Houston Light Rail Ottawa

Ottawa, Closer than Ever to Replacing Bus Rapid Transit with Light Rail

» Could the Ottawa model of instituting bus rapid transit, then converting to light rail, inspire other cities?

There was a time, a few years back, when talk of building bus rapid transit as a cheap precursor to train service was common. The theory was that cities could invest in new rights-of-way for rapid transit and design guideways specifically for future light rail implementation, but only fork up enough dough to pay for the buses.

After its voters agreed in 2003 to fund a series of new rail lines, Houston’s elected officials realized by 2007 that they wouldn’t be able to do so without a federal commitment — but they weren’t able to get help because of obstacles put in the way by Congressional Republicans representing the city’s suburbs. And so the city turned to buses, deciding to install BRT along its most promising corridors.

Though it was a second-choice solution, Houston — like many other American cities — may have looked to Ottawa as a model for BRT implementation. Canada’s capital has become a gold standard for bus advocates, who point to the region’s 240,000 daily bus riders and 23% transit share as proof that buses can work just as well as rail in encouraging people to choose public transportation to get to and from work. Ottawa’s several busways transport passengers quickly and relatively comfortably. Unlike most “BRT” lines in North America, this city’s are mostly grade-separated, producing actually high-speed buses.

But now Ottawa is planning to give up its primary transitway. Houston eventually got its act together on the federal level and has turned back to light rail, forgetting the bus plans entirely. Is the Ottawa model — raise ridership with buses, and then think about more expensive rail options — falling flat? What went wrong?

The quick answer is that Ottawa was too successful, encouraging the city’s citizens to take an average of 125 trips by public transportation a year, more than any equivalently-sized North American city. The transitway has so many riders that it puts 2,600 daily buses onto two downtown streets, and by 2018, the system will have literally no more capacity. By 2030, Ottawa would have to get a bus downtown every eighteen seconds to accommodate all of its riders — an impossible feat.

Thus for several years, the city has been considering light rail as a replacement; a 2006 plan fell apart because it would have done nothing to increase capacity and decrease commute times as it would have relied on street-running downtown. So Mayor Larry O’Brien and his staff have concocted what is now a C$2.1 billion project to run light rail in a three-kilometer tunnel under downtown. The remainder of the 12.5-kilometer corridor would run from Tunney’s Pasture to Blair Station along the existing transitway, completely displacing the bus service that’s currently there. The 13-station system will be designed for very high capacity, up to 25,000 riders per direction during the peak hour (up from 10,000 today), thanks to platforms long enough to handle six-car trains and even platform screen doors in the underground stations.

The general plan for a downtown tunnel was approved last May by the city’s council, and light rail was signed off as the technology in November. It has received a C$600 million promise from Ontario province and is likely to receive a similar guarantee from the federal government later this year. The project could begin construction in 2013 and open by 2018 — as long as opponents of the rail line don’t take the mayoral seat in this fall’s election.

Though the existing bus transitway is already in place, light rail construction will be expensive, notably because of the tunnel, which will cost C$735 million by itself. Even if bus service had been chosen as the preferred technology, this expense would have been required. But the C$540 million cost to convert the remaining ten kilometers of right-of-way is more surprising; much of that will go towards the big new stations along the line, with the rest to pay for tracks and electrification. Vehicles and a new maintenance facility will cost C$515 million.

With expenses like that — practically equivalent to building a new rail line from scratch — one wonders whether there was ever any fiscal advantage to using buses first along the rapidway. Did the city lose out by not choosing rail when the transitway first opened in 1983?

In terms of operations costs, it almost certainly did. Even with a nine percent increase in ridership in the first year alone, light rail is expected to allow the city to save up to C$100 million annually on bus drivers’ salaries, gas consumption, and right-of-way maintenance. By dramatically increasing the average number of passengers per vehicle thanks to long trains and by switching to clean and cheap electricity from diesel fuel, the city will find notable economies in rail. It will also produce far fewer greenhouse gases — saving 38,000 tons by 2031.

For passengers, though, the conversion to light rail means mixed outcomes. The downtown tunnel will decrease trip times by fifteen minutes, principally by avoiding the congestion currently resulting from bus bunching. But the direct service now offered to many parts of the city will be lost, as many passengers coming from areas not immediately adjacent to the rail stations will be shuttled via bus to the stops, where they will have to transfer to get downtown. This will result in roughly 40% of Ottawa’s transit trips using the rail line.

During rail line construction, bus service will be seriously affected.

Had buses been retained on the transitway and been sent through the tunnel, it would have required a far more extensive tunnel because of ventilation concerns — or it would have necessitated the electrification of the bus fleet, not necessarily a cheap choice either. So Ottawa had basically no choice but to switch to rail.

If the city gets its way, and finds the money, direct service will be extended; light rail will replace the 10,000 daily-rider DMU O-Train as well as a number of the other current transitway routes. A light rail loop across the river into Gatineau, Québec is also being discussed. With the downtown tunnel built, capacity won’t be a problem.

But the underlying question about whether the city should have invested in BRT in the first place twenty-seven years ago returns. Though Ottawa was much smaller then, it was larger than Edmonton, which had installed a modern light rail line in 1978 — including a downtown tunnel. If Ottawa’s politicians had known then that they would have to spend billions converting to rail just to keep up with capacity needs, would they have selected bus service?

For other cities considering investing in reserved-bus corridors before light rail, Ottawa’s may be a cautionary tale. Savings in the short term may ultimately result in far greater expenses — especially when factoring in the high cost of bus operations.

Image above: Route map, from Ottawa Light Rail

Houston Light Rail Social Justice Urbanism

Rallying Against Rail in Southeast Houston

» Residents fear light rail would cause accidents, gentrification, and displacement. Can any transportation project be so influential?

Like many sunbelt cities, Houston is rushing to build a transit system that can provide an alternative to the congestion caused by a population that has exploded by more than a million people over the past forty years. Now with about 2.3 million inhabitants, the city has developed a five-line light rail plan that would extend rapid transit across the densest areas of the metropolis. Though fiscal difficulties may result in a delay in the construction of two of the planned corridors, most of the project is expected to advance as planned, with new lines opening beginning in 2012.

Houston’s first modern rail operation — along Main Street from downtown to the stadium complex — opened in 2004 and has been a roaring success, attracting more riders than initially foreseen.

Yet any plan as ambitious as this will encounter controversy, so the news that some residents along the proposed Southeast Corridor are protesting the project isn’t particularly surprising. But are the concerns expressed by community members affected by the line’s construction worth considering? Can city officials make the planning process more democratic with the aim of ensuring a sense of local incorporation, even while advancing a program whose aims are more about long-term, citywide goals?

The six-mile Southeast line will extend the light rail system from downtown to Palm Center, along Scott Street, Wheeler Street, and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, reaching the University of Houston, MacGregor Park, and an area of the city whose population is predominantly poor and black. Eleven stations will stop in zones that have low to moderate residential densities and relatively little retail. A rail corridor could project a new vitality into the area — or it might have little influence on the community’s look.

Not yet sure of the eventual outcome, however, some residents have been vocal in expressing their concerns that the new light rail line — which will operate primary in the median of relatively wide streets — will put in danger the neighborhood’s existing conditions by endangering pedestrians and transforming the low-rise community into a medium or high-rise one.

The specter of out-of-control light rail trains mowing down seniors and children is, frankly, an absurd one: trains don’t travel any faster than do cars, and unlike automobiles, trains stay in their travel lanes. Yet people from Houston to Los Angeles to the Washington suburbs are convinced that the sheer unfamiliarity of the trains will make them a danger. Meanwhile, the average fifty Houston pedestrians who die every year after being run over by drivers doesn’t seem to elicit much soul-searching; no one is talking about shutting down the major arterials of Southeast Houston to cars.

But the worry about neighborhood change is a legitimate one: one of the very explicit goals of the new light rail system is to increase density along affected corridors and to encourage a change in the landscape of Southeast Houston, much of which today is hardly different than your average sprawling suburban neighborhood. And indeed, the fear that improved transit can produce negative mutations is shared between communities both rich, often convinced that criminals will ride trains into wealthy neighborhoods, and poor, anxious that rail will bring in developers who will search to kick the impoverished out of their homes.

Transit isn’t as powerful as either its proponents or opponents would suggest: it won’t instantly result in a radically morphed neighborhood, for the better or worse. The by-products often attributed to new rail systems are usually the consequence of a series of decisions and investments, not just those related to transportation. In other words, it’s not really the light rail trains themselves residents of Southeast Houston should be afraid of, but rather the way in which that light rail system is used to shape the growth of an area. The inhabitants of the neighborhood certainly won’t suffer from better transit access!

Municipal governments have a powerful say in arbitrating the use of improved public transportation to spur development. If local authorities choose to concentrate growth in specific parcels near stations, they can provide incentives to build bigger there, or ban new housing or commercial outlets from areas outside of those zones. On the other hand, some governments do very little, choosing not to up-zone land around stations and allowing low-density sprawl to remain the name of the game.

For the sake of increasing ridership and the development of walkable urbanism, there are clear advantages in promoting the former: higher-density neighborhoods at transit stops.

But residents of affected neighborhoods don’t necessarily want to see that kind of environment: many people live in Southeast Houston because of how it looks, not because they’re looking to see it evolve into a district of four-or-five story structures. That kind of neighborhood change is exactly what the people who are protesting are trying to prevent.

The City of Houston, like any place developing improved transit, has a responsibility to encourage expanded democratic involvement in determining how the neighborhood can or should transform. Houston has set up a community office near the terminus of the proposed line at Palm Center, a former shopping strip, and this is a good first step. But the city should be engaging in an open dialogue with willing community members about which parcels to improve and which to keep as they are. The transit line is only the first stage in what must be a permanent back-and-forth about how to make the neighborhood a better place.

Encouraging this kind of civic discussion will reduce uninformed criticism of light rail as well as ensure that new housing and commercial developments along the line are scaled appropriately in an attempt to meet local desires. There is no perfect way to go about doing this, but making an effort could certainly expand popular support for the project and potentially even improve it.

Image above: Rendering of Houston’s Southeast Light Rail Corridor along Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, from Metro

Houston Light Rail

Houston Leaders Fear Too Large, Too Quick a Commitment to Light Rail

» Reliance on bonds to be paid back over decades highlights some of the difficulties cities face in advancing multi-line construction programs.

Just a few years ago Houston had grand plans for an extensive new light rail system that would crisscross the nation’s fourth-largest city from end to end. With new sales taxes, the local transit authority would be able to afford the construction of five lines by the early 2010s, reshaping the commuting patterns of the city’s residents.

However, like Denver and Charlotte, which both had huge expansion plans of their own, Houston’s dreams have been seriously threatened by the reality of falling tax return revenues. It’s a disappointing setback for a city that received federal New Starts approval for two of its projects just last year and which finally is able to pursue construction without the noisy interference of anti-transit representatives in Congress.

Nonetheless, the Metro Solutions plan, which was put before the voters in 2003 and which aims to add 30 miles of light rail to the existing 7.5-mile corridor at a cost of $2.6 billion, may simply be too ambitious a project for a metropolis concerned about fiscal restraint in a period of budgetary black holes.

That’s how newly elected Mayor Annise Parker is portraying herself: as a champion for improved transit who simply wants to ensure that whatever money is spent, Houston will be able to afford. Though she has not called for the cancellation of the entire system — the North, East End, and Southeast Lines are currently under construction — she has openly questioned whether or not the east-west University Line and the closely connected Uptown Line, neither of which are yet underway, can be sponsored with existing revenues.

Her fears have some merit: the local 1% sales tax that pays for transit in the region has seen a huge decrease in returns over the past year. With the transit agency planning to issue $2.6 billion in bonds by 2014 to sponsor the system, it will have to assemble the resources to pay back the loans over time. If it cannot do so using the funds originally dedicated for the construction of fixed-guideway transit lines, it will have to find them elsewhere — a formula that could result in operations cutbacks to fill a budget gap.

To its credit, Metro has secured its fiscal health by signing a contract with builder Parsons Transportation Group that ensures a price guarantee of $1.56 billion on four of the five corridors (n0t including the expensive and controversial University Line). This means that cost increases due to unforeseen changes in the construction market will not affect this city. Other transit systems might want to follow Houston’s model in ensuring spending constraints through the deal made with the contractor.

Yet the decision to backload virtually all spending on the project through bonds will cause problems if the economy ten years from now doesn’t perform exactly as predictions assume today. In other words, it’s easy enough to suggest that the city will be able to pay back the loans taken out to cover construction costs by using sales tax revenues, but the recession is an unambiguous demonstration of the fact that those revenues aren’t stable enough to believe that these capital costs won’t eventually intrude on maintaining continual operations.

In transit, the last thing you want to do is pull back on services right after you’ve opened a new line.

Of course, bonds are the typical finance mechanism municipalities use to construct most new capital projects, with the assumption that growth spurred by the completion of new infrastructure will more than compensate for the extra interest paid for taking out a loan. This is the premise behind Los Angeles’ hope to win billions of federal dollars to complete a transit system three times faster than planned, and even the proposed national infrastructure bank.

Yet in a society in which increasing debt is the name of the game, instead of any attempt at ramping up revenues, perhaps we’ve gone too far, relied too much on future growth to make investments that we need to make today. Can Houston truly be sure that it won’t have problems maintaining its sales tax revenues into the foreseeable future? Does it really want to risk cutting back on bus services just to pay off the bank?

Even so, cities like Houston may have little other choice: there certainly aren’t enough federal grants going around to pay off the construction of the light rail project in cash, and the sales tax won’t produce nearly enough local revenue to complete the project by 2014 as hoped. Considering the high ridership along the initial Main Street corridor, more rail transit in this city seems very likely to be successful, so Houston should probably work to  find the most financially secure way to get it done as quickly as possible. Is the release of $2.6 billion in bonds over a five-year period sustainable? We’ll see.

Image above: Houston Main Street Light Rail, from Flickr user erigwg (cc)

Atlanta Charlotte Elections Houston Miami New York Seattle

Mayoral Elections Highlight Controversies Over Transit Provision

» Third in a series of three articles on today’s elections. The first considered governor’s races; the second reviewed ballot measures.

In six big cities across the country — Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Miami, New York, and Seattle — transportation is playing a role in the mayoral race being decided today. With the economic crisis front and center, however, transit isn’t anyone’s biggest priority.

Mayor of Atlanta, GA

Update: Mary Norwood, with 46%, and Kasim Reed, with 36%, have moved on to a runoff on December 1st.

Atlanta’s dramatic growth over the past twenty years — it has increased in population from 394,000 in 1990 to an estimated 538,000 today — has brought with it a panoply of benefits, including increased density and better services. Much of the population increase has been due to an increase in the number of white people, who now make up 38% of the population, compared to 31% just nine years ago. Those changes are producing a vastly different political environment, one in which a white candidate may take office for the first time since 1973.

Mayor Shirley Franklin, who has served since 2001, was a relatively competent manager of the city’s finances and livability, pushing proposals like the Beltline and Peachtree Corridor streetcar. But during her time, the city has suffered from a spike in crime, coming in opposition to the experience of other major U.S. cities, which have seen steady declines. That issue is tops in today’s mayoral race, though transportation proposals are also getting their day in the sun.

Current polls put white candidate Mary Norwood, currently a city counselor, on top. She has been strident in her statements against crime, and she has convincingly pulled off a characterization of herself as an “outsider” — good for a city sick of eight years of the same person. But she is facing strong competition from State Senator Kasim Reed and City Council President Lisa Borders, as well as three other candidates. If no one person wins a majority of votes, there will be a runoff on December 1st.

In a series of candidate forums, the three front-runners have made their positions known on transit issues, and Ms. Norwood doesn’t seem as appealing as her poll numbers suggest. Unlike the other two candidates, Norwood lives in a huge house in an unwalkable part of the city, whereas Ms. Borders has a residence downtown. Mr. Reed is a frequent user of the city’s MARTA rapid transit network, while Ms. Norwood appears to use it simply to get to the airport.

On their websites, both Ms. Borders and Mr. Reed highlight their respective records on transportation, which Ms. Norwood fails to do. As a state senator, Mr. Reed has been pushing for a new revenue source for transit, something the state has to approve before the city can implement it. Ms. Borders, meanwhile, has suggested that she would continue the Franklin legacy of encouraging investment in the Beltline, though at the candidate forum, she admitted that “it’s not going to be soon” — a response that shows either a taste for the realistic or a lack of ambition, depending on one’s perspective.

Unfortunately, none of the candidates has made a strong claim to being the supporter of transit; while Ms. Norwood’s lackluster responses on the subject knock her down a few points, her opponents aren’t much better. No one’s proposing the sort of long-range plan Atlanta needs. Nor is it clear that any of the candidates understand how and why transit should be implemented. Disappointing for such a promising city.

Mayor of Charlotte, NC

Update: Anthony Foxx, with 51% of the vote, has won the mayor’s race in Charlotte; the first for Democrats in 22 years; Democrats also take huge majority on City Council

Mayor Pat McCrory, who made a name for himself as a Republican in favor of transit, has spent the last fourteen years in Charlotte’s City Hall, but he declined to run for reelection this year after loosing last year’s governor’s race to Democrat Beverly Perdue. Attempting to take his place are contenders Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, and John Lassiter, a Republican; both are currently city council members.

Though Charlotte once had some of the country’s biggest transit ambitions, with five separate rail lines planned, it was humbled by the financial crisis and the sudden decrease in sales tax revenue that hit virtually every municipality. The city is planning a streetcar to run through the downtown area and some of inner-city neighborhoods, and it has already put some tracks in place. Yet with no money on tap, the project is on hold — and that’s where the mayoral race became interesting.

Whereas Mr. Foxx voted in favor of allocating funds for studying the streetcar’s alignment and conducting some preliminary engineering, Mr. Lassiter voted against those studies, arguing that it was a waste of money to plan for a project that would not get built. Mr. Foxx continues to uphold his vote, arguing that the research was necessary to evaluate what the city could or could not build.

All that said, Mr. Lassiter remains a supporter of light rail expansion, though it is unclear whether he would suggest implementing a new revenue source to pay for its construction. Mr. Foxx seems more clear in his unambiguous interest in such investments.

Mayor of Houston, TX

Update: Annise Parker, with 30.5%, and Gene Locke, with 25.9%, have moved on to the runoff December 12th.

Of all of the races today, Houston’s may be the one where voters have no real possibility of going wrong when it comes to transportation issues. All three of the front-runners, including City Controller Annise Parker, Former City Attorney Gene Locke, and City Planner/Architect Peter Brown, are seriously in favor of transit investment. This marks quite a shift for a city that for almost a decade was unable to receive any federal funding for new rail lines because of the intervention of Congressman Tom Delay (R).

Yet times have changed. The city’s citizenry sees current Mayor Bill White as having had a successful career at City Hall, and that’s especially true for his work on light rail, which has been moved forward dramatically in the last few months, with approval from the Federal Transit Administration for the construction of two new lines. Houston’s single rail line has the highest ridership per route mile of any such system in the country.

This consensus, which generally includes an acknowledgment that transportation only functions effectively when growth is appropriately planned around stations, suggests a promising next four years for this fast-growing city.

Mayor of Miami, FL

Update: Tomás Regalado, with 72% of the vote, cruises to easy win over Joe Sanchez.

With Mayor Manny Diaz being forced out of office after eight years because of term limits, Miami voters will choose between Joe Sanchez, a supporter of Mr. Diaz’s work, and Tomás Regalado, who has been a regular opponent of the current mayor’s philosophy on development.

Both candidates are members of the City Commission, and they’ve had very different voting records. Whereas Mr. Sanchez has come out wholeheartedly in favor of Mr. Diaz’s big development schemes, including a new tunnel to the port, a new baseball stadium, and a big condo building boom, Mr. Regalado has been a proponent of improving conditions in the city’s neighborhoods. That position, which has favored the majority of Miami residents who do not live in the areas affected by recent development trends, has given Mr. Regalado a serious lead in the polls. That probably means no major investments in transit over the next four years.

That’s because while Mr. Sanchez sees public transit as a core element of developing the future city, Mr. Regalado is more interested in fiscal austerity — despite the fact that Mr. Diaz, even with all his promotion of big new projects, shored up the city’s finances dramatically during his time in office. That stance means that Mr. Regalado will probably do little to improve the conditions of the city’s Metrorail network, which is already cashless.

Nor will Mr. Regalado stand firm in promoting more pedestrian-oriented spaces. In the vote on Miami 21, a strong decision about making the city a more walkable, livable place, he placed himself in the opposition. Mr. Sanchez was in favor. Mr. Regalado’s insistence that the city go “back to basics” ultimately means he won’t do much to help it improve.

Mayor of New York City, NY

Update: Defying all odds, Bill Thompson gets 46% of the vote, despite being outspent 14 to 1 and having been left for dead by basically the entire Democratic establishment. Michael Bloomberg, however, moves in for his third term as mayor.

New York may be the only city in the country where the Republican-endorsed candidate has a significantly more pro-transit platform than the Democrat. In many ways, that’s terrible, because Independent-former-but-maybe-still-Republican billionaire Michael Bloomberg has basically bought himself the next four years, spending $35,000 an hour to do so throughout the campaign. All this after forcing the city council to alter its term limit rules to allow him to run for a third term. Democratic opponent Bill Thompson has had no chance.

Perhaps that’s why, despite his reasonable record as City Controller, Mr. Thompson has staked himself as the anti-Bloomberg on livability issues such as bike lanes, bus rapid transit, and pedestrian plazas. While Mr. Bloomberg has given his chief of Transportation Janette Sadik-Kahn basically full reign in implementing an excellent streets reform project, Mr. Thompson has held rallies decrying BRT on some of the city’s most-trafficked corridors. Maybe he sees that as the only way to get votes. If so, it says something terrible about New York’s citizenry. If not, Mr. Thompson’s priorities are woefully misguided.

Mr. Bloomberg, meanwhile, for all his investment in nice streetscapes, has reduced the city’s commitment to sponsoring the state-run MTA, which runs the Subway system. His claims that he’ll invest in a new streetcar along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront seem exaggerated, especially when he can’t seem to get off his obsession with the less-than-useful extension of the 7 Subway into West Midtown.

It’s not a particularly good day for transportation advocates in America’s biggest transit city. Here’s to a better choice in four years…

Mayor of Seattle, WA

Update: In early results, Mike McGinn has a 910-vote lead over his opponent; with a large number of votes yet to be counted, the lead could switch hands. However, pro-transit Dow Constantine wins big over conservative Susan Hutchinson in the King County Executive race, with 57% of the vote.

In this runoff race, it’s quite clear who thinks what. In the first round, incumbent Mayor Greg Nickels found himself cornered from the left (environmentalist Mike McGinn) and from the right (businessman Joe Mallahan) and he dropped to last in a three-way race. If some transit proponents were disappointed — Mr. Nickels had staked his legacy on transportation investments — Mr. McGinn is attempting to pick up the mantle today, though with a spin.

Mr. McGinn’s primary campaign was mostly premised on his opposition to the construction of a full-bore tunnel under downtown Seattle to replace the moribund Alaskan Way Viaduct, which sits on the waterfront. Unlike Mr. Nickels, who promoted the project, the candidate suggested simply replacing the Viaduct with a surface level road and using the remaining funds for better transit. Mr. Mallahan found himself rigorously opposed to that position; he’s made himself into the candidate of the drivers, so to speak.

Nonetheless, the Viaduct has become a bit of a non-issue in the meantime because of the fact that state financing has come through and the city has approved work, making its completion a virtual certainly. But there are still major transportation issues to be resolved in the Puget Sound. Will light rail run on I-90 or SR520? Will there be a streetcar network? Will there be a West Seattle line?

Mr. McGinn, a staunch defender of transit, is the right man for this job. Mr. Mallahan’s car-driving mentality won’t privilege the kind of long-term investments Seattle needs.

Houston Light Rail

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.