Light rail could be an option in the maze of Katy Freeway plans.
Light rail could be an option in the maze of Katy Freeway plans.
Monica Fuentes

The Katy: Railing On

Edd Hendee, owner the Taste of Texas steak house with his wife, Nina, is a veteran of road construction, a survivor of the Sam Houston Tollway tidal wave that crushed many businesses at the Katy Freeway-Beltway 8 interchange more than a decade ago. In the end, the toll road would become a boon to businesses such as his.

But Hendee is not so charitable about long-term plans for the Katy Freeway. He looks at the billion-dollar expansion of the roadway and sees a blueprint to force mass transit down the throats of westside commuters.

"Metro has attempted to take over this design as a way to enlarge their train system and pay for it with tax dollars," Hendee insists. "What is the purpose of Metro? It's mass transportation. They can't enlarge their train system if they don't add local destinations. This way they can force people to take trains to where they want to go."

Light rail, long a flashpoint in Houston transportation debates, has reared again as authorities wrestle with the future for the overclogged Katy Freeway. Former mayor Kathy Whitmire faced the wrath of antirail warriors. More recently, the issue has ignited passionate arguments with Metro's plans for a Main Street line linking downtown with the Astrodome area.

Views on light rail are mixed as local highway officials prepare to take the Katy Freeway's 40 miles of schematic plans to state and federal authorities this month.

Hendee, and critics like him, sees the proposed mass transit component of the project through the freeway's midsection as another illogical step on Houston's way to citywide light rail.

Highway officials propose expanding the freeway with four special lanes in the center of the roadway. Those lanes could eventually be converted to rail use to handle some of the 300,000 daily commuters on that stretch of Interstate 10. A train system is in fact one of the final seven options out of more than 20 alternatives considered by the highway department.

"Let's just say that the middle lanes were planned for transit usage," advises Jim Heacock. He's the project manager of the ten-year road highway project, which is slated to begin construction in 2003. "Whether it's light rail or HOV or whatever mode of transportation, there is space to develop a mass transit system."

The highway department's final choice to handle freeway congestion between downtown and the Brazos River is an extra regular lane in each direction in most places, and the creation of the four special middle lanes for car pools and trucks. Those lanes, blocked off from other Katy traffic by a concrete barrier, are an ominous symbol to Hendee of just how powerful Metro's push for mass transit has become.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out this is some kind of bogus plan that doesn't suit anybody's needs except for Metro or the EPA," Hendee says. He insists the freeway corridor can barely support full-scale bus service, much less a future rail line.

According to the highway department's own figures, says Hendee, more than 86 percent of the traffic between Loop 610 and Beltway 8 is local traffic that gets on and off the ramps between those two points. Beyond that, HOV lanes to date have handled only 4 percent of the traffic flow on the freeway, hardly a serious answer to freeway congestion.

State Representative John Culberson, well into his quest for Congressman Bill Archer's west Houston district, has turned the Katy Freeway project into his top campaign issue. "It's a practical matter," Culberson says simply. "Carpooling and mass transit is largely a practical impossibility for west Houstonians in this huge city."

Heacock bristles a bit that the four proposed lanes, called special use lanes, are described as HOV lanes by critics. HOV lanes are limited-access lanes, typically open only during rush hours. Special use lanes, on the other hand, are dedicated one-direction lanes that would offer use around the clock and more frequent entrances and exits.

"You've got congestion on the freeway in the middle of the day, and people look over and see that there's bare concrete in the middle of the freeway. People see that, and they don't like it," Heacock says. "The truth is that if this system works as it's intended to work, there will be a vast improvement transportation-wise."

That vast improvement hinges on selling the mass transit lanes to both fans and critics alike. To work at peak capacity, each of the four special use lanes must handle almost 1,800 cars per hour. Each lane would carry the traffic of 1.5 main lanes. But if the lanes work only at the capacity of the current HOV system, then "there's hardly going to be any improvement at all," Heacock admits.

Using a corridor such as the Katy Freeway, rather than existing rail lines, as an avenue for light rail is not a radical concept. Eleven of the 20 miles of light rail in Dallas jog alongside, at grade and even underneath Central Expressway. The lingering criticism of "build it and no one will come" was always the most heated during the mass transit debate, says Dallas Area Rapid Transit spokesman Morgan Lyons.

"People would ask, 'Why are you building a system that no one will use? This is Texas, and Texans drive cars. Texans don't ride trains,' " says Lyons. "Yet when you have a service that moves people where they want to go, affordably, reliably, safely and efficiently, people will take to it."

An estimated 40,000 people in Dallas now use rail each day, but the price tag on the mass transit project has not been cheap. The first 20 miles of light rail in Dallas cost $860 million. And planning has begun for a 23-mile northward extension. Projects are underwritten with a mix of federal funds, sales tax revenues and fares. This is not a project that breaks even from tickets, Lyons admits.

"You look at the mobility gains, but you also look at the economic benefits that you don't get, frankly, with HOV and bus lanes. You break even when you look at the economic impact," says Lyons. "To date, DART has seen probably $600 million in private economic investment that is new on land that is on or adjacent to light rail."

One recent study said the value of property near rail was 25 percent higher than similar properties away from the line, Lyons adds.

Those points don't persuade Culberson, who aims his criticism -- and campaign rhetoric -- at the project and "the Clinton-Gore EPA." He says Houston should not use federal rail funds without a vote of the citizens. And he vows to make his first piece of legislation one that would give state officials the ability to declare "emergency status" on a freeway project, to cut through "red tape" such as requirements from the Clean Air Act.

However, no federal requirement is forcing mass transit on the Katy Freeway, say state highway officials. The Clean Air Act labels an entire area in non-attainment. That means local officials could choose single-occupancy lanes for the Katy Freeway and HOV lanes for the West Loop or a Park & Ride for the Southwest Freeway.

Dianna Noble, director of environmental affairs for the Texas Department of Transportation, says the goal is to get projects that balance transportation needs with improvements in air quality. "It's not the Federal Highway Administration or the EPA telling you, 'You can't do this or you can't do that.' You're working within a budget."

Regardless, Hendee sees light rail, or any mass transit project, as foolish because it won't deliver travelers to their destinations.

"I don't care if you put them in a pneumatic tube and blow them down the freeway," he says. "You aren't sending people where they want to go."


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