Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Jeff's rant on METRO's light-rail system

Growing up during the Houston mayorship of Kathy Whitmire, the one word I can remember hearing from her was 'monorail'.  An active proponent of that form of transport, 1992 would see her monorail dream die by the hand of her successor, Bob Lanier.  Within a decade, Mayor Bob's immediate successor, Lee Brown, would see a street-grade light-rail system built in the Bayou City.

Street-grade...  Train cars stopping for red lights.  There was no elevated rail constructed because it would have been hideously-expensive, requiring federal funds to cover the expense, which congressman Tom DeLay succeeded in having blocked.

Well, we have our high-capacity rail transport for human passengers going right through Downtown and the Texas Medical Center as well as offering service to Reliant Stadium, the University of Houston - Downtown, and Northline Mall.  But is our region paying for its lack of vision in regard to elevated rail and its lack of will in paying for same?  Yes!

The jury is out with me still regarding the merits of a Disney-style monorail as opposed to what we have now, but with METRORail online and running for the next half-century, I can now only speak in hypothetical terms.  But it is important, though, to still ask questions.

The election of Bob Lanier as Mayor of Houston in 1991 was a crucial event in Houston's mass-transit history.  Depending on one's point of view, Lanier's election either halted the march of progress or saved our city and region from a horrible boondoggle.  And again, I can't be sure of how well monorail would have done.

What is abundantly clear every time my train has to stop for a red light is Houstonians could have done better and should have.  They could have spoken up for elevated rail in the Bayou City, as expensive as it would have been.  In the person of Bob Lanier and with their ballots in November 1991 with a December 1991 runoff, they spoke loud and clear, putting in a Mayor who was more interested in highways than buses or trains.

Mayor Bob's election began eighteen years of mostly-substandard METRO leadership which, though it did see some bright spots here and there, also saw our present bus network stagnate and prevented from growing and changing with the Houston landscape, paving the way for the brute-force full-scale changes with System Reimagining.

And perhaps we should count ourselves lucky to have gotten light rail at all.  If I understand things rightly, Mayor Brown had to put up a fight for even our at-grade system, choosing to compromise with our speed-slowing at-grade aspect instead of the stoplight-bypassing elevated system our city deserved.

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In the Ideal Realm, I would tear out most of our light-rail system, building elevated rail along the whole of Fannin and San Jacinto, though getting to UH-Downtown would have been a challenge.  Only the area of the Texas Medical Center with its myriad skyways as well as the Pierce elevated would have seen at-grade service, though the presence of the Pierce Elevated may have made the resultant underpass with the rail impractical to build as it would have impeded a rail station or two from being built.

I would have nixed the East Line entirely, having the Southeast Line continue on to Gulfgate Mall and Hobby Airport.  I would also think long and hard about building any new light rail anywhere.  There is nothing worse than a billion-dollar mass-transit project with no ridership!

As for the Westpark Tollway, I would do one of three things: tear it out completely - replace with either a wider highway with two-way train tracks (two tracks each way, mind you), tear it out completely and replace with a rail-only system - extending through the Southwest Freeway, or make it bus-only with two-way HOV on the SW Freeway.

I'm not sure of the wisdom of any sort of rail along Richmond avenue, elevated or otherwise.  So many stoplights and business-visual-killing elevated rail tracks!

The Uptown BRT would be put on steroids and built as a rail system or a BRT - not sure of the wisdom on either, really, but the dedicated right-of-way between the Northwest Transit Center and the Galleria, bypassing West Loop traffic cannot be denied.

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Our light-rail is great, but could have been so much better.  Because it is at-grade, it is slow, and getting to Northline Mall is more of a chore than it needs to be.  If it is possible to have the trains travel faster in spots devoid of streetlights, I really wish the agency could make this happen, though frequency of service really cannot be beat save with ridiculous three-minute headways, which may or may not be safe to implement ever.

In the end, it was not Mayor Brown, greedy developers along Main Street and Harrisburg, the Illuminati, or any cabal or secret society which dictated we put down the light-rail we have.  It was We, the People, who did not speak out en-masse for elevated rail.  It was We, the People, who stood by and did not question en-masse the wisdom of gumming our Main Street for all eternity with at-grade light rail.

It was We, the People, who in 1991 killed monorail, not Bob Lanier with his METRO Board majority.  It was We, the People, who allowed Frank Wilson to become the METRO CEO and President he became under Bill White's mayorship.  And it has been We, the People, who have rightly allowed the 'New METRO' to do its level-best to right the ship.

We voted for Mayor Bob.  We voted for Mayor Brown.  We voted for Mayor White.  This is not North Korea or Soviet Russia.  No-one put a gun to our head and said, "Vote for Mayor Bob!!"  And thank heaven, we voted for Annise Parker as Mayor who will go down as perhaps the best Houston Mayor mass-transit has ever seen.  What sort of individual will we put into the Mayor's office come 2016?

Granted, some people whom we elect to whatever may choose to wear different clothes once in office than they did on the campaign trail, but we keep them in office, anyway, right?  In the end, everything right or wrong with Houston mass-transit is our fault, including light-rail.

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