YEAR IN REVIEW HOUSTON: Light Rail Funding, A New Beltway, and Red Light Cameras

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Guests sign a commemorative document as Houston receives its first-ever federal funds for light rail construction. Photo by Gail Delaughter/KUHF

(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF)  On the plus side for Houston's year in transportation: a light rail project received its first-ever federal funding, an ambitious highway project broke ground, bicycle commuting is up, and the Port of Houston is doing brisk business. The flip side: over 30,000 homes in Houston have no cars and no access to buses, trains, or park and rides, and an expensive legal battle continues to wage over the city's now-defunct red light cameras.

After earlier controversy over violations of the government’s “Buy America” provisions, Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority secured its first-ever federal funding for light rail construction. Metro is getting close to a billion dollars. The money will pay for the northbound extension of the Red Line, currently Houston’s only line in operation, as well as a new line from downtown to the southeast section of the city. Metro CEO George Greanias said the funding agreement shows Metro “is serious about transit and will be a good partner, and is somebody worth investing in.”

The legal squabble continues over Houston’s red light cameras.  Houston residents voted to do away with the cameras, but the company that operates the devices sued for breach of contract.  American Traffic Solutions says it’s owed 25 million dollars, while the city disputes that amount.  Proponents of the devices said the technology saved lives by deterring would-be red light runners, while opponents argued the cameras increased the number of rear-end collisions and were more about making money than about safety.

Houston-area officials gathered in September to break ground for a new segment of State Highway 99, also known as the Grand Parkway.  When completed, the 170-mile roadway will be the third loop around the city and will pass through seven counties.  The project moves forward despite protests from the local chapter of the Sierra Club, which fears the project will harm ecologically-sensitive grasslands.

Business is strong at the Port of Houston.  A recent study shows the port has a $118 billion economic impact in Texas.  There’s also state and local sales tax revenues, pegged at close to $4 billion.  Port officials say tonnage is up, and a lot of that has to do with the amount of steel pipe that’s coming in for increased drilling activity.  The Port of Houston now wants to upgrade facilities to handle larger ships that will come into the Gulf of Mexico after the widening of the Panama Canal.

In a heavily car-dependent city, Houston cycling activists are encouraging people to try pedal power to get around.  Figures from the League of American Bicyclists show a 62 percent increase in the number of bike commuters. The idea of cycling to work isn’t always an easy sell in a city known for its extreme summer heat, but Houston’s Bicyclist-Pedestrian Coordinator is touting the benefits of leaving the car in the garage.

Honda cars and pickup trucks continue to top Houston’s list of most-stolen vehicles.  The Houston Police Department says Hondas are popular with thieves eyeing vehicles for street racing.  Auto theft investigators say the stolen pickups are frequently taken to the Mexican border where they’re used for drug running and immigrant smuggling.

Houston was near the top of a list of cities with large numbers of no car/no transit households. According to a Brookings Institution study, over 30,000 homes in the city lack vehicles and access to buses, trains, or park and rides. The author of the study said increasing numbers of low income families are moving from the city out to the suburbs,  and in cities like Houston these can be quite isolated areas, almost ‘transit deserts.”

Read about our other year in review posts here.