As talks progress on the extended METRORail line that will reach Hobby Airport, there remains much debate over just where the line should go. In a recent Houston Chronicle article, District I Councilman Robert Gallegos represented his district over whether the line should travel down Broadway, recently re-done for the 2017 Super Bowl, or 75th, a rather narrow street Gallegos argued would require taking homes and businesses.
In truth, it is a difficult set of decisions as finding a good route that isn't mostly industrial area near Hobby Airport isn't exactly easy.
But one nugget from the story emerged that has ramifications for more than District I.
While saying where the line should not go, Gallegos has been equally insistent it must connect conveniently with the planned Houston Botanic Garden near Interstate 45 and Broadway. Metro officials developed a plan that included a nearby stop, but the actual connection to the garden would be made by a shuttle, while Metro made a priority of connecting to Gulfgate Mall.
Gallegos said the garden should get the closer stop, and if a shuttle is needed, it should serve Gulfgate.
“No one comes to Houston to go to Gulfgate,” Gallegos said, predicting the botanical garden could draw hundreds of thousands of annual visitors, using the 1 million visitors to Dallas’ botanic garden as an example.
The mall, however, is a frequent destination for hundreds of employees and thousands of shoppers and diners on a daily basis. Something other Metro officials said needs to be considered when designing a transit system that serves local residents.
In this case, Gallegos is correct. As much as the light rail lines in Houston serve daily commuters, a stop at a mall — especially in an era when malls are rapidly becoming extinct — seems foolish when compared to what many will view as a destination in the new botanic garden.
If the argument is about workers, who are more likely to get off a rail line and take a short bus ride to a location in Houston, workers or visitors? The latter is almost certainly the case. Never mind the impact of the stop at the botanic garden to anyone coming in from the airport. It's bad enough the trip in from Bush IAH involves traveling through the land of abandoned strip centers to get to downtown. Do we want Hobby arrivals making one of their key pit stops at a mall?
More importantly, this ties in with the plans most Houstonians ardently support: more green space. It's taken more than 100 years to realize the bayous are more than urban ditches filled with water, but rather an opportunity to expand green space and connect the larger community like nothing else. Getting people to beautiful places should be a key element of any transportation plan.
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It's bad enough that the brown line that would have connected downtown to the Galleria and, ultimately, Memorial Park and the Houston Arboretum went up in flames when former Rep. John Culberson but the kibosh on even the possibility of rail in Uptown. It's equally disappointing that METRO has tabled plans, for now, for a line that could run down Washington Avenue, maybe extending as far as Memorial Park by from the other direction than original plans.
Houstonians recognize the need for more, better and better connected mass transit options. They also recognize quality of life is a critical part of life in any city, particularly one that has ignored it for some many decades.
Can you imagine a eventual rail stop at a bunch of abandoned buildings that used to be Gulfgate Mall? No offense to the mall owners or anyone who frequents it, but the chances the mall survives longer than the botanic garden are roughly infinity to one.
We can't speak to the needs of District I and the difficulties of a narrow 75th or tearing up the new esplanade on Broadway. But, we can say with certainty that it makes far more sense for METRO to build a rail line that stops at a scenic city landmark over a shopping center for all of Houston.