The pieces are falling in place for piecemeal commuter rail

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There hasn’t been much public movement on commuter rail since the HGAC’s study was released a year ago. But quietly, gears are meshing, and we may have commuter rail to Galveston and Hempstead as early as 2012.

On Thursday, the North Houston Association hosted a high-powered group: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, METRO CEO Frank Wilson, Gulf Coast Freight Rail District (GCFRD) Chairman Mark Ellis, Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation (THSRTC) chairman (and former Harris County Judge) Robert Eckels, and Union Pacific’s Joe Adams. Introducing them was former Harris County Judge and State Senator Jon Lindsey, father of the Harris County Toll Road Authority. If there was ever a visual demonstration of the political will that’s aligning behind commuter rail, this was it.

Commuter rail in Houston faces three questions: which agency will implement it, who will pay for it, and how will it connect to the core?

The first question, it seems, may be close to answered. The GCFRD just advertised for and received qualifications for firms to do $2 million (pdf) in engineering studies, to be completed by June 2010, for 90 mph commuter rail lines sharing freight rail tracks along 290 from Hempstead to just inside 610 and from Galveston to just inside 610. This spring, the Texas Legislature expanded GCFRD’s mission to include intercity passenger rail; despite its name, the district has already been empowered to build commuter rail. Waller and Galveston counties are now joining the GCFRD, making the district the only entity short of TxDOT that covers both of those lines.

But it’s not clear that everyone agrees with that answer. In his remarks, Wilson called METRO “the regional transit agency” and noted that they had the ability to plan, fund, and operate any mode of transit. Both the Hempstead line as far as Cypress, and the Galveston line as far as Clear Lake (the limits of METRO’s service area) are on METRO’s maps; clearly, METRO would like to run these trains. Whether we’ll see a protracted turf war or cooperation depends on the Harris County Judge and the Mayor of Houston. Emmett clearly wants to see cooperation, but he doesn’t know who his counterpart will be come January.

The second question isn’t answered, but there’s some ideas here, too. High speed intercity rail and regional commuter rail can share the same tracks; they can also share the same funding. The Obama administration put $8 billion in the stimulus bill for high speed rail and plans another $1 billion a year. Where there’s a plan in place for a high speed rail system, that funding can go to project that will enable high speed rail but also serves commuter rail. California, for example, is asking for funds for grade separations on the Caltrain commuter rail line that will carry high speed trains into San Francisco. GCFRD’s studies will specifically address long term high speed rail.

Texas has a high speed rail proposal – TSHRTC’s Texas T-Bone – but it has not been studied enough to qualify for federal funding. So TxDOT is asking for $1.7 billion in stimulus money to do an environmental impact study and preliminary engineering. That would require the feds to make an exception from the rules, which allow only a small fraction of the $8 billion to go to studies. That seems unlikely when other states already have studies in place and “shovel-ready” projects. But if Texas gets its act together locally, future high speed rail funds could be part of the answer to capital funding for commuter rail. (We still need local/state matching funds for those federal funds, and commuter rail also needs operations funds, and those can’t come from federal funds.)

There are also at least two ideas for high speed rail. THSRTC wants to build 200 mph+ rail connecting Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. That would result in airplane-competitive trip times, but it would require all new alignments (the Houston alignment and station location are undetermined). Emmett suggested that it would be possible to build 110 mph rail from Houston to Austin largely using existing corridors. That would be much less expensive and still qualify for federal funds, but it would of course result in longer trip times.

The third question is far from resolved. Each of the speakers emphasized the need to connect commuter rail to METRO’s system to get riders to their final destination. But neither of the lines described in the studies actually connects to light rail. One could rely on shuttle buses to connect out-of-the-way commuter rail stations to employment centers, but that’s a recipe for low ridership. Alternately, the Uptown and East End light rail lines could be extended two miles to meet commuter rail; that adds cost and still results in a fairly long ride to Downtown. Ideally, the commuter rail would get close to the major employment centers, but that will take major construction since the freight rail lines inside the loop are congested.

Ulitimately, the answers to the first and second questions will shape the answer to the third. The ideal would be a continuous line from Galveston to Hempstead (and beyond to College Station and Austin). That would enable more regional trips (from Cyfair to NASA, for example) and get riders close to Downtown and Uptown. But it requires more money and more coordination between multiple agencies. Disconnected is (relatively) cheap and (relatively) easy. Connected is more expensive and harder. Stay tuned…

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