Commuter rail is the wrong rideMy op-ed on commuter rail in Houston made the front of the Chronicle Sunday Outlook section today, but Chronicle web site links don't stay up very long, so I want to put a permanent copy here. The formatting will be better at the Chronicle, so you might want to read it over there if the link is still up. As always, comments are encouraged (see link at the end of this post).
It can't keep up with proven success of express bus
By TORY GATTIS
HARRIS County Commissioner Steve Radack has once again advocated for heavy commuter rail in Houston using existing freight rail tracks ("A WAY OUT / Ride rails to safety in disaster," Outlook, Oct. 23). This time, Radack noted commuter rail's potential usefulness in emergency evacuation situations.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority has preliminary plans for heavy commuter lines in the northwest corridor alongU.S. 290, the southwest corridor to Fort Bend County along U.S. 90-A, and the southeast corridor to Clear Lake and possibly beyond to Galveston, along I-45. Other corridors are under consideration, including I-45 North/Hardy Tollroad, Westpark and State Highway 288/Almeda.
I have heard support voiced all over the city for commuter rail on existing tracks. It seems like an easy, obvious, and relatively inexpensive solution to our traffic woes. But this is one situation where the citizens of Houston-area residents need a more complete understanding of what they will be getting and giving up before we proceeding down this path. Are we really, really sure this is what we want?
Heavy commuter rail has some appealing qualities. The cars are big and spacious, with comfortable seats and the ability room to walk around — maybe even buy food and drink on-board. They have dedicated right-of-way corridors with no traffic hassles. And of course they have tremendous capacity.
But I find that very few people in Houston understand how rail will fundamentally change their commute, particularly when it comes to door-to-door travel times. This is something Metro needs to be much more up-front about in its public information meetings.
Let's compare the typical HOV bus experience of today with the potential of commuter rail. Park & Ride lots can offer express bus service to multiple job centers, not just downtown (which has only 7 percent of area jobs). Express bus service offers incredible flexibility as jobs continue to disperse among multiple employment centers, a trend that is expected to accelerate according to the newest Houston-Galveston Area Council prediction models. They can jump in the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane and zip past traffic at 60 mph, going nonstop point-to-point to their destinations. They can circulate when they arrive at their employment center, getting people close to their final destination building. In the future, this service will get even better as Metro expands the HOV/HOT network and converts much of it to two-way service.
Now let's look at the commuter rail trip. The first thing you notice is that it's not as fast as you thought. Because of stops every couple of miles, it's only able to achieve a net speed of 30 mph to 40mph. OK, so it's a little slower, but it's more comfortable — so maybe the trade-off is worth it.
Until you get to your end station. If you're unfortunate enough to live in Fort Bend County and commute downtown, you're now looking at waiting for a transfer to the 17-mph light rail line, then a full 30 more minutes slogging up Fannin and Main streets to get downtown. Similar transfers and slow travel times face anybody going to job centers other than downtown: Uptown/Galleria, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza and Westchase.
But let's say you're one of the lucky commuter-rail patrons headed downtown. Most likely your trip would end at the newly planned intermodal transit center just north of UH Downtown and the bayou. You're still a pretty long walk from almost all downtown buildings. Time for another transfer to light rail, and then probably a multiple-block walk from one of its downtown stops.
Checking your watch, you note that what used to be a reasonable 30-minute express bus trip has become a 50-plus-minute trek of transfers and walks, with sluggish trains that stop frequently. You might even begin to notice, during these transfers and walks, that Houston inconveniently gets a tad warm and rainy five-plus months of the year.
None of this is news to older transit-based cities. Lower Manhattan is struggling to build and fill office space.
Why? Because most of the commuter trains arrive at Penn or Grand Central stations in Midtown, and nobody wants to make the additional subway transfer and slog to downtown.
After doing this a while, the novelty wears off and you decide that, well, trains are neat and all, but "I'll just go back to my plain old HOV express bus service and the shorter commute."
Surprise! That bus service no longer exists. Metro has canceled it, and rightly so. The transit agency has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars in capital investment into the commuter-rail lines. Metro is obliged to absolutely maximize ridership to justify that expense, and that means canceling any express bus service that might remotely compete with the trains.
The painful new reality is sinking in, but there's no going back once the money is in the ground.
At the end of the day, if we opt for commuter rail, we will have spent billions of dollars rerouting freight trains and developing these lines, only to discover that our new transit service, while stylish, is now less convenient than before we started.
The result? There won't be loud riots or protests, just the quiet sound of people voting with their feet as more and more employers choose to locate in far suburbs because the commutes will have simply gotten too difficult for their employees — slowly draining Houston's commercial tax base and vitality.
Maybe it's time we get past our New York-envy and develop a flexible, regional commuter transit system for our dispersed, multinodal city of the 21st century.Gattis writes the Houston Strategies blog.