City, Metro need to throw rail a line
Houston’s reputation is on the rise.
The fourth largest city in the U.S has had the fastest growing economy since the recession, adding more than 160,000 jobs. The Port of Houston carries the second most cargo by tonnage in the U.S. (12th internationally) according to the American Association of Port Authorities. The city is considered the energy capital of the world, and Texas Medical Center is the largest medical complex in the world. July 26, Forbes.com named Houston as the nation’s coolest city, citing the city’s job growth, cultural diversity and median age — 33.
With all the city has going for it, there are still festering problems that are only getting worse. One area holding Houston back is traffic; a study from the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M ranks Houston fourth for most congested roads, partly because of the sustained economy. A report from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program ranks Houston 72nd out of the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S. for public transportation.
There are ways to alleviate the pressure on our roadways: build bigger roads, construct more efficient public transportation and have people live closer to their jobs.
The city has nearly exhausted the first option through freeway expansion such as the $2 billion expansion of the U.S. 290 corridor and the recently finished $2.8 billion, 18-lane expansion of the Katy Freeway. Having people live closer to their jobs is difficult in Houston, considering the urban sprawl that stretches throughout almost all of Harris County and bleeds into surrounding counties, such as Fort Bend County. Mass transit has been explored, but not nearly to its full potential.
The economic toll is enormous. The Houston Business Journal concluded that in 2011, traffic congestion cost the city 145.83 million wasted hours, 65.85 million excess gallons of fuel, $646 million in truck congestion costs, and $3.12 billion in total economic losses. UH alone is all too familiar with traffic problems. Every day, students scramble to find parking spots in order to reach their classes on time. From about 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday there is a swarm of cars heading for the surrounding freeways.
This isn’t to say public transportation is entirely lacking — Metro has a vast bus fleet. Only a small percentage of daily commuters use these amenities, though — roughly 5 percent according to U.S Census — and not always to satisfaction.
“I take the rail to a bus stop about half a mile away and then get on a bus that travels through the medical center and the Third Ward to campus,” said biomedical junior Gabe Darby. “A 15-minute trip turns into an hour trip, costing me about the same in gas either way. It seems like the routes that go around Houston locally are worse.”
The city has a well-documented pro-driving tradition. Over the past few decades, major light rail proposals and other such accommodations have been proposed to serve the metropolitan area, such as the revival of the old Houston-Galveston commuter line, but most ultimately get shot down through obscured politics and budget worries.
Houston needs a sprawling transit network that reaches from downtown to the edges of Harris County and farther. Park and rides are not cutting it. There needs to be fast and cheap transportation though the major cities of Texas. Driving is not economically sufficient anymore.
Though such ambitious rail expansion would take years, if not decades, the benefits would be invaluable: fewer cars on the road, shorter travels times, less space being consumed by freeways and fewer accidents. At the University there would be less traffic and perhaps more available parking. The life of UH commuter students would drastically improve. More time, less stress and less gas would mean a lot to the average UH commuter student.
Michael Retherford is a mechanical engineering junior and may be reached at [email protected]