Train In Vain?

Main street's light rail is on it's way, and boosters hope to see passengers lining up for a ride

If you're a city or a metropolitan transit authority, there's something decidedly unglamorous about a bus.

Hell, Toledo probably has a bus system. Peoria too. Are they world-class cities?


Exuding class, light rail eases its way down a vaguely European street.
Courtesy of Metro
Exuding class, light rail eases its way down a vaguely European street.

These days, if you want to be considered an American city on the go -- if you want to be able to use the phrase "new millennium" as often as possible, if you want to have a chance at attracting the Olympics, for crying out loud, an event which would automatically elevate you to the "International City" status that Atlanta has apparently attained -- you've got to build a light-rail system.

You've got to have sleek rail cars gliding silently down metropolitan streets, just like the subways in them big cities, but without all the mess and noise (and crowds, probably). You've got to have stations surrounded by Starbucks shops; you've got to have families happily jumping on clean, well-lit conveyances for a Sunday-afternoon jaunt to the zoo.

If you're Houston, looking with intense jealousy northward to Dallas and its DART trains, you really, really have to have these things.

The trouble is, getting them would require convincing a majority of voters to issue hundreds of millions of dollars of bonds to finance the dream. Houstonians have been at best ambivalent about rail in the past, and the recent rejection of the basketball arena referendum perhaps shows that the new baseball and football stadia have taxed their patience to the limit when it comes to grandiose construction projects.

Still, it's rail, man. "Houston is the only major city in the country without rail," Metro chief Shirley DeLibero says, with an air of utter disbelief.

It doesn't matter that economists across the country say light rail is a boondoggle and a fraud, a craze that has resulted in a series of white elephants in image-conscious cities. Ridership may meet or exceed projections in some cases -- and there's nothing so fluid as the projections used in these kinds of studies -- but, critics say, the light-rail systems are money pits that cost many times more to move their customers than other types of mass transit. Money spent on light rail is money that should have been spent on much more efficient projects, they say.

Transit officials "can't say rail is more efficient, so the only justification they have left for building one of these things is the boosterism -- you get arguments like 'You can't be a 'world-class city' without one," says light-rail critic John Kain, a longtime Harvard University professor who is now director of the Center for the Study of Science and Society at the University of Texas-Dallas.

Last November voters in Kansas City, Missouri; Columbus, Ohio; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Aspen, Colorado, all rejected proposals to build light-rail systems in their cities. Only in Denver -- which linked its rail vote to one funding massive highway improvements -- was a light-rail system approved.

So getting Houston voters to approve a bond referendum for a massive light-rail system would seem an iffy proposition at best.

The solution: launch a public relations campaign. One that uses a "starter" light-rail line whose novelty will blow away residents who will then be asked to vote on whether they want one of these shiny new toys in their neighborhood.

Sure, such a rail line would, despite Metro's assertions, do little if anything to ease congestion or air pollution. And hey, so what if it would be the equivalent of a PR campaign costing three hundred million forking dollars?

Light rail is worth it. It's the price you have to pay to be a world-class city.

Metro can build its 7.5-mile rail line without voter approval because it has been collecting taxes for 20 years with an eye to rail without ever quite being able to get a project off the ground. The world of state-federal transit funding is a complicated one, but when all is said and done, the feds will pay about half the $300 million cost, Metro officials say, so the agency will be able to pay its part without having to sell bonds that require voter approval.

The line will run on Main Street from the Astrodome to downtown, with stations at the Texas Medical Center and Hermann Park, along with perhaps 14 others. Construction should start late next year, with a scheduled opening in 2004.

The Main Street corridor is not exactly on any driver's list of Houston's Places to Avoid, like the Southwest or Katy freeways. Even during rush hour, it doesn't take very long to travel between the Dome and downtown.

Metro touts the Park-n-Ride lot that will anchor the southern end of the line, either at the Astrodome or, if sharing the Dome proves unfeasible, at a lot of its own just south of the 610 Loop.

But it's hard to imagine many commuters taking advantage of the Metro Park-n-Ride feature. Those heading downtown on the Gulf Freeway would be forced to exit to 610 -- where it's often backed up -- and then travel seven or so miles to the Dome. That would be a longer trip from that point than simply continuing downtown. Likewise, commuters from the burgeoning Fort Bend County area would be nuts to exit the Southwest Freeway at the Loop and travel all the way to the Dome to wait for a train instead of just slogging the relatively short remainder of the way on 59.

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