system plan differs from that of most other cities, because though it focuses some lines on the city’s downtown, it also has connections between corridors at other regional centers, reflecting the metro area’s polycentric form, which has significant job and housing areas outside of what is typically considered the central business district. Houston’s decision to build a network as such will be a first-in-the-nation experiment, demonstrating whether or not rapid transit systems have to be centered on a downtown to be effective. Its example will potentially provide other huge, sprawling sunbelt cities such as Phoenix and San Antonio, which currently lack well-developed transit systems, a way forward towards non-automobile-based mobility and the resulting increased densification.