Houston rail transit… in an alternate universe

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Our latest update of the CTC map takes us into an alternate universe where Houston transit history unfolded differently.

In 1983, METRO (which had been formed 8 years earlier) proposed a $2.1 billion, 18.5 mile heavy rail system, using the same technology as BART, Washington METRO, and Atlanta’s MARTA. That plan was rejected by voters. But in this alternate universe, the plan passed.

That first line ran along Westpark from the West Belt to Kirby, then along the Southwest Freeway to spur 527, elevated through Midtown, in a tunnel under Main Street through Downtown, and then north alongside a railroad line as far as Crosstimbers. It opened in two stages in 1987 and 1988.

The original expansion plan called for the second line to connect Downtown to Hobby Airport via UH. However, that plan ran into numerous difficulties: the expense of a second Downtown tunnel, the inconvenience of a UH station located in the rail line alongside Spur 5, and a public perception that it was going to the wrong airport. Instead, the METRO board decided to build a technically simple 21.5 mile expansion: extend the Crosstimbers line north as far as Beltway 8, where it would split into two branches, one to Greenspoint and a park-and-ride on I-45, and one to Intercontinental and a park-and-ride on US 59. This line opened in 1995. By this time, the high cost of heavy rail, the lack of suitable corridors for building elevated track, and heavy competition for federal funding was making further expansion difficult.

Looking for less expensive ways to expand its system, METRO submitted a “turnkey demonstration” commuter rail project to the FTA in 1993, running from Missouri City along US90A, then Terminal Subdivision past Bellaire and Uptown, then along Washington to Downtown, north from Downtown, and then out US 249 as far as Tomball. This line offered two easy connections to the heavy rail line, at Newcastle and Quitman, and those connections added enough ridership to make the line worthwhile. It opened in 1996. METRO had also acquired the Hempstead Highway line along 290 and the MKT line along the Katy Freeway in 1992, adding commuter rail service along those two lines (to Katy and Cypress) in 1998 and finally to Galveston in 2004. In 2003, with Tom Delay obtaining federal funds, Fort Bend County entered in a agreement with METRO to extend the Missouri City line as far as Rosenburg, and those trains began operating in 2008.

In 1983, METRO’s HOV system was still modest. Three HOV lanes — Gulf Freeway, Katy Freeway, and North Freeway — were under construction. These opened by 1987, but they would be the last barrier-separated HOVs in Houston, and most of the bus service they carried was replaced by commuter rail, which had more political appeal. From here on , all FTA funding for Houston would got to rail, and TxDOT would build more conventional “inside lane” HOVs only.

Freeway expansion projects would offer one more opportunity for transit expansion. in 1991, TxDOT started the design process for widening the West Loop. The original plans, created together with METRO, called for a branch off the heavy rail system running past Uptown and through Memorial Park as far as Northwest Mall. That plan, though, ran into heavy public opposition and TxDOT was forced to scale it down. The final result included only a modest 1.5 mile rail line, with two stations, both in the freeway median, at Westheimer and San Felipe. That completed the current heavy rail system.

What’s next for Houston transit in our alternate universe? The commuter system seems close to complete, though METRO is in talks with Brazoria County to open another line through Pearland to Alvin, and there’s increasing talk of freight rail improvements to increase capacity and run more frequent commuter rail service. There are no cost-effective expansion possibilities for heavy rail. But there are major transit needs. The Texas Medical Center is still unconnected to the system, as is the Museum District, the University of Houston, and TSU. Uptown doesn’t have a good link to the I-10 and 290 commuter rail lines (though there’s occasional talk of an Uptown streetcar to fix that.) The increasing density in historic neighborhoods inside the Loop, which were bypassed by the heavy rail system, is leading to calls for more transit there. And the Downtown commuter rail station, under I-45 behind the main post office, is not connected to the heavy rail system, leaving riders from Galveston or Cypress to transfer to shuttle buses. METRO planners have come to the conclusion that the next phase of expansion must be light rail or BRT. Houston has no experience with light rail, but it can look to lines that have been operating in Dallas since 1996 and Austin since 2005. The likely routes here: a line from the Downtown commuter rail station along Franklin, Main, and Fannin to the Texas Medical Center and on to Reliant Park, and a line along Elgin to UH and then on to Hobby Airport, finally fulfilling, 30 years late, the plans made in 1983.

Luckily, the CTC forums were created in our alternate universe in 2006, so you can comment there.

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