Shared from the 1/24/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Give Metro a signal

Public hearings will allow Houstonians to weigh in on the agency’s new master plan.

Speak now or forever hold your peace. That matrimonial directive is just as important when it comes to upcoming public hearings on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s proposed $7.5 billion plan to chart the course of Houston’s bus and light rail system for the next 20 years.

Producing the plan called Metro Moving Forward has been a two-year effort that has already included more than 100 open meetings and comment sessions. Metro Board of Directors Chair Carrin Patman says the plan won’t be finished until the public gets its final say at the hearings that begin this week.

“What we get from the community governs what we ask for,” Pat-man said. That “ask” refers to an expected bond referendum on local funding in November. Pat-man said Metro would likely borrow $3 billion, but in increments instead of all at once. Most of the plan’s remaining funding would come from the Federal Transit Administration, the Texas Department of Transportation and other sources.

The first hearing — at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Fifth Ward Multi-Service Center, 4014 Market Street — will be followed by 16 more hearings at various locations around town. One key topic will be the proper ratio of bus to light-rail service for a city the size of Houston and its suburbs.

Tory Gattis, a senior fellow with the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, contends the proposal to spend $2.45 billion, a third of the plan’s overall budget, on 20 miles of new light rail isn’t cost effective. About $1.8 billion would be spent to extend two rail lines to Hobby Airport. Gattis says with light rail averaging 13 miles an hour, it would be cheaper and faster to install an express lane for rapid bus service.

Gattis’ point should be discussed in detail before the final plan is complete, but his perspective doesn’t mean light rail isn’t a credible alternative where another dedicated bus lane won’t mean much to commuters snarled in car traffic every day.

Unfortunately, adding more trains has faced considerable opposition in neighborhoods whose street traffic would be affected. Those opponents found a powerful ally in former U.S. Rep. John Culberson, who consistently blocked funding for a rail line in the Richmond Avenue-Post Oak Boulevard area. Culberson was defeated last fall by Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who made a campaign promise to work more closely with Metro.

That opens the door wider for Metro’s plan to get bigger and better. It’s not all about light rail. Nearly 70 percent of Metro’s riders are passengers on its 107 local bus routes.

The plan includes at least five bus rapid transit projects, including service between the University of Houston and Texas Southern University; along Interstate 45, from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport; Gessner Road, from the West Little York park-and-ride to Missouri City; from the Uptown shopping area to the Gulfton Transit Center; and Interstate 10, from downtown to a proposed Texas Bullet Train terminal at Loop 610 and U.S. 290.

Metro officials say they want a bus rapid transit system, or BRT, that gives riders an experience similar to light rail at a fraction of the cost. The plan calls for BRT buses to run between major station stops along dedicated lanes on existing roads. The first project — along Post Oak Boulevard from Westpark to I-610 — could begin service by next year.

Outside the Beltway, the plan calls for expanded park-and-ride lots and more commuter buses. Metro board member Jim Robinson said the plan meets many of the needs of currently unserved parts of Harris County “where growth is so rapid.”

That’s important. Just as important is providing a transportation network befitting a major city. Houston’s clogged highways shouldn’t be the reason a company decides to build its new headquarters elsewhere. A lack of accessible light rail line shouldn’t steer political parties to other cities for national conventions. Houston’s mass transit shortcomings shouldn’t keep it from being chosen as a host city for the 2026 World Cup.

It’s important to get Metro’s map for the future right. Every rider, potential rider, critic and advocate of mass transit in Houston and Harris County should choose a public hearing to attend and help put the finishing touches on the plan. The better it is, the better its chances of receiving the support it will need to win a bond election.

Every rider, potential rider, critic and advocate of mass transit in Houston and Harris County should choose a public hearing to attend and help put the finishing touches on the Metro Moving Forward plan.

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