Klein: More trains + short blocks — The coming downtown mobility mess

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This is another of our occasional series of guest posts/essays on local topics of interest to us and our readers. Feel free to submit topical posts/essays for our consideration to bloggers-at-bloghouston.net. As with our usual blog posts, the views expressed are those of the author.


by Barry Klein

Metro has not studied how its system will work after the five new rail lines are operational, or the sixth (Washington Avenue) to come later. On June 4, 2009 I submitted a Texas Public Information Act request to Metro in which I asked for documentation to show future rail operations after the East-West segment going through downtown is completed, to wit:

2. The documents showing projected volumes of passenger transfers from buses to rail cars, rail cars to buses, and rail cars to rail cars at each Metro rail station as rail extensions are built and operating including Washington Avenue (Inner Katy)

3. The board minutes showing the decision by the board to drop the Intermodal Terminal from Metro’s plans, and the planning documents showing how bus and rail operations will change with the Intermodal Terminal removed from the plan

4. The documents showing how Metro plans to coordinate rail operations at the intersection of the “north-south” Main Street rail line and the “east-west” rail line that connects to the Harrisburg and Southeast lines.

The response from Metro dated June 17, 2009 stated that “regarding items 2-4, please be advised that no responsive information was located.”

This is worrisome in light of the information I have received from transportation consultant Tom Rubin.

Below are the comments of Mr. Rubin on the drawbacks of adding an East-West (E-W) light rail line in downtown Houston. Mr. Rubin is one of the experts I rely on to help me understand transit issues and transportation in general. He was the expert witness relied on by the Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles when it went to court in the 1990s to stop expansion of of the rail program in that city. Mr. Rubin is associated with the American Dream Coalition, a group critical of new urban rail systems, and is well acquainted with the Houston Metro rail system. He can be found on You Tube and in web searches, including his professional experience. He does not have a website. This quote from an email he sent in 2006 sums up Mr. Rubin’s background…

I have been in the public transit business, including a fair amount of time in other governmental transportation and related matters, for over thirty years and have been the chief financial officer of two of the largest transit agencies in the U.S., including the Southern California Rapid Transit District in Los Angeles (now LA Co. MTA) when we started service on the Long Beach to Los Angeles Blue Line light rail line and Red Line heavy rail line. As a consultant and auditor, I worked on dozens of light rail projects and have made well over a hundred presentations at industry meetings and presented dozens of papers on transit and related topics.

May 8, 2008 email from Tom Rubin discussing rail operations in downtown Houston after completion of the five new lines

Here is one part of the posting [by a Houston transportation blogger discussing the planned East-West line] that I find astonishing:

“Another compromise: the Main Street line is relatively fast and very reliable because the trains have their own lanes and have traffic signal priority. That won’t be true for this line. Like buses do now, the trains will share the curb lanes with cars, both turns and through traffic. [update, prompted by a question from Highway6 in the forums: the track will be on the south side of each street, that is, in the left lane of Capitol and the right lane of Rusk] And the signals will be operated as they are on Capitol and Rusk today: trains will find the lights are sometimes green and sometimes red, and they will stop or go accordingly.”

The first sentence says, “… the Main Street line is relatively fast …” Evidently, the author is simply not very knowledgeable on such topics. The Main Street toy trolley is one of the slowest light rail lines in the U.S. The end-to-end run time, from Metro schedules, is 31 minutes, to go 7.4 miles — that’s 14.3 mph, which is very slow by modern light rail standards. Of course, this “downtown” section of the line is the slowest portion, even slower than the 14.3 mph overall average. (The plan, as posted, would add a station, would, most likely, add another minute to the end-to-end time, slowing it further to 13.9 mph.)

If the E-W lines are going to be slower still through the CBD, well, wow. If what is described in the posting — sharing lanes with “rubber tire” traffic — is actually how this will operate, this will be incredibly slow. What people need to realize is that the reason that light rail operates in dedicated lanes, even when it is running on the street, is because the trains need to have the FULL LENGTH of the lane between blocks. In most cases, if there is as much as one car stopped at a red light, a two-car train cannot enter that block because it would block traffic from crossing the cross street “upstream” from the intersection where that car is stopped. Houston has fairly small city blocks in its downtown, with most being roughly square in shape, so any attempt at street running would pose huge problems in trying to operate light rail trains vs. auto’s and trucks — and pedestrians — in the same space. Frankly, I am very surprised that that any set of transportation professionals — by which, I mean the type of people who should be running both Metro and the City of Houston streets and roads — would even consider such a proposal. I just don’t see how this could work; if it was actually tried, I see it causing just great problems that the end result would be to banish autos from the “light rail” traffic lanes — but, even if this were to be done, we still have various types of crossing/merging movements that would still be problematic.

What we have here is an agency, and agency leadership, that has set their priorities to build as much rail as fast as possible, as opposed to, build the best possible transit system. Even if one accepts that light rail is the best transit corridor methodology for these alignments, this is just plain very poor light rail. It is built to be as cheap as possible, in order to allow as much as possible to be built as fast as possible.

To build a “good” light rail system, you go for more separation particularly in the CBD. To go all the way, you have elevated and subway configurations. Well, in Houston, a subway configuration would often result in the electric bill for the sump pumps being more than that for propulsion power (or a switch to DMU propulsion — with snorkels), as well as being VERY expensive to build, taking a long time, and totally tearing up large portions of the downtown while screwing up surface traffic. The elevated option would also be expensive (although nowhere near as expensive as subway), would also tear up the CBD during construction, and produce an ugly vertical eyesore, as well as taking up a lot of sidewalk space with the supports for this.

If you don’t vertically separate, you are left with two possibilities, dedicated streets — where the only vehicular movement is light rail – and dedicated lanes. We actually do have one example of the former on Main Street, that idiotic block where the train is running through a moat — one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever run into — but the general answer is the latter. The tradeoffs to spending the amount of money are speed, carrying capacity of both the light rail line and the road network, and safety. All of these issues have occurred in Houston.

As I pointed out above, the Main Street Toy Trolley is very slow by light rail standards. It is also limited to two-car consists, rather than the three cars operated by some agencies or even four car trains operated, or planned to be operated, by a few (for a variety of reasons, four-car consists are not common in light rail and would be unlikely to be workable in Houston for a variety of reasons). Moreover, the street-running alignment for the Main Street Toy Trolley means that there is a limit on how close you can run the headways; probably not more than one train every five minutes without beginning to cause even more rubber tire traffic issues than exist now.

What this means is that the current level of service on the Main Street Toy Trolley is about as high as it is ever going to get, slow two-car trains eventually getting down to five minute headways. The problem, however, is that Metro plans on extending the Main Street Toy Trolley line in both directions — with, one might presume, the intention of carrying more passengers than are now carried. But, if there is no way to run longer trains, and there is not much room to run trains more frequently, there is a real limit to the amount of capacity that can be added. Fortunately, the slow speed of the trains will limit demand for light rail trips — well, that is, until Metro forces riders to use light rail by discontinuing the more faster and more convenient bus service.

By dedicating lanes on Main Street and other roads, the Main Street Toy Trolley has had a negative impact on the overall carrying capacity of Main Street, and the various types of restrictions on traffic movements, the various safety “fixes” (such as the 15-second “all reds” prior to the trains going through at certain of the most dangerous intersections) have further reduced the overall passenger/freight capacity of the CBD transportation network.

By “going cheap” — building the downtown section of the N-S lines for street running — the result is a slow, low capacity line that is somehow supposed to be the backbone of the system; simply not a workable idea.

Now, this same design mistake appears to be repeated for the E-W line. Not a good idea.

These people are doing very serious damage to the transportation system in the name of improving it, while wasting a whole lot of the taxpayers’ dollars that could have been used far better — including by leaving the money in the taxpayer pockets.

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