Houston Presses Ahead with Rail Plan

Thu November 06, 2003 - National Edition

HOUSTON (AP) Backers of a successful ballot proposition that authorizes up to $640 million in revenue bonds to begin expanding Houston’s embryonic rail system called upon residents and politicians early yesterday to hop on board.

"Now it’s the time for us to step together into the future," Metropolitan Transit Authority chairman Arthur Schechter said at a victory rally. "It’s time for the community to come together because the people have spoken.’

It was no landslide. With all precincts reporting early Wednesday, 189,443 voters, or 52 percent, favored the transit authority’s proposal to start building 22 miles of rail. There were 176,783 votes, or 48 percent, against.

The new tracks would expand a 7.5-mi. (12 km) line that will connect downtown to Reliant Stadium by January, just in time for the Feb. 1 Super Bowl. The transit authority already has paid $300 million for that route without any new debt.

The new lines are part of a master plan to build 73 mi. (117.5 km) of rail by 2025. Each phase would need voter approval if new debt is required.

The six-week campaign was marked by accusations of campaign irregularities by both sides and more than $6 million in spending, mostly by pro-rail forces. The election came 30 years after Houston’s first rail vote, which failed.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a west side Republican who fought the referendum, pledged to fight for all possible federal matching funds now that voters have given rail the go-ahead.

"My only goal has been to cut traffic congestion and improve travel time," said Culberson, who will continue to press for freeway expansion and new toll roads.

The Houston area will cease being the largest metro area without rail transit when the stadium line begins running. Automobiles and the freeways that carried them fueled Houston’s rapid growth over the second half of the past century, but congestion, long travel times and pollution have forced leaders to rethink the region’s transportation system.

Schechter called the result a mandate, an incorrect characterization according to Chris Begala, spokesman for anti-rail group Texans for True Mobility.

"Metro needs to take a look at it and see that about 50 percent were staunchly against it, then you’ve got the other 50 percent,’ he said. "You might have a large margin of those who are transit-fatigued who said, ’We’ll take any plan. Let’s try to do something.’"

Begala added that Houstonians treated to pictures of the sleek new light rail cars might be rudely surprised in January when they realize the trains run relatively slowly and are at the mercy of traffic signals just like cars and buses.

Citizens for Public Transportation, a group formed to push the long-range plan, argued that over time the trains will prove a wise alternative to building more roads to serve a metropolitan area of more than 4.3 million.

"To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, we have taken one small step for Houston and one giant leap for Houstonians," said prominent retail developer Ed Wulfe, a major supporter of the pro-rail faction.

The transit authority estimates construction costs for the 2025 plan will be $11.9 billion, with almost $6 billion for rail, $4.3 billion for bus service, and $1.6 billion for roads, said Shirley DeLibero, the transit authority’s chief executive. Operating costs will be $14.8 billion, with $12.4 billion for bus service, $2.1 billion for rail and $370 million for road maintenance, she said.

Lightweight passenger rail cars operate on fixed rails in right of way that is not separated from other traffic for much of the way. Light rail vehicles, sometimes called tramways or trolleys, are driven electrically with power being drawn from an overhead electric line.

Currently, 19 U.S. cities operate light rail systems. Another 13 cities are in some stage of developing light rail.