Driving Change

Think Houston Roads Are Bad Now? Unless We Face Reality, They Could Get Way Worse.

Houston is finally getting serious about public transit. Or it better be.

By Dianna Wray August 26, 2019 Published in the September 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Amy Kinkead

By 2040 the greater Houston area’s population is expected to increase to more than 10 million residents. That’s a whole lot of people, with a whole lot of places to get to. “Houston has always been a very car-centric city, and it’s difficult to change that legacy of development in any urban city,” says Priya Zachariah, the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s manager of regional and long-range planning. “But we are seeing astounding rates of sheer growth, and you can only put so many cars on the road.” Which is why, with the proposed MetroNext plan, the region is finally getting serious about public transit. Or it better be. Come November it will be up to voters to approve a bond to pay for the plan’s first phase.

So what is MetroNext?

It’s a 20-year plan to propel the region into the future via timely, fast-moving city and commuter buses and expanded light rail throughout Metro’s 1,200-square-mile service area, which includes 15 cities, along with unincorporated portions of Harris County. Two years in the making, informed by input from the public at more than 100 meetings, MetroNext consists of around 40 projects intended to reduce commute times to and from the suburbs, and speed up services in already-transit-heavy areas.

How will it work?

“The plan we are putting together is focused on the essentials of all transit planning,” says Zachariah, “looking at where people live, where people work, and how to connect the two with public transportation.” That means eight new park-and-ride lots; 110 miles of new or improved two-way HOV lanes; the transformation of 14 core bus routes into BOOST (Bus Operations Optimized System Treatments) corridors, traversed by a greater number of buses that will be given priority via sequenced traffic lights; and 20 miles of new light rail, including a route to Hobby Airport. That’s right! You might finally be able to get to Hobby without guilting someone into driving you there.

How much will all this cost?

All told, about $7.5 billion. If passed, the bond proposal on November’s ballot, which is based on future revenue—Metro is funded by a 1 percent cut of the region’s 8.25 percent sales tax—would raise the $3.5 billion required for the first phases of the plan. Metro officials expect the rest of the money to come from the federal government.

So they’re going to raise taxes?

Nope. “People always assume that,” Zachariah says, “but we’ve planned everything very carefully, and this will be financed with loans based on future revenue. The agency and the board have been very prudent about this.”

When will we see actual results from the project?

The big-ticket items will take a while, so don’t expect to hop the Red Line to Hobby anytime soon. But some of the smaller efforts, such as plans to improve sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike paths so that pedestrians, the wheelchair-bound, and bikers can safely reach their destinations, may be underway before the election. “There are projects that are huge in scale, but there are also ones that we’re already talking with communities about right now,” says Zachariah, “things communities have expressed desire for that don’t require massive federal reviews or large amounts of money, so we’re looking at some of those.”

The plan’s going to be approved, right?

Remember, Houstonians have a complicated history with public transportation. While we’ve been grappling with waves of crippling congestion every decade or so since the 1950s, efforts to amp up mass transit generally have failed. Instead we’ve opted to expand the city’s highways and build more roads, which is fine and good but simply cannot solve this problem. So if you want MetroNext to pass, make sure to head to the polls. Otherwise, don’t complain when you’re sitting in the seventh circle of traffic hell on I-45 a decade down the road.

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