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Three groups fight to build commuter rail

METRO, GCFRD, Galveston feud

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UPDATE (10/19/09 3:30 PM): Harris County Judge Ed Emmett writes in the Houston Chronicle why he thinks the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District should be in charge of implementing commuter rail. METRO President and CEO Frank Wilson also provided some of his thoughts in an interview with Houston Tomorrow in August. Christof Spieler of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition writes that all of the agencies can contribute something, but that ultimately it comes down to politics. “The city and the county getting together could be the key to making this happen,” he says. “The city and the county butting heads could kill all of it.” And the Houston Chronicle editorializes that the local agencies must all work together to make commuter rail happen.

METRO, the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District, and the City of Galveston are all competing to build commuter rail in the Houston region, according to the Houston Chronicle.

METRO currently serves more than 1,200 square miles in the Houston region, although most of that is located within Harris County. METRO Chairman David Wolff told the Chronicle that METRO could either expand its service area or create inter-local agreements with cities that want commuter rail service. Wolff said that METRO has experience with transit and passenger rail, and he pointed out that since METRO is a taxing body, it has a steady revenue stream.

In an interview with Houston Tomorrow in August, METRO President & CEO Frank Wilson said:

We’re an operator, we expect to operate [commuter rail] in an integrated fashion. The best transit systems in the nation, in the world are multimodal, fully-integrated transit systems: bus, rail, heavy rail, light rail, commuter rail, HOV bus. One entity that delivers the entire family of services in the public transportation world makes eminently good sense.

Fragmentation, Balkanization as practiced in the Bay Area, is death. It’s death for the customer, it’s death for the transit agencies, it’s destructive competition, it’s a waste of resources, you have duplication of assets, you have duplication of services.
We don’t really care who builds the commuter rail lines. We do care how they’re operated, and we don’t want to see this Balkanization, destructive competition. So coordination’s not the word. You’ll hear coordination. A multimodal, fully-integrated transit system is really what this region needs.

However, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is backing the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District (GCFRD) - a two-year old partnership between the City of Houston, Harris County, and Fort Bend County to alleviate freight rail congestion. GCFRD is expected to add Galveston and Waller counties soon, and in August its chairman, Mark Ellis, appeared before the Houston City Council Transportation, Infrastructure & Aviation Committee seeking to change its name to “Gulf Coast Rail District” and requesting additional commuter rail powers. The committee lacked a quorum at the time, so it could not vote on the matter. Ellis, a former City Council member, told the committee that GCFRD was negotiating with METRO, saying, “This does not work without the assistance and help of METRO, and we understand that.”

Judge Emmett argues that GCFRD should lead because it will soon include the entire commuter rail service area. METRO, he said, is Houston-centric and should be grateful for the money it has to build its light rail expansion. The entity has no funding, but it is expected to receive $2 million in stimulus funding to study commuter rail lines from Houston to Galveston and Hempstead. It also has a close relationship with Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks that would likely be used for commuter rail. Emmett also suggested that it could seek funding from the Texas Department of Transportation or taxing authority from the state legislature. However, Wolff said, “We [METRO] are the ones in the business of carrying passengers and running trains. I would think the freight rail district would want to concentrate on running freight rail.”

The City of Galveston is leading a third effort to build commuter rail, and it has received $900,000 to study a line between Galveston and Houston. The proposal is supported by Galveston County leaders and Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. Galveston is pursuing more funding from the Federal Transit Administration, while the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District is pursuing money from the Federal Railroad Administration.

The Chronicle notes:

Political insiders say it’s urgent that all the jurisdictions come together — and soon — or risk jeopardizing Houston’s position in the national competition for federal dollars. Even with local political consensus and federal funding, most estimates are that it would take at least five years to get a system running.

“It’s probably past time to get all the boys and girls in the room and get on the same page,” said Galveston County Judge James Yarbrough. “So when we interface with the federal partners and elected officials, we don’t send them conflicted messages and they don’t have to get involved in local squabbles.”

Christof Spieler of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition addressed this issue two months ago:

Commuter rail in Houston faces three questions: which agency will implement it, who will pay for it, and how will it connect to the core?
Ulitimately, the answers to the first and second questions will shape the answer to the third. The ideal would be a continuous line from Galveston to Hempstead (and beyond to College Station and Austin). That would enable more regional trips (from Cyfair to NASA, for example) and get riders close to Downtown and Uptown. But it requires more money and more coordination between multiple agencies. Disconnected is (relatively) cheap and (relatively) easy. Connected is more expensive and harder. Stay tuned…

(Photo credit: sahmeditor)

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