Rail for Houston's Future

OPINION by Mark Lacy

Houston is an expansive city with ever-increasing traffic problems. Rail has been considered a possible solution for more than a decade. City leaders, business interests and the public have failed to reach an agreement.

The Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority has spent millions of dollars on studies determining the most traveled thoroughfares in Houston and, from these studies, proposed putting rail on commuter routes such as Richmond Avenue and Interstate 10.

People living in the outer suburbs seem intent on driving to their jobs and appointments, having their cars with them as they go from place to place. However crowded and dangerous Houston's freeways get, drivers rarely venture on the city's buses. They are often crowded and cross-town routes can be inconvenient. Because many routes originate in downtown, streets are excessively crowded during rush hours.

Though commuter traffic is a large problem, city officials should turn their attention to reducing bus traffic in the center of town, while establishing a system to make city events more accessible and key districts of the city more easily visited for increased business and tourism.

A rail loop that is expandable in the future can accomplish this, and more.

A well-engineered route could carry thousands of Houstonians and visitors between high traffic destinations such as downtown, the Texas Medical Center and the West Loop. Traffic on this line would be steady throughout the day and could reduce the need for some commuters to bring their cars to downtown. A well-planned rail loop could promote tourism by accessing many of the city's cultural events and festivals, sports arenas and art venues, and commercial districts.

For example, leaving from the Theatre District, rail could make a stop on the east side of downtown near the new Baseball Stadium and George R. Brown Convention Center and head south to the Medical Center, additionally connecting the Museum District, Hermann Park and Rice University. Continuing west, the line could serve the Astrodome and Astroworld, turn north to include Compaq Center, Greenway Plaza and the Galleria.

The rail line along 610 heading north toward Memorial Park could pick up many bus connections from Westpark, Richmond, Westheimer, San Felipe and Memorial. Some of these buses could then be free to travel additional routes feeding more passengers to the rail line.

The rail would then travel from the West Loop on a scenic course along Memorial, back to the Theatre and Entertainment District.

Spurs could be added, for example, leaving from a connection on the east side of downtown near the Convention Center, travelling to the Eastwood Transit Center, which serves University of Houston and Texas Southern University. During the school year, these universities account for a substantial amount of traffic on Houston streets and freeways. The spur could continue travelling along Interstate 45 to Hobby Airport and return to downtown, improving tourist and business travel. The spur could later be expanded to reach NASA and Clear Lake, and could possibly help revitalize Galveston's train from the mainland, further promoting convention and vacation tourism to Houston.

As Houston grows and many people move closer to downtown, the best way to reduce the problems and stress of excessive traffic is to create a system that makes inner city travel more convenient and allows people alternatives to taking their cars to meetings, restaurants and Houston's many points of interest.

The additional benefits of attracting more people to a public transportation system that is prepared for high ridership are decreased auto emissions and increased satisfaction with the city. Houston's working population would have more opportunity; Universities would have greater accessibility; Entertainment centers could better handle high volume visitation; And, improved public transportation would make Houston an appealing center for large-scale international events.

While many of the benefits of a rail system joining Houston's inner city districts appear to stress convenience and mobility, connecting the many points of interest is the best way to insure the viability of the rail and the prosperity of Houston as a great international and cultural center.

Lacy is a long-term Houstonian who has made extensive use of rail systems in Washington D.C., Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, California. He once walked 41.5 miles across Houston.