Houston's Biggest Blunders: Mass Transit

Houston is a wonderful place, but we have made more than our share of mistakes over the years. From traffic to tear downs, sprawl to self promotion, we have found ourselves cleaning up the messes of former Houstonians for decades. We hope this series will help illuminate some of the issues and maybe even spur us on to find some solutions.

Imagine yourself on the way to Galveston on a Saturday morning, your car filled with kids, beach towels, umbrellas and swim toys. A lazy day on the beach awaits you, but only if you can get through the gridlock of brake lights staring at you through the windshield. It appears everyone had the same idea.

Now, think about it again, but this time, you're sitting on an electric train whizzing by those suckers stuck in traffic. Had you lived in depression-era Houston, that dream would have been a reality. For more than two decades in the early 1900's a train shuttled people from downtown Houston's Union Station (now the cornerstone of Minute Maid Park) to Galveston Island. It took about 75 minutes to get to the island including stops as the train paralleled Interstate 45 eventually crossing the causeway on a bridge considered at the time a modern architectural marvel.

In 1936, it was shuttered and the right of way it once utilized handed over to utilities for power lines and commercial developers for strip malls. Throughout Houston's history, we have opted for highways over mass transportation and the Galveston-Houston Electric Railway is one of the earliest examples of our obsession with driving ourselves everywhere. And almost 80 years after our mass transit option to the beach went under, we are still making plans.

With new light rail lines opening in April, one might think that we were finally making progress. That might be true if it hadn't taken nearly two decades to get any rail of any kind built. And just getting the 22-mile system in place has been an epic struggle thanks to vociferous anti-rail opponents like Representative John Culberson, who has made it his personal mission to prevent METRO from ever laying tracks on Richmond, which would connect densely packed areas like Montrose, the Galleria and even Memorial Park with downtown, the Medical Center and University of Houston.

Each time we have had a chance to expand our transit in a meaningful way, claiming space from abandoned rail lines, creating new and progressive means of moving people around this massive city without having to put them behind a wheel, we opted to pour more concrete and wider freeways, which of course has led to brutal pollution in the summer and nightmarish traffic year round.

The one exception might be the push for car pooling and METRO's Park and Ride system that has 33,000 weekly boardings bringing workers from the suburbs into downtown and keeping them off the freeways. Even with that large number, more than 41,000 ride the 12-mile light rail track that runs a limited stretch from Northline Mall to NRG Park cutting through downtown and the Medical Center. In the case of rail, if you build it, they will most definitely come, yet there has never been a good plan presented to even get business travelers from the airports into downtown, nevermind a way to get beach goers from Houston to Galveston.

If there were ever a city that desperately needed to lessen traffic and make getting around easier, it's Houston. Seeing the packed crowds in rail cars every morning would seem to indicate many Houstonians agree. With no comprehensive plan in place, it might be another 80 years before we figure it out.

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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke