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TX: Metro moving toward $3B bond vote for 20-year transit plan

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is expected to ask voters next fall for more than $3 billion in borrowing authority to implement its next wave of transit projects.

The 20-year plan laid out by Metro officials includes roughly 20 more miles of light rail, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and 110 miles of two-way HOV lanes along area freeways.

The plan, based on studies and public feedback, focuses on beefing up service in core areas where buses and trains already are drawing riders and connecting suburban residents and jobs in those areas.

"We are making sure what we are doing here in the metro service area blends into the region," Metro CEO Tom Lambert said. "How do we make sure we are putting together an environment and place that connects one mode of transportation to other modes of transportation."

The overall price tag for the plan is $7.5 billion, more than half of which would be funded via state and federal transportation monies.

Nearly two years in development, the plan known as MetroNext remains a work in progress. Metro will host another round of public meetings starting in late January. Dates and locations still are being determined.

Metro staff likely will take the public input and rethink the plan as needed, official said.

"This plan will change. There is no doubt about that," said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metro board.

She said she expected transit officials will ask voters for the authority to borrow more than $3 billion, though she called it unlikely that Metro would borrow all of that at once. More likely, she said, is that it would issue debt in increments as projects are ready for funding.

"What we get back from the community governs how much we ask for," she said.

The bond issue would be placed on the November 2019 ballot, along with the Houston mayoral race.

MetroNext envisions a variety of projects, offering transit officials numerous ways to pay for them. Some would use conventional sources such as Federal Transit Administration funds to cover half the costs. Others could rely on working with the Texas Department of Transportation to build freeway projects with direct benefits to Metro, such as adding two-way carpool lanes to major freeways.

Regardless of how it is funded, bus riders last week said improvements are needed to a system that still takes too long to travel anywhere.

"It shouldn't take three buses to get anywhere," said Lloyd Markham, 56, who commutes from Acres Homes to downtown Houston.

Markham said he would favor anything that focuses on faster trips, especially along freeways, that deliver express service for those who live closer to the city's core.

"The way it is now, I need to go away from town to get a bus headed downtown," he said as he waited for a Route 44 bus at Louisiana and Dallas.

Betting on Buses

Unlike previous Metro capital plans that spent roughly $1 billion in local money on the Red Line light rail, its northern extension and the Green and Purple lines, the current plan would spend more on buses -- specifically bus rapid transit -- along key routes where officials believe better service can connect to more places and, in turn, lure more riders. The estimated cost of about 75 miles of bus rapid transit is $3.15 billion.

Officials believe BRT, as it is called, delivers the same benefits as rail, but at less cost with more flexibility, giving Metro the ability to alter service to meet demand. For riders, it would be a rail-like experience and different from buses that operate on set timelines.

"If you can get a service people can bank on and count on, you don't need a schedule," Lambert said.

BRT operates similar to light rail with major station stops along dedicated lanes used only by the buses, though they may share some streets with automobile traffic. The region's first foray into bus rapid transit is under construction along Post Oak in the Uptown area. Service is scheduled to start in early- to mid-2020.

The MetroNext plan calls for at least five bus rapid transit projects:

Interstate 45 -- which is poised for its own massive rebuild by TxDOT -- from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport

Interstate 10 from downtown to the proposed Texas Bullet Train terminal at Loop 610 and U.S. 290

Gessner from Metro's West Little York park and ride to its Missouri City park and ride

Extending Uptown's planned rapid transit to the Gulfton Transit Center

A proposed fifth BRT is a revised version of the University Line light rail that Metro proposed and then shelved because of a lack of progress and intense opposition. The line, which some consider the most-needed major transit line in the region, would tie the University of Houston and Texas Southern University areas to downtown and then the Uptown area.

Since becoming chair of Metro in 2016, Patman has said the downtown-to-Uptown connection is the missing link in major transit investment within Loop 610. However, she has stressed that light rail may not be the best mode.

Though officials have pivoted from trains to buses with much of the plan, nearly $2.5 billion in new rail is being proposed, including the extension of both the Green Line along Harrisburg and the Purple Line in southeast Houston to Hobby Airport. The airport legs alone are estimated to cost close to $1.8 billion even though they are expected to draw fewer riders than any of the bus rapid transit routes.

Wide Support Needed

Patman said the airport rail plans were derived from public feedback, as well as support from local elected officials.

"There is great community support for each of those connections," she said.

Metro will need a lot of political support to pass any borrowing plan, officials said. Previous transit plans have faced intense opposition, especially where rail or projects that remove automobile lanes are concerned.

Critics long have called the rail lines wasteful and not beneficial to actually handling Houston's mobility needs. Completion of the rail lines was delayed two years and many businesses blamed the delay for lagging sales.

The University Line, along with the transit plans in Uptown, has a long line of critics who note the lack of use of current bus routes in the area. Work on light rail also suffered as Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, used his role in the appropriations process to block Metro from using any federal funds for development of trains on Richmond or Post Oak.

Political realities in Houston, however, have changed since the last transit referendum to borrow money in 2003, which led to the latest light rail projects. Culberson lost his congressional seat in November to Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, and starting next month, Harris County will have a majority of Democrats on Commissioners Court for the first time in decades. Traffic, meanwhile, continues to be a pervasive local issue, with some pointing to the lack of transit investment as a reason.

Patman said Metro's outreach has shown people want options.

"I think cities like Houston are expected to have the quickest most convenient transportation they can afford to have," she said.

She pushed back at the notion that critics could interpret that as Houston needs projects to compete with other communities, merely for appearance, especially related to light rail.

"It is not a vanity project," she said of the upcoming rail, noting the Red Line averages more than four times the most popular bus route and has contributed to economic development along its route. "It is a project that enhances Houston in ways that are very tangible and in other ways that are no less real."