Light Rail Plan Rolls on in Car-Dependent Houston

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(Photo: Jack Williams, KUHF)

(Jack Williams, KUHF—Houston) Houston’s fledgling light rail system is growing up a little bit. Workers are ready to lay new track along a brand new, six-mile extension that will be the first branch off the original line built a few years ago from downtown to Houston’s medical complex.

The existing Red Line is popular, but only services a seven-mile stretch. The new Southeast Line, along with several other routes currently under construction,  will be the first new line in a system that hasn’t grown at all over the past eight years.

This moment “marks another milestone in the expansion of Houston’s light rail system,” said David Couch, Metro’s senior vice president for capital programs. He spoke standing just a few feet away from welder’s sparks as workers pieced together 80-foot lengths of rail. “This is something that changes it from a character that had principally appeared as a road project or a utility project into something that actually turns it into a rail system.”

(Photo: Jack Williams)

The Southeast extension will link an underserved area of the city to the main downtown line, snaking across the major freeway and past several universities. Although  it won’t be a solution for a majority of commuters who live in Houston’s suburbs, it will build on Metro’s efforts to connect key areas of the city to the original line.

“What we see right now is just the first expansion part and somewhere down in the future, you’re going to see expansions that kind of feed off of this,” said Jose Enriquez, Metro’s Program Manager for the Southeast Line. “You’re going to have commuter rail and all these other things that you hear about and that will tie-in to some of the systems that we’re putting in today,” he said.

Metro hopes to have at least two other extensions up and running by early 2014. For a city that has found it hard to put away the car keys and embrace public transit, the ambitious light rail extensions are a big deal. The only other light rail system in Texas is in Dallas, where DART has flourished over the past decade. “This will then give us a true light rail system that will operate in two directions and be able to bring individuals into the inner city,” says Couch, who is overseeing the construction of the extensions.

Houston is still a long way from true commuter rail from the suburbs, But the transit authority would like to have nearly 40 miles of light rail service complete within three years.

You can hear the sounds of track being welded in the radio version of this story at KUHF.