Train In Vain?

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?


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.

Metro all but admits that the Park-n-Ride feature won't be heavily used -- it's planning on a lot of only 1,200 parking spaces, about half the size of the larger lots that hook up commuters to buses in HOV lanes.

"I don't think a lot of people will do it, but if you're paying $10 a day to park versus free parking at the Park-n-Ride, it may very well encourage someone to go out of their way and park for free," says John Sedlak, Metro's vice president of planning and development. "Generally, in other cities, end-of-the-line locations tend to be quite popular and not have enough [parking] capacity."

Because attracting long-distance commuters to the starter line is going to be a tough sell, Metro is emphasizing the attractions along the route, such as Hermann Park and the zoo, the Medical Center, the new football stadium and Enron Field.

But Enron Field is seven blocks from Main Street. Seven long, hot blocks in a Houston summer. And once-a-week trips to the zoo or a football game, while convenient for riders, aren't exactly the daily revenue-generators needed for rail to make economic sense.

It's the daily back-and-forth that will be needed, and there are serious questions as to whether the Main Street corridor can provide enough additional passenger traffic to justify its cost.

The corridor is packed daily with buses, of course; those riders will be forced to take the train. Just how many of the passengers who use light rail are people who would have been taking the bus anyway is a matter of some dispute.

Metro projects that 60 percent or so of the rail system's passengers will be former bus users; critics say the percentage will be much higher and that Metro will struggle to attract significant numbers of passengers away from their cars.

Metro chief DeLibero is characteristically confident that the rail line will create thousands of new customers.

"I've built many light-rail systems," says DeLibero, who worked for Dallas's DART and headed New Jersey's transit system, "and this is probably the best starter corridor I've seen. It's got the Texas Medical Center and the museums and the Astrodome and Enron Field. When people say no one's going to ride it, I just don't believe it." The rail line will also take passengers to three colleges: Rice University, the University of Houston-Downtown and Houston Community College.

"There's no way you can forecast accurately the number of riders who won't ride the bus but will ride rail," she says. "But I remember when I was in Dallas, I told people, 'You are going to see BMWs and Jaguars in the parking lots [next to DART stations],' and they laughed. Now I go back and I see Rolls-Royces, and I never thought I'd see that."

Rail advocates say that people will use a rail system but not a bus system for a variety of reasons: The line is fixed, so they know for sure where it's going; rail can seem safer than buses; and, as DeLibero calls it, "the class thing." White-collar workers who "think buses are for the underprivileged" don't have the same hang-up about light rail, she says.

Rail critics say that improving buses, at a far lower cost than rail, would attract new riders. White-collar types get on the semi-luxurious buses that take the HOV lanes to The Woodlands, they note.

Even if the light-rail system could attract upscale types who eschew buses, some critics question whether there are enough of them in the Main Street corridor to justify the cost.

"The corridor from the Medical Center to downtown has low population densities," says Barton Smith, a University of Houston professor who has long served as a forecasting guru to the Houston business community. "Even with massive amounts of urban renewal along the corridor, the effective 'market' will need to be at least two miles wide" to support rail sufficiently, he says, and that would require buses to take people to the stops.  

Creating such urban renewal is one of the benefits of rail, Metro says.

"We have found the rail alternative has the ability to provide new economic development that buses can't," says Sedlak. "Three different studies ... show that there will be anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion worth of new development that will be built near the rail stations."

The half-billion-dollar spread embodied in "anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion" should probably serve as a large warning sign about how accurately rail-triggered new development can be predicted. The studies Sedlak cites, by the way, were done by a consultant hired by Metro, by the city planning department and by the pro-rail Main Street Coalition.

Metro's press packet and rail-promoting materials emphasize the transformation that will take place on currently down-at-the-heels Main Street. The street could become "the Champs-Elysees of Houston," according to one op-ed piece included in the packet.

Rail critics such as Marlin Bournet of the University of California-Irvine argue that almost all of the "new development" attributed to rail would have happened elsewhere in the relevant city. Metro argues that the permanence of rail -- unlike bus lines, which can be moved on a whim -- offers developers the confidence they need in order to build.

Smith notes, though, that any such development won't happen quickly. "These changes would come slowly, so that almost certainly ridership will be very low for the first decade of use," he says.

If much of the rail debate seems to have a well-rehearsed "he said, she said" quality, it's because the discussion takes place with regularity in various cities across the country.

It's a debate that can often bewilder an outsider. The two sides not only speak past each other, they sometimes seem to be in two entirely different universes.

Critics range from the grassroots, antigovernment tax-haters to economics professors who look only at how much it costs to move the greatest number of people, theoretically. Supporters are generally engineers (who like to build such things as rail systems), government officials and chamber-of-commerce types looking to boost their city's image.

Critics grumble that light-rail systems are so wildly expensive that the subsidies required to fund them are enough to instead buy each passenger a new car. Advocates say the so-called subsidies are irrelevant.

"People always forget that highways are subsidized," says DeLibero. "No one ever does cost-pricing on a highway Š at least people with light-rail pay a fare and decrease some part of the cost."

Light rail, like a bus system, "is not a moneymaker and is never intended to be," she says. "Mass transit has never been geared to be a moneymaker; it's geared to move people and relieve congestion."

Critics roll their eyes at such talk. They agree mass transit doesn't have to be profitable; they disagree that spending millions on light rail is a better use of transit money than improving bus service.

"The question should be, how do you spend money: on an inefficient technology like rail, or improving buses by increasing the schedules, expanding the coverage area and improving service? The answer is absolutely that improving buses is the better way to go," says UT-D professor Kain.

DeLibero, it's not surprising, disagrees. "If it wasn't effective and it didn't help congestion, then why would all these cities be building light rail?" she asks.

The two sides not only argue over projections and forecasts, they cannot even agree on whether light-rail systems that are already in place are successful.

In Dallas, the DART system opened three years ago despite many of the same criticisms leveled at the Houston plan, especially that a city with such a low density of population couldn't support rail. But now 40,000 people ride the trains each day, about 15 percent over projections. Suburbs who were wary are now clamoring to get extensions out to their cities.

"All the naysayers said it wouldn't be worth it and no one would ride, but they were wrong," DeLibero says.

But again, critics and supporters seem not to be talking apples and oranges so much as apples and dogs. Rail advocates who proudly cite the operations in cities such as Dallas are missing the point entirely, Kain says.

"Dallas can report increases, and even significant increases in light-rail ridership, but that's not the question," he says. "The question really is transit ridership overall and the service that riders get in all aspects of the system and whether the money going to light rail has detracted from that. That's almost impossible to answer without taking a large amount of time and having a lot of information transit agencies are not necessarily forthcoming with, but I'm confident you can say that with the money spent on rail, you could have done a lot better for riders if you spent it on something else."  

Kain notes that DART's opening coincided with a massive, years-long construction project on the city's main commuter highway, the North Central Expressway. That project, which rendered the chronically jammed roadway even more useless than usual, was completed -- an event marked with marching bands parading down the highway -- only just recently. How that will affect DART's ridership, of course, remains to be seen.

There are arguments beyond the economic ones: claims that light rail reduces air pollution and traffic congestion.

As for air pollution, even Metro officials admit the starter line won't make that much of a difference. Most of the riders who will be using the rail line will be former bus passengers, not people giving up their cars. Many others will have to take their cars to the rail stations, and much of the pollution caused by a car comes in the first few minutes of use (rail doesn't really reduce the number of automobile "cold starts" in a region, in the terminology of critics).

Metro argues that more than 1,200 "bus trips" a day will be removed from the corridor, but its officials don't claim that light rail will significantly reduce pollution. "Neither will building more lanes on a highway," says DeLibero.

As to whether this line will reduce congestion, that's more of an open question. The most crowded freeways will not be affected at all. And while the Main Street corridor under the plan will be largely -- although not completely -- free of buses, the rail line will take up two of the street's six lanes. The trains will have the right-of-way through traffic lights, so drivers trying to cross or go up and down Main may find the trip taking longer.

Critics and supporters can argue endlessly, but one thing that seems all but certain is that Houston will, at long last, have a light-rail system. Some formalities remain, and details such as the design of the cars and stations remain to be worked out, but with no vote necessary, the agency is supremely confident of its groundbreaking schedule.

(Metro officials had once said they would conduct a referendum even though no bonds were going to be issued, but the county attorney said such an election would be illegal.)

With the opening of the starter line, the real battle will begin. A key benefit of the Main Street line is that it will tie in with ease to future long-distance commuting lines, built on current HOV lanes on the Katy and North freeways. If those extensions don't get built, Houston will have a small people mover that might just wither on the vine.

Building the starter line is a gamble, but it's one that DeLibero believes will succeed. "What will happen is that people will see that it works," she says. "I will be very shocked if it doesn't expand....Even if people don't do anything but use it to go to the zoo and the Dome and the park, everyone will try it for the novelty. And once people ride it and see it, it's going to have a great effect. They'll be asking, 'When are you going to come out our way with an extension?'"

The push has already begun. Metro is airing advertisements that feature computer-animated views of a light-rail train bringing joy and happiness to Houston.

"It will serve millions of people in its seven-and-a-half-mile stretch between Downtown and the Dome," the ad's narrator says. "It'll take fans downtown to a ballgame and carry families on a field trip to museums and the zoo. It'll even move doctors, patients and employees through the Medical Center, keeping Houston alive and well and moving swiftly into the next millennium.

"But most importantly, it will ease congestion on our roadways and lead to healthier, cleaner air for ourselves and our children. Plus, Metro light rail will create up to $1 billion in economic development and will be built with no additional taxes."

Impressive, if true. And such claims are only likely to get more shrill once the space-age train is up and running, and Metro is coming to the voters to ask for more.

For more than 20 years Houston has been arguing about rail. As far as DeLibero is concerned, the battle is over. The city will be so impressed with the no-new-taxes starter line that it'll be a snap to get voters to sign on to the potentially billion-dollar network long dreamed of by rail advocates.

"People have to see these things," she says. "That was part of the excitement of coming to Houston -- the downtown, and people moving back into the inner cities. It's an exciting time. I came because I knew it was Houston's time for rail."  

It most definitely is Houston's time for rail. Whether that results in anything more than a glitzy, gimmicky, money-sucking boondoggle or a first step toward a vibrant, unified and successful rail system is far less certain.

E-mail Rich Connelly at

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