Sunday, February 8, 2015

System Reimagining... Is it going to ever happen?

I began this article last month or so and realize that while it is now a bit dated, it is still before the 11 February hopeful-approval of System Reimagining by METRO's Board of Directors.  Ergo, what is below is still relevant and timely.  Enjoy!|

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System Reimagining...  Is it ever going to happen?

Yes, but METRO had better get a move-on.

I've been somewhat frank recently on Facebook about my misgivings concerning if the public will ever see System Reimagining implemented or whether it will remain forever quagmired in the throes of FLEX discussion.

In September 2014, an epic Board Meeting (video available here) resulted in an approval-in-priniciple of System Reimagining, METRO's attempt at revamping utterly our local bus network and integrating same with light rail and a Park & Ride system which, unlike the local bus network, has been continually iterated upon since its inception in the 1970s and allowed to evolve with our region.

This meeting was supposed to have featured an approval-in-full of the coming network plan, but an ambush by citizens and elected officials from low-population areas slated for a new FLEX service designed to de-rail the process at the last minute at that meeting succeeded in watering things down to where System Reimagining was approved...without really being approved, a move which, I'm sure frustrated METRO staffers hoping for a full-blown green light to start making schedules and what-not for what will hopefully be a 7 June 2015 implementation date.

It does not help that the only meeting of the Strategic Planning Committee since September's Board Meeting has been a fifteen-minute affair this month.  Something is going on, and that something is FLEX: poring over details, field-testing, consulting with said public officials and citizens over how the call centers, etc. could work.

However, I have been assured today [back in January of this year] by a METRO Board member after the meeting all-things pertaining to System Reimagining are going smoothly.  Speaking with this Board member made me feel better: he told me the Planning Department is very hard at work: schedules are being worked out, and yes, buses have been field-testing routes.  The gritty grind of getting this network going is real and is happening!

I guess until FLEX is finalized, and with it, the network, as much as can be, METRO has to be coy.  Hence, no Strategic Planning meetings of any substance for the time being.

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I have recently been in the throes of culling my paper files and reorganizing everything.  To that end, the first part of this project was straightening my garage and organizing the vast collection of empty boxes, etc. I've kept for such an occasion.  This cleaning-up was absolutely necessary to my cleaning up and organizing my storage unit, which has allowed me to consolidate archives, cull as needed, and give me the peace of mind good organization gives.

Some years ago, I temped at a loan servicing company, and one of my first tasks was to help clean up the file room and completely reorganize the thing.  At the outset, the secretary overseeing our efforts walks into the room in question and says, "This room is a clusterf--k.".  She was not criticizing us, but she did speak the truth.

Cleaning my garage and organzing my storage unit provided for me a logistical base on which to iterate on my new organization.  Cleaning out and fixing that file room allowed the office to go from there and do its work far-better than ever before.

System Reimagining is the cleaning of our file room.  It is the reworking of our garage.  I have spoken ad-nauseum about this before, but I cannot emphasize that enough.

It will give us a clean slate on which to make future network changes and improvements.  The grid of the Frequent Network and the adding (or removing) rungs from the grid quickly and easily will allow us to conceivably have a local bus network that could last indefinitely.

The throes of FLEX vex this METRO Board.  It has vexed this Board so much that it gave in September only tacit approval in principle, but not in fact, to a system our local bus ridership desperately needs.

Enter the next Mayor of Houston.  God only knows what this next Mayor will do.  By way of the City of Houston's absolute Board majority, this new Mayor could torpedo System Reimagining outright.  But if the network has by January 2016 been implemented, it will be far-more-difficult politically and logistically for s/he to do that.

METRO must cut this next Mayor (and God only knows who that will be) off at the pass.  METRO must approve System Reimagining in-full while it still can.

All this being said, there is a temptation to opt for a vast compromise that would see a lot of the 'red' in the proposed Frequent Network sacrificed to assuage certain Board concerns about FLEX and span-of-service (a valid issue with the Reimagining as it turns out).

Why not, then, go with fixed-route service instead of FLEX?  Happily, METRO has already thought these things through and come up with possible schemes for fixed-route service while keeping within our constrained bus budget.  This would eliminate the vociferous objections of Northeast Houston and Acres Homes, and by itself allow the Board through METRO's Planning Department to easily fix the issues of span-of-service and push the entirety of System Reimagining to full approval.

This would eliminate the next few months of FLEX field testing, data collection, reporting-to-the-Board, and all that mess, while allowing the Planning Department to push foward full-force with the mind-numbing details of schedules and how routes and connections will fit together as well as allow the agency to focus fullly on span-of-service.

The problem with this is how much would fixed-route service in lieu of FLEX compromise the viability of the 'frequency' of the proposed Frequent Network?  The entire motivation behind FLEX is not only the best service possible for affected populations, but also money.  METRO's bus budget is limited, and Reimagining remains within current budgetary constraints, as it should, setting a wonderful precedent for how to optimize present resources without the knee-jerk spend-spend-more that plagues government everywhere when perhaps it would be best to use what one has already.

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