Houston agency readies ballot measure on transit expansion

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A light rail train passes through downtown Houston. The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County will present a $3.5 billion plan for expansion of its light rail system to voters in November.
Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County

HOUSTON — The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas, is making a $3.5 billion bet that voters will approve new borrowing to help fund a major expansion of transit in the Houston region.

Sixteen new miles of light rail, along with new bus rapid transit and more park-and-ride centers, comprise the $7.5 billion “MetroNEXT” plan. Additional local and federal dollars would complete funding beyond the amount provided by the bond measure, which will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Tom Lambert, president and CEO of the transit authority, told Trains News Wire that beginning in early 2016, the agency conducted more than 30 open houses and had some 1,200 meetings with community, civic, and political leaders and groups to develop the plan. “We engaged in a very open public engagement process,” he says.

If passed, the plan would dedicate $2.1 billion to four extensions of Houston’s METRORail, including a direct ride to Hobby Airport on the Green and Purple lines, which will be connected. They will also be extended west of downtown to the Municipal Courthouse. The 13-mile long Red Line, which carries 48,000 riders a day, will be lengthened north to a new multimodal transit center at North Shepherd.

Future thinking includes a southwestward extension of the Red Line to Sugar Land, but that is outside Metro’s service area. Some budget is earmarked for project development from the bond measure, but construction would require regional funding partners.

The proposition has the support of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who is up for re-election in November.

A recent survey conducted by FM3 Research, paid for by the Moving to the Future political action committee, found that 70% of likely voters in the Houston Metro district support the bond measure.

Additional support comes from the Greater Houston Partnership, a regional business organization. “When taken in its entirety, the METRONext plan will help keep our region moving,” said Walt Mischer, a local real estate developer, in a blog post. “We appreciate the importance they have placed on maintaining fiscally responsible practices while enhancing mobility.” 

A METROrail light rail train heads southwest after leaving the Central Main station in downtown Houston. Voters will be asked to approve a plan to expand the Metro system in November.
Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County

But some details of Metro’s plans are still in development, and that has led to some grumbling in political circles. A newly-formed political action committee said it plans to raise $250,000 to oppose the ballot measure, and former Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia, who was replaced by the current Houston mayor, criticized the plan in the Houston Chronicle for a “lack of transparency.”

Noting that Metro staff is prohibited from advocating on behalf of the ballot measure, Lambert responded, “We had a lot of engagement with the community and I think we got a consensus of what we're doing today, fully recognizing that once we move forward we're going to commit to very detailed analysis, which we're required to do through the federal process.”

Also opposing the proposition is the Harris County Republican Party, which claims that Metro ridership peaked in 2001 and carried more riders in total before the first light rail line was opened.

According to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database, in 2001 Metro recorded 88.2 million passenger trips versus 88.1 million in 2017, but total passenger miles grew 10.6% from 512 million miles in 2001 to 566 million miles in 2017.

Since 2013, Houston’s light rail ridership has grown 62%, now delivering 18.4 million annual rides.

But neither ridership nor miles tell the full story. According to Metro, the Red Line has spurred more than $8 billion in new development since it opened in 2004. Development is occurring along the Purple and Green lines as well.

While not actively involved in transit-oriented development projects as some other agencies are, Lambert says, “We see it as a great opportunity.”

A report by Link Houston, a nonprofit that advocates for transportation, found that transit riders in Houston include “all ages, genders, racial/ethnic backgrounds, languages, employment levels and income levels.” The study notes that riders benefit from affordable transportation for trips of all purposes.

The base fare for Metro’s light rail and local bus is a comparatively low $1.25, with half-price fares for students, seniors and the disabled. Veterans with disabilities and those over 70 ride free. “We've tried to encourage more ridership,” Lambert says.

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