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Transportation Nation

Plans Move Ahead For Houston's New Commuter Rail Line

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Houston Metro (photo by .imelda via flickr)

(Houston, TX -- KUHF) As work on Houston's new light rail lines reaches the halfway point, Metro is now looking at plans for the area's first commuter rail line that would bring people into the city from the suburbs.

Right now Metro is gathering public input on the proposed US 90A/Southwest Rail Corridor. It would be a nine-mile line that would bring commuters from Missouri City to the Fannin South Station. Riders could then hook up with the Red Line that runs through downtown and the Medical Center.

Metro's Jerome Gray says they're estimating about 24,000 people a day would use the new line to travel into the city from the southwest. "That corridor, that area, census projections show that we're going to see quite a population boom, about 25 percent until 2035."

Gray says they're looking at two proposed track alignments that would run along Highway 90 and they're now studying how the rail line would affect the local environment. They also have to figure out how to pay for the project, which is expected to cost about $500 million.

"While we're still going through the process of considering and figuring out where the money would come from," Gray says, "we also have to go ahead with this FTA (Federal Transit Administration) process, this environmental impact study, and the various things that we must do before requesting any type of federal assistance."

Construction on the line is still several years away and could start close to 2020.

For more about this project -- and to listen to the radio version of this story -- visit KUHF here.

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Transportation Nation

Light Rail Plan Rolls on in Car-Dependent Houston

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

(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.

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Transportation Nation

Houston Contemplating Natural Gas-Powered Buses

Thursday, March 31, 2011

(Houston--Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Over the last 10-15 years or so, transit agencies across the country have been switching to natural gas technology to fuel their bus fleets. Many cite the rising price of oil as an incentive for the shift. In Los Angeles, nearly 100 percent of the bus fleet runs on natural gas-powered vehicles. Transit officials there estimate that ditching diesel-fueled buses has slashed nearly 300,000 pounds of CO2 emissions per day. Other major cities, such as Chicago, are also considering adding CNG buses to their systems. Now, Houston's jumping on the bandwagon. . . well, maybe.

Houston's Metro has just launched a study into the viability of natural gas-fueled buses. Right now, Metro operates around 1250 buses, more than a quarter of  which are diesel-electric hybrids. The question is whether it would make sense to diversify the fleet with other kinds of alternative technologies. “One thing that’s happened is, all these technologies have come closer together in terms of their environmental impact," said Metro president and CEO George Greanias at today's board meeting. "They all work better in terms of keeping the environment as pristine as possible.”

The study will help determine what the overall cost will be for operating and maintaining a bus that runs on compressed natural gas (CNG). Greanias notes that cost factors, such as the price of CNG, are some of the big questions the study will address. "Can we control the cost factor better with a CNG vehicle?" he wonders. "But on the other side of the coin, there’s also significant infrastructure up front that you have to use with CNG technology.”

Metro tested natural gas buses a decade ago, but found it was too costly for the agency. Back then, the fleet had four CNG buses. They were converted into diesel-electric hybrids in 2002. But the technology has advanced a lot since then, which why METRO is taking another look.

Greanias says, in addition to cost, Metro will have to weigh the environmental benefits of CNG against other fuels, such as the hybrid technology that the agency has already adopted. Metro will also have to decide if it would be best to use the same technology across the entire fleet, or if it would work to mix it up a bit. “Right now we've been moving in a single direction," he says, referencing the diesel-electric hybrids. "As we go forward, will we want to expand that and have one or two or three different options?[That raises] operational questions and maintenance questions.”

Metro board member Christof Spieler stresses that it's important the agency not rush into anything. "When we’re buying a new bus it’s not like buying a new car; this is a 12 year commitment. We want to keep these buses on the road. So when we’re making a decision now it’s going to have ramifications for a long time to come.”

METRO expects to have the results of the natural gas study by autumn.

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Transportation Nation

Houston's METRO Gets Money Back From Spanish Rail Car Supplier

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston's METRO has officially received a $14 million dollar refund from the Spanish-owned rail car vendor Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF).

METRO had hired CAF to build 103 light rail cars for the North and Southeast rail lines. But last December METRO had to cancel the contract after the Federal Transit Administration said the $330 million dollar deal violated federal purchasing laws and Buy America rules. That has stalled $900 million dollars in federal grants. “The Federal Transit Administration made it clear that unless we terminated the CAF contract and purchased cars under a new program that they were comfortable with, we would not be eligible for the full funding grant,” said George Greanias, METRO’s president and CEO.

METRO was able to recover $14 million dollars of the $41 million it had already paid to CAF. Greanias says the money will go toward re-procuring the light rail cars. “We just issued a notice over the weekend that we’re going to be going out to take bids on rail cars," said Greanias. "And we’ve been working very closely with the Federal Transit Administration to make sure that every step in the process that we’re going through right now meets with their approval.”

Earlier this week the Obama Administration submitted its proposed budget for fiscal year 2012. It includes $200 million dollars for the North and Southeast rail lines.

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Transportation Nation

Obama Puts Money on Houston's METRO

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

(Houston - Laurie Johnson and Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) There could be more money on the way for Houston's light rail system. President Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 sets aside a hefty $128 billion dollars for transportation projects across America - a 66% increase from 2010. It’s part of a new six-year transportation bill, pegged at $556 billion dollars. "We view this as a big win for public transit," said Peter Rogoff, the Federal Transit Administrator. Obama's budget includes a record $3.2 billion dollars for 21 capital transit rail and bus projects.

If passed, METRO's light rail project would receive another $200 million allocation - that's up $50 million from last year. The money would go towards the construction of the North and Southeast rail lines. George Greanias, METRO's president and CEO, points out that the proposed money is in addition to the $300 million already allocated to the agency. "We worked very hard last fall to regroup after a very difficult summer," Greanias said. "And I think the way we approached that regrouping work has made an impression on the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), on the Obama Administration."

The transit authority got in trouble with the FTA last year after a four month long investigation found the previous METRO administration had broken federal Buy America laws when it handed over two light rail contracts to a Spanish rail car manufacturer. That violation put $900 million dollars in federal grants on hold. METRO was able to come to an agreement with the Spanish company, ultimately canceling its contract in December. The settlement helped put METRO back on track to qualify for the total federal funds.

Obama's $200 million dollar bump for METRO is part of that pending $900 million dollar grant. Rogoff says there's no question last year's debacle delayed METRO's funding. But he says members of METRO's new administration have been willing to work with the FTA to fix the situation. "We have always said that we were not going to punish the commuters of Houston for the misdeeds of prior METRO leadership," Rogoff said. "And I think the amounts of money we have for both these lines in the budget reflect that." He said the FTA expects to finalize the full funding grant agreements before the end of 2012, and adds that both rail projects are on the list.

The transportation money is part of the Obama Administration’s latest $3.7 trillion dollar budget proposal that would slash spending by 2.4 percent.

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Transportation Nation

Houston's METRO Looking to Expand Rail Service to the 'Burbs

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority may expand its rail service out to the suburbs. The line would link Houston with Missouri City, roughly paralleling the existing freight rail track along the US 90A corridor for eight miles. It would begin just south of the Medical Center and end just inside Missouri City at Beltway 8. Kimberley Slaughter, vice president of service design and development with METRO, says traffic in the southwest Houston area will only get worse --  so it's crucial to have other transportation options on the table. Slaughter says METRO is studying this corridor "to find another way to provide high-capacity transit to move people in [the southwest Houston] region."

Listen to the story over at KUHF.

Alignment options for Southwest Rail Corridor

METRO is floating five possible options for the rail project. Most involve light rail technologies. Just one considers commuter rail. They would all require laying down brand new track. Sharing track with freight rail has been talked about in the past, but Slaughter says it isn’t possible now because there's just too much freight traffic. The project is expected to cost between $200 and $250 million dollars.

METRO is holding four  meetings this month to get public input on the project.  “We’re asking the public to come and join us," said Slaughter. "We’re asking for all stakeholders, public agencies, residents, landowners...employees in the area, to come to the public meetings and tell us what else should we consider; what other alignments we should consider,” she said.

Slaughter says if all goes smoothly, construction could begin on the rail line by late 2017. But finding money for transportation projects is difficult in this economic and political climate, so METRO may have trouble coming up with the cash.

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Transportation Nation

Houston's Light Rail Expansion Could Be On Chopping Block

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives want to dump a thirty-five year old federal urban transit program, called New Starts. The program,  governed by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), doles out $2 billion dollars a year to mass transit projects across the country. The House Republican Study Committee has proposed to ax the program to trim back federal spending. Transit projects all over the U.S. could be in jeopardy if the committee's recommendation is heeded - and Houston's light rail expansion program is one of them.

Paul Magaziner, a vocal opponent of METRO’s light rail system, thinks the program should be cancelled. “Like it or not, the 112th Congress will decide the fate of METRO," he told board members at this week's meeting. "The jury is out. Cease and desist until you know what Congress and the FTA will choose to do and be able to approve.”

METRO is currently waiting on at least $900 million dollars from the FTA’s New Starts program for use on the Southeast and North rail lines. The authority has already begun work on the lines under the assumption it will be reimbursed through the federal grants. But Magaziner says METRO should halt all rail construction until it has every penny in the bank to fund the program in its entirety.

But METRO president and CEO George Greanias says stopping now isn't logical. “I understand that we’re all wondering what the new Congress is going to do," he said. "And there’s certainly a lot of statements being made about what the proper course for the country is. I don’t see many businesses in this country, I don’t see many folks just sort of shutting down and saying, ‘We’ll wait for a year or two while the Congress decides which way their going to jump.’”

Greanias says he’s confident METRO will receive the much-needed funds from the FTA. He points out that the FTA sent METRO a $50 million dollar advance on the grant last month and also issued pre-approval letters allowing the authority to commence work on the lines without delay. Greanias says calls to stop Houston’s light rail expansion are imprudent. “To simply shut the program down would cost several hundreds of millions of dollars and you’d have nothing to show for it,” he argued.

Plus, he says, construction is already underway. Roads have been torn up so the project can’t just be abandoned. The METRO board more than doubled this year’s budget for the light rail program, increasing it from $143 million dollars to $345 million.

Board member Christof Spieler says canceling the program due to speculation on the political future of Congress would "go against the will of the voters," who voted in favor of the light rail program in 2003.

The proposal could come to a vote in the House by the middle of February.

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Transportation Nation

Houston METRO Slashes Fare to Airport, Hopes to Lure More People On-Board

Monday, January 24, 2011

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) If you need a ride to Bush Intercontinental from downtown Houston,  consider this: For four dollars and fifty cents METRO will drive you there. The new price tag for the 45 minute shuttle ride is 70 percent less than the old price of $15. METRO’s Airport Direct was criticized in the past for its lack of ridership. The 52-seat coach rarely saw more than a handful of passengers per trip. Kimberley Slaughter, vice president of service, design, and development at METRO, says the cost of the service probably deterred some would-be riders. “For our everyday customers,I think, especially with this economy, $15 may have been a little more expensive for them," she said.  "$4.50 makes it more affordable.”

Hear the story over at KUHF News.

The shuttle will also stop at more downtown locations - five in total. Slaughter says the majority of people who use the service are out-of-towners, here on business. But she says with the changes, it’s now a viable option for everyone. The agency is also working to make more people aware that the Airport Direct line exists. “We are looking to do a lot more marketing,” said Slaughter. There are signs and pamphlets at the airport, but Slaughter says they may install permanent monitors advertising the service as well.

But even though METRO expects the changes will increase ridership,  it will cost METRO about the same, some $1.9 million dollars a year. “We’re not reaping any cost savings here," she said. "What we are trying to do is to make it more appealing, add more customer service to it, and make sure that we’re providing the service that the customer wants.”

The revamped service started Sunday and will still run every thirty minutes, seven days a week.

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Transportation Nation

Houston Trains to Houston Drivers: We Are Bigger and Heavier Than You

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Houston train a gets new paint job (photo by Wendy Siegle)

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) If you've ever forgotten (and I really hope you haven't)  to obey the traffic signal when approaching rail crossings, METRO's new safety campaign should help remind you.

The agency rolled out  a new light rail car wrapped in a bright red safety advertisement warning people to "Stop" and "Think" when traveling near rail tracks.

METRO chairman Gilbert Garcia says the purpose of the new paint job is to remind people to be more alert when approaching rail crossings. “METRO has a very important mission, which is to get people from A to B," Garcia said. "But the key is we have to do that safely." He pointed out that Texas ranks highest in the nation in highway-rail grade collisions. The Lone Star State had 177 incidents in 2009. California, which is number two on the list, had 114.

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Transportation Nation

Houston METRO Cancels Controversial Contract With Spanish Rail Car Company

Friday, December 17, 2010

(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) METRO’s board has approved a deal to terminate its controversial contract with a Spanish rail car company. The settlement means METRO is moving closer to negotiating a much-needed federal grant for the construction of two light rail lines.

Earlier this year the Federal Transit Administration ruled that METRO, under the previous leadership, broke "Buy America" rules when it awarded two light rail contracts to Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF), a Spanish-owned rail car vendor.

The violation put $900 million dollars in FTA grants for a rail expansion on hold. METRO president and CEO George Greanias says, by canceling the contract with CAF, METRO has a better chance of securing the funds. “This meets a very important requirement the FTA put on us if we were going to move forward on the full funding grant agreement,” Greanias said.

Listen to the story here.

METRO had already sunk $41 million dollars into the construction of the rail cars before the Spanish company was told to stop work. Under the agreement CAF will pay back $14 million dollars of that to METRO. The agreement stipulates that CAF will forfeit any additional payments for unpaid work and lost profits.

Greanias says METRO plans to rebid the light rail contract in January. CAF USA, a subsidiary of the Spanish company, will be able eligible to participate in the re-procurement process. Greanias says CAF USA will be treated like every other bidder. “We’re being very careful in putting together the re-procurement request that we have a very level playing field," Greanias notes.  "And we have the Federal Transit Administration working with us to make sure that what we do creates a level playing field.”

As for the $900 million in federal funding, Greanias says he expects to get a definitive answer from the FTA in June or July. He's confident METRO will receive the funding, but stresses that if it doesn't, the agency has a backup plan to keep the rail expansion moving.

“If for some reason the full funding grant agreements did not come through we’d have more than sufficient local funds to do exactly what the fall back alternative says, which is to complete the East End line, bringing it across Main, and cleaning up the streets—getting everything back in better shape than we found it when we started—and being prepared to extend the other lines as money comes available.”

Greanias says he doesn’t anticipate any problems in qualifying for the grant as long as METRO continues to comply with the FTA.

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Transportation Nation

CEO of Houston's Metro: Gaining the People's Trust is Our Biggest Challenge

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF) With Houston well on its way to becoming the third largest city in the nation, providing sufficient public transportation should be a top priority, says Metro president and CEO George Greanias. But the agency has a lot of past mistakes it has to overcome first. Greanias delivered the State of Metro address to stakeholders in Houston’s business community today to discuss what he called the second biggest issue the city is facing, after education: mobility. Translation? The entire Houston region (eight counties worth) needs solutions to its traffic woes, in the form of both roads improvements and transit services.

According to recent polls and surveys, the majority of Houstonians want more transportation dollars to go toward public transit than roads, but at the same time, people don't trust the Houston transit agency to get things done. Greanias says one of the agency’s biggest challenges is restoring faith and trust in Metro– something that was lost during the previous administration. But Metro is still having a hard time getting it back and keeps running into major funding hurdles.

Hear the rest of the story over at KUHF - Houston Public Radio.

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Transportation Nation

HOT Lanes to Launch in Houston, Let Drivers Pay to Avoid Traffic

Thursday, November 04, 2010

(Houston, TX –– Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Houston is planning to let solo drivers pay to drive in a special, faster lane, for the right price. The plan is expected to reduce traffic overall, though it raises some equity concerns that rich drivers can buy a faster commute while everyone else pays the price.

In its latest budget, Metro put aside $20 million in federal funds to turn 84 miles of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. That means cars with just one person in them will be able to pay a fee to access the HOV lane and skip the stop and go traffic. The lanes be controlled by a transit agency, not the Harris County Toll Road Authority, the agency normally in charge of toll roads in the area.

Houston Metro president and CEO George Greanias says the existing HOV lanes are practically empty around 80 percent of the time. "With the exception of just some peak periods, there’s usually additional capacity there that’s not getting used," says Greanias. "In the meantime, you’ve got the lanes adjacent to HOV lanes that are congested due to all the heavy traffic."

Map of Proposed Hot Lanes

Carpools, vanpools, and buses will be able to

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Transportation Nation

Houston Metro: Light Rail Projects Stalled

Thursday, October 21, 2010

(Houston, TX — Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Houstonians anxious for Metro to finish its light rail project are going to have to stick it out a while longer. Metro’s President and CEO George Greanias announced today that, due to budget restraints, work on the rail expansion project is going to slow down dramatically. Metro’s budget for the project, which seeks to add five more lines to the existing Main Street line, has been slashed by almost 70 percent – dropping from $458 million to $143 million. According to Greanias, the transit agency has no choice but to make some serious adjustments in order to reduce project costs. “We’re just having to take some very difficult and regrettable steps, but we’re doing them,” Greanias lamented.

Metro has identified more than one hundred engineering, construction, small business, and community outreach contracts that will be either suspended or reduced. Utility work on the North and Southeast lines will continue at the current pace till the end of the year. But for now, work on the University and Uptown lines is stalled. Greanias says the agency has to take the necessary steps, “to make sure we don’t put the agency or its long term programs in jeopardy.”

Metro’s overall budget, which was adopted last month, was trimmed back by 31 percent. The agency was depending on federal funding for two of the light rail lines, but was told last month that the money would be delayed because it violated federal purchasing and Buy America laws. More on that here.

Hear the story at KUHF

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Transportation Nation

Houston's Metro To Make Cutbacks In Light Of Reduced Budget

Friday, September 24, 2010

(Wendy Siegle, KUHF - Houston) The Metropolitan Transit Authority in Houston posted its 2011 budget online today. It will be presented to the board in a public hearing on Monday. The proposed budget shows a 31 percent decrease from the 2010 spending plan. That's a difference of a whopping 430-million dollars.

Still, despite the drastic reduction, officials say customers won't feel the pinch: fares won't increase and services will remain intact. But Metro will have to do some significant trimming somewhere if it plans to stop operating in a deficit and on less than a billion dollars in the next fiscal year. But where to cut?

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