Since 2004, anyone living or visiting the areas near Main Street, the Medical Center, the Museum District or Reliant Park has probably gotten to experience METRO Rail, for better or worse. Some ride it daily. Some get in accidents with it. Some just gawk. But, one of the busiest stretches of commuter rail in the country has stood alone as Houston's only truly modern form of public transportation.
Our snail's-pace movement on public transportation seemed to take another hit in November when a poorly worded and confusing ballot initiative passed, all but squelching any further light-rail development in Houston between now and 2025. When it comes to public options for getting around, our city falls remarkably flat.
But, while many complained, one thing went basically unnoticed. METRO has three new rail lines that are progressing rapidly and could open as soon as 2014. In case you hadn't checked the calendar, that's less than two years away.
I'm fascinated by the light rail, probably because I grew up here and it carries a certain novelty value for me. Plus, I love trains and, unlike a kid who grew up in the Northeast and probably rode the subway to school and the train to the shore, I spent my formative years in a car. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it seems far less romantic.
So, I decided to take to the streets with my camera hanging from my open truck window and document the rail lines currently under construction.
First, a few notes about the rail that is coming and the rail that is planned, if stalled.
The North Line, which will attach to the current Red Line downtown at UH Downtown, travels north along North Main and over to Fulton. It passes Moody Park, goes through Lindale Park and ends at Northline Mall. It will tack 5.3 miles onto the already 7.5-mile line that currently runs from the north side of downtown all the way to Reliant Park.
The East End and Southeast and Southeast Lines actually begin the the theater district on the west side of downtown. They will be the first lines to cross the Red Line as they travel along Rusk and Capitol from the Hobby Center. In downtown the two lines are actually merged into a single set of tracks as they pass through the east end of downtown and past the George R. Brown Convention Center. At the station planned for the north side of BBVA Compass Stadium, they split.
From the Dynamo Stadium, the East End Line travels east along Harrisburg past the Maximus Coffee complex (mmm...coffee smell), through Eastwood and all the way to the planned Magnolia Park Transit Center just north of the Gus Wortham Golf Course -- ironic that it is bookended by Worthams, a theater and a golf course.
The East End Line should provide service to a massively underserved part of town as well as increase traffic to up and coming East End neighborhoods like Eastwood and Idlewood. The shortest line in the system at only 3.3. miles, it will still deliver a lot of people to and from Houston's rapidly growing East End.
The Southeast Line, on the other hand, travels perhaps the most interesting stretch along any of the current rail paths. The first mile or two of the 6.6 mile rail goes through an interesting mash up of warehouses and new home construction on the near east side. Abandoned warehouses site side by side with hip new developments and industrial businesses.
The rail meanders through a forest of buildings and homes parallel to a relatively new hike and bike trail as well. Once it clears that area, it merges with Scott Street, passes under I-45 and makes its way to the end of the line alongside the University of Houston athletic facilities, just east of the soon-to-be-demolished Robertson Stadium, ultimately connecting UH and Texas Southern University with downtown, the Medical Center and the Museum District.
One thing that is clear driving alongside all these various construction areas, much of the work is done and it will not be long before someone living on the near north side of town could hop the rail to a Dynamo, Astros, Rockets, Texans or UH game, stopping downtown for dinner before (or after as the case may be) and maybe grabbing a drink.
It will be a startling change for a city that has gone from one of the most car-centric in the country to literally dozens of miles of paved hike and bike trails and now light rail.
Unfortunately, the two additional lines that have been proposed and perhaps the most useful yet, are in doubt thanks to the November referendum. The University Line would criss cross both the Southeast and Red Lines as it made its way west through the Montrose, past the Menil, through Greenway Plaza and, ultimately, out to Bellaire.
The Uptown Line would then travel north from Bellaire connecting the entire Galleria area to the system and winding up in Memorial Park.
It's remarkable to consider the downtown, Northline, UH, the Medical Center, the East End, the Museum District, Montrose, Greenway Plaza, the Galleria, Uptown and Memorial Park could all eventually be connected with public rail transit. For someone who has lived here for his entire life, I can tell you it would be something to see.
For now, we'll have to be happy with what we got and, considering where we've been, it's a lot.