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TX: Buses do Heavy Work in Likely Long-Range Houston Transit Plan

Sept. 13--Transit officials inched closer Wednesday to asking voters next year for up to $3 billion for two-way express bus service along many Houston freeways, along with a few more miles of light rail.

The first stop for a new transit vision, however, is additional communication with community groups before a more refined plan is approved by Metropolitan Transit Authority, which ultimately will need voter approval to build any of it.

"The target date is still November 2019," Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said of a voter referendum.

During a Wednesday workshop discussing the regional transportation plan, dubbed MetroNEXT, Metro staff detailed a number of proposed projects, developed after months of public meetings during the past 18 months.

The consensus preferences from the meetings, Metro vice president of systems and capital planning Clint Harbert said, is "really taking what we do well and making these trips faster and more reliable."

As a result, many of the projects rely on roads and freeways, rather than rail. Metro has spent most of the last two decades mired in light rail debates and construction.

Instead, the early draft of the plan -- which still will undergo months of community input before it is approved next year -- includes only 12 miles of light rail, extending the Red Line north to Tidwell and south to Hobby Airport and the Purple Line to Hobby Airport.

Meanwhile, more than 34 miles of bus rapid transit -- using large buses along mostly lanes solely for bus use -- would spread westward from downtown. One of the key lines follows much of the path of the proposed University Line, a long-dormant light rail project that has been one of Metro's most contentious.

The major bus rapid transit corridor would connect Kashmere to downtown, then head west to Greenway Plaza and Westchase. It would have a key connection to the bus transit planned along Post Oak, now under construction.

What the project would not do, Patman stressed, is take a major transit line through Afton Oaks, where some of the most ardent opposition to the light rail emanated.

"I really think that is not something that is going to happen," Patman said of any major transit through Afton Oaks.

Where the big buses are almost certain to go, if approved by voters, is Gulfton, one of the most diverse and transit-dependent communities in the Houston region, and along the Interstate 10 corridor between a transit center near U.S. 290 and the central business district.

"That creates a one-seat ride from uptown into downtown," Harbert said.

An I-10 corridor route also makes crucial connections to the planned terminus of a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas and the Uptown rapid transit, set to open next year.

What's still awaiting certainty is exactly what is included in current spending plans. Officials for years have said two-way service, similar to the Katy Managed Lanes, is critical to improving transit access back and forth from suburban communities, as well as delivering toll or carpool amenities to drivers in both directions.

The plan now dedicates $100 million to work with partners, such as the Texas Department of Transportation, to help develop two-way carpool and bus service. The specifics of what that would accomplish, however, remain a work in progress.

"We, of course, want to go back to people to get their thoughts, before we make it any more specific," Patman said.

What is inevitable, however, is more transit projects in the not-too-distant future, officials said. The Houston region is expected to swell to 9.6 million people by around 2040, from 6.7 million today. If four-fifths of the population continue to drive alone, freeways and streets will be impassable and downtown alone would need 65,000 more parking spots.

"That is about 55 city blocks that would need to be dedicated to parking that are not today," Harbert said.

Showing something that benefits those who do not use transit, such as the carpool lanes, could be critical to luring voter support, officials said. Already, county officials have reacted with alarm to a lack of investment in northern and northwest Harris County, according to Metro vice-chairman Jim Robinson.

"If we don't get their votes, we can't pass a bond issue," said Robinson, who is appointed to the transit board by county officials.

Park and ride service to Tomball, for example, has been sought by some in the northwest part of the county, Robinson said. A transit center or park and ride service along Interstate 45 near the Montgomery County line also would be beneficial, he said.

Transit officials concede getting voter support means learning from past missteps. That includes being as specific as possible about exactly where projects will go. In 2003, the bond referendum passed by voters included descriptions of a "Westpark Corridor" for light rail that Metro decided would flow primarily along Richmond, then shift to Westpark Road.

"Some people, right or wrong, thought that was misleading," said Metro board member Cindy Siegel, noting that led to staunch opposition.

Siegel said officials need to avoid that strategy, or make clear their intentions.

"If we are talking about a corridor... I think we have got to have that everywhere, bold faced," Siegel said.


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