Downtown crossing

In my last post, I mentioned that METRO has settled on a Downtown alignment for the East End and Southeast Lines. Here’s what I learned from a recent meeting with METRO staff.

This is one of the most important segments of the whole system. It will be a major transfer location between those two lines and the Main Street Line, serving, for exmaple, riders headed from the East End to the Medical Center. It will also be a major transfer area for local buses. And it will serve parts of Downtown that are currently a fairly long walk from rail.

But this is also one of the trickiest parts of the system. Downtown has a complicated traffic flow pattern, frequent loading docks and garage entrances, and unhappy memories of METRO street and rail construction 5 years ago.

And thus this alignment is a compromise in many ways. I doubt anyone is really happy with it. But it seems to be something that the relevant interests — downtown businesses and landowners, the METRO operations department, Houston Public Works, and, last but not least, riders — can live with.

The first major compromise is the alignment itself. The most important destination downtown is jobs. The purple on the map above is major office towers. They’re centered around Lamar and Travis, near the Main Street Square station. That would be the ideal place for the new line. But the streets thereabouts all dead end at the convention center, so there’s no way to get the tracks there. The chosen alignment on Capitol and Rusk is further north, but it’s still fairly close to a lot of jobs, and it does serve the Theatre District and the Discovery Green / convention center / ballpark area well (see the orange and green above.)

Even the fact that the line will be on two streets is a compromise. It increases the cost, and it confuses riders slightly, since the station they use coming is a block away from the station they use going. But putting both lines one one street — making that street two-way and reducing capacity — would have unbalanced traffic capacity. So the trains will run on Capitol and Rusk as they do on Fannin and San Jacinto in the Museum District, on one side of the street in the direction of traffic.

One good thing about this alignment is that it works well for westward expansion. The tracks will join over Buffalo Bayou, at I-45 between the Hobby Center and Bayou Place. For now, this is where trains will change direction. But these tracks will point directly towards the city courts and Houston Avenue, where the future Inner Katy Line (also authorized by voters in 2003) could head towards Washington Avenue and/or the Heights on its way to the Northwest Transit Center.

Another compromise: the Main Street line is relatively fast and very reliable because the trains have their own lanes and have traffic signal priority. That won’t be true for this line. Like buses do now, the trains will share the curb lanes with cars, both turns and through traffic. [update, prompted by a question from Highway6 in the forums: the track will be on the south side of each street, that is, in the left lane of Capitol and the right lane of Rusk] And the signals will be operated as they are on Capitol and Rusk today: trains will find the lights are sometimes green and sometimes red, and they will stop or go accordingly. There is no doubt that this will slow trains down and throw off schedules: for example, a line of stopped cars in the left lane on one block would force the train to hold in the previous block until the cars moved. It might also be a safety issue, but that’s not as clear. In theory, the trains would act like buses, obeying traffic laws and mixing with cars. That avoids accidents that occur because motorists don’t expect a train that moves differently than they do, and it does not require unusual turn restrictions. But motorists not used to the area — like suburbanites going a ballgame or festival — could get unnerved and drive unexpectedly.

The biggest safety issue on this alignment could be that odd squiggle at the right. It’s how the tracks transition northwards to get around the future soccer stadium. It involves a lot of places where the trains crosses a street mid-block or goes diagonally through an intersection. That’s the kind of geometry that has made the Wheeler/Main/Fannin/San Jacinto/Blodgett area a mess. But this compromise is not inevitable. It could be fixed if the city and METRO work together to come up with a better street layout that not only deals with the trains but deal with the awkward traffic flow that would result from the stadium.

Finally, the transfer between light rail lines in the center of Downtown is a compromise. In earlier plans, this had been a disaster, involving three different stations (Main Street Square, Main Street, and Preston) and walks of up to 5 blocks. That’s largely fixed now by adding a station on the Main Street Line. This means there are 4 platforms — north- and southbound Main Street and east- and westbound East End/ Southeast — that can share one station name, making the system easy to understand. But the east-west platforms are a block away from Main Street, so some transfers will still involve a three block walk, with 3 pedestrian lights, from the center of one platform to the center of another. This is caused by two things. The first is that platforms will be at the sidewalk, so they can’t be in a block that has garage entrances or loading docks. The second is that there will be curved tracks connecting the two lines. These are required because some of the trains that run on the Main Street Line will be stored at a new rail operations center on Harrisburg. Those curves can’t share a block with a rail station that serves the same track. One solution might be to build another rail operations center at Northline, eliminating the need for this connection. But METRO doesn’t want to purchase additional land for that purpose.

METRO plans to use the same connection that’s required to put trains in service to send all East End Line trains northwards to the Intermodal Center on the same tracks that the Main Street line runs on (left). Their computer models indicate that this will result in more ridership, perhaps because of easier transfer to buses on the North Side or perhaps because of better access to the county courts complex. But this routing reduces the new line’s value as a Downtown circulator. If both the East End and Southeast Lines ran across the full width of Downtown on the same tracks (right), there would be a train every three minutes connecting the convention center, the ballpark, and Discovery Green with the Main Street Line, the Downtown office core and the Theater District. That would be useful for riders coming off the Main Street line headed to a game or a show; it would also be useful for people traveling from one part of Downtown to another. With the East End line swinging northwards, there’s only a train every six minutes, and there’s the added risk for visitors of getting on the wrong train and ending up at the wrong place.

In other words, this alignment leave a lot of room to be unhappy. But it does do some things pretty well, and it’s far superior to the previous alternatives with their awkward and confusing transfer, or other previously considered options like having both lines bypass Downtown to the north. There is another option that was considered: a subway via Main Street Square. That would be better on all counts but one: the price tag. There’s no way METRO could afford it and no way the feds could fund it.

So what we have now may the best we can do, but it deserves scrutiny. Since this exact alignment wasn’t included in the previous Draft or Final Environment Impact Statements, it will be included in an upcoming Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, with a public hearing to follow. In other words, there’s still time to have a say, and you can start in our forums.

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