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Leaders in transit: pandemic won’t derail long-term vision

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The Wheeler Transit Center in Midtown sits at the heart of the intersection of several modes of transportation. A planned university bus rapid transit route would connect riders in the Bellaire, Uptown and Montrose areas. (Shawn Arrajj / Community Impact Journal)

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Houston’s public transportation leaders have continued to work to advance a long-term vision for the city, which they say is more important than ever.

Ridership and revenues are down for the Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority, but the real story that emerged from the pandemic was that of the importance of the agency’s services to the people who depend on them, said METRO CEO Tom Lambert.

“We carried around 140,000 runners a day,” Lambert said. “It really just demonstrates the essential service that public transit provides to the entire community. This is something that I think we have always known, but which has now been clearly demonstrated.

METRO ridership reports show that monthly local bus ridership decreased by 40% between June 2019 and June 2021, a loss of approximately 1.9 million passengers. Tram ridership is proportionally even lower over this same period, for which ridership reports note a drop of 47%.

Meanwhile, goodwill revenue was more than halved between fiscal 2019 and 2021, from $ 61.5 million to $ 23.4 million. However, most of METRO’s revenue comes from sales taxes, which is over 75% in the agency’s 2021-2022 fiscal year budget. The agency’s revenue from federal grants also increased between 2019 and 2020.

The pandemic began shortly after voters approved a referendum on $ 3.5 billion bonds for METRO in November 2019 to support METRONext, the agency’s 20-year vision plan. The link was designed around a long-term plan to run more than 500 miles of improvements through 2040, including several new routes that will complement connections in the Bellaire, Meyerland and West University areas.

Even with the drop in ridership brought on by the pandemic, local transportation experts have said that achieving these plans remains critical to the future of Houston’s transportation system.

“Now is not the time to question whether we are moving forward or not,” said Andrea French, executive director of the Transportation Advocacy Group Houston. “Now is the time to act quickly and make sure we stay connected for our economy and for our quality of life.”

The METRONext plan offers various methods of improving the transit system in Houston, including light rail extensions, local bus line additions, the development of new park-and-ride infrastructure, and scale-up improvements. system to align every METRO facility with Americans with Disability Act.

About $ 3.5 billion will be funded by the 2019 bond referendum, Lambert said. Another $ 500 million will come from METRO’s budget, and the agency is seeking about $ 3 billion in matching funding from the federal government.

Some of the first large-scale projects to move forward involve connecting existing transit hubs with light rail hubs through the use of rapid transit lines, a type of dedicated bus service that officials maintain. of the bus service described it as “streetcar on rubber tires”.

The first of several planned fast lines began before the 2019 bond referendum and ended in August 2020. Known as the Silver Line, the service connects the Lower Uptown Transit Center near the town of Bellaire, at the Northwest Transit Center via the Galleria. Region.

A planned University Corridor rapid transit line will cross the Silver Line along a trail that will also connect to several transit hubs; Relay parks; local bus lines; and the red, green and purple metro lines of METRO.

Riders in communities such as Gulfton, Sharpstown and Bellaire will have close access to the line, which will have stops in Montrose, near the University of Houston and at the Wheeler Transit Center in Midtown, which is located in the burgeoning Innovation Corridor of Houston, a 4-mile strip that could become a future hub of jobs.

“How this can transform the way people move around the region is going to be mind-boggling,” said Priya Zachariah, METRO’s project manager on the University Corridor Project, in a presentation on July 27.

METRO’s board of directors has identified the university corridor as a project to be stepped up, meaning that much of the planning and design is underway with the goal of preparing the project for the federal grant process, have METRO officials said. An environmental study could start later this year or early next year, and construction could begin around 2025.

Officials from LINK Houston, a transportation equity advocacy group, said projects like the University Corridor can work with local bus service. Ines Sigel, acting executive director of LINK, said this could be particularly beneficial for residents of neighborhoods like Gulfton, which are densely populated and where many people do not own a car.

However, Sigel said the focus cannot be just on commuters who work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“We also need to use public transportation for other trips… to get to grocery stores, health care and even social outings,” she said. “We really need to invest and create a viable public transport system for all of these trips and not just in terms of commuting.”

METRO’s drop in ridership was in part a by-product of the agency asking people to use the system only for essential trips, which officials were doing in public communications until mid-May. 2021.

Even with these restrictions in place, monthly ridership totals never fell below 2 million on local bus lines. According to Tim Lomax, senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, this shows how important public transit is for essential workers, especially those who don’t have a car.

“I think the fast bus lines they have on Westheimer and Bellaire are the ones that will appeal to this market as well,” Lomax said.

Lomax attributed the drop in ridership in part to declining employment in downtown Houston and the resulting lack of commuters. About 40 to 50 percent of people who work in downtown Houston travel there by carpool or bus, he said.

However, even if offices permanently reduce the number of days employees must be on site, many workers will continue to depend on public transport to get around, he said.

“Transit’s role is that they have the ability to provide a faster, more manageable ride,” Lomax said. “There will always be a need for this. “

Because the METRONext plan was designed as a long-term vision, Lambert said the timelines for individual projects were not significantly affected by the pandemic. From the outset, projects were not meant to start until funding was secured, he said.

Other major projects include an extension of the light rail to Hobby Airport and the Katy’s Inner Corridor, an elevated rapid bus route along I-10 to downtown. These projects, along with the university corridor, have high momentum, Lambert said.

“We know the [University] corridor will link to many communities, ”he said. “He has a lot of traffic potential; it has a lot of potential for community support. That is why we are trying to speed up this project.

In addition to providing people with better connections and more reliable service, the METRONext plan can also be seen as part of a larger vision in Houston to create denser “urban villages,” said Lomax, where developments high rise mixed use are supported. by a reinforced transport network.

Bus rapid transit and light rail are particularly useful in facilitating this type of development, as they can attract people who otherwise would not consider public transit as an option, Lomax said. In this context, improving the reliability of public transport is essential, he said.

“If the [bus] stops 20 times before arriving at destination, it’s a burden, ”he said. “If you don’t have a choice, that’s how you get there. But if you are trying to attract people or attract changes in the urban character, you really need something that looks more like a car.

Meanwhile, a $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill, known as the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, is making its way through Congress. Although he still emphasizes road projects, French said the most recent version of the bill also places more intentional emphasis on public transport. If the bill passes, French said it would allow entities like METRO to have more capacity to start planning some of their more ambitious public transport projects.

“It releases a lot of the blockage, for lack of a better word, that you have with projects and planning,” she said. “That’s what the infrastructure bill offers transit agencies: the ability to think beyond what’s right in front of you. “

At the time of going to press, the bill had passed the United States Senate and was being heard in the House of Representatives.

The university corridor is one of the best candidates to pull funds from this bill if it passes, Lambert said, as is a proposed extension of the Houston east end light rail to the airport. Hobby.

“We look forward to what Congress ultimately decides and making sure we’re ready to bring those funds back to what we just discovered is the second fastest growing region in the country,” he said. he declares.


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