Transit's Final Frontier

Like the top three transit authorities, the three largest cities in the United States ? New York, Los Angeles, Chicago ? are pretty easy to figure out. But what is the fourth largest city? Is it Philadelphia? Or maybe Dallas? How about last year?s Expo location, San Diego? Nope, it?s Houston, which saw a nearly 20 percent population increase from 1990 to 2000, double that of every other city in the top five in population in the United States over the same period of time.

Houston Metro?s President and CEO Frank Wilson has to shoulder the dichotomy of an agency in a rapidly growing city with far less transit than others of its size.

?We have 1,200 square miles of service area here. 1,200 square miles. And I got 1,200 buses. We?re lost. You know, we?re lost out there,? Wilson says.

?I mean, how can you run all-day/all-night service with that kind of service area and no density anywhere, but a couple places.?

Houston follows the mythic proportions of Texas with not one, but three downtowns with some estimates claiming that number is more like four or five and more than 2,000 people moving to the region every year. Houston is booming and the question is whether or not Metro can keep up.

As Wilson explains, the question is, ?Can we build fast enough to influence where they go or are we going to have to catch up to the location decisions they make.

?One?s easy to serve. The other one is really difficult to serve.?

Wilson admits the challenge scares the heck out of them. Houston isn?t very dense. In fact as I traveled around the city I felt like I was in a succession of suburbs rather than one city. Wilson says this is changing, though. With more than 2,000 new residents a year come a boatload of new ideas, tastes and preferences. And those moving from larger cities will be looking for transit, which Wilson says they won?t see.

?At least nothing you can see on the ground like a fixed guideway system like you might see in these other cities,? Wilson says.

?Yeah, there?s buses running all over the place, but they don?t count. Because they?re an illusion. They?re there and then they?re not there. Well where did they go? Who knows. Well, I?m not getting on it because I don?t know where it?s going.

?You can run all the buses you want, there?s no sense of structure, there?s no sense of organization to a city unless you can find where the tracks or the wires go, or where the subway stations are. So those people come here and they expect to see all this stuff and they?re a world apart from those who have been here their entire lives.?

Metro Rail
Frank Wilson has worked for major metropolitan agencies from coast to coast and knows a thing or two about rail. One thing he noticed when he arrived in Houston was the lack of infrastructure. Houston once boasted 70 miles of rail, but now the area is served by a single light rail line operating in the downtown area and its infrastructure is poor.

?In specific terms of where we live and where we work here in this business I would say it?s more of a final frontier. This is the land that transit forgot.? Wilson says.

Wilson says Houston isn?t as blessed as other communities due to the viability of its railroads for freight purposes. Union Pacific owns and operates on much of the existing infrastructure, so there are few abandoned rights of way Metro can purchase. It is targeting five potential corridors in its Metro Solutions plan and currently owns a 55-mile long right of way west of downtown, which Wilson notes is prime commuter rail territory.

?Before there was a rail line on Main Street, Houston didn?t understand what rail was. And the first year after it was here it was a curse that was sent here by the transit gods,? Wilson says.

?And now it?s irreplaceable in five short years. There?s no one here who?s going to say we should roll it up and give Main Street back to the automobile.

The Metro Rail Main Street corridor is a 7.5-mile line that runs adjacent to Metro?s headquarters from the financial district through downtown to the Houston Medical Center.

?First of all, it didn?t take a genius to see Main Street would be a smashing success because of what it connects,? Wilson says.

?There is no other place that connects all that. And it wasn?t connected very well when you had to drive it all. Now people use this as a horizontal elevator. It?s like the cable car but flat ? on and off, on and off, on and off.?

Preventing Rail Accidents
Metro?s Main Street light rail line has had amazing results, going from startup to 45,000 daily riders within three years. But this success hasn?t come without growing pains. The most prevalent one has to be the number of accidents the rail line suffered during its initial few years in service.

?If you thought about it, [it?s] probably to be expected because you have something intruding in the urban environment that never existed before and people had to get used to it,? Wilson admits.

?What you have to understand is that a traffic light for a Houstonian is a suggestion, it?s not a law. Maybe you should stop, maybe you don?t have to stop, it?s up to you.

?There are ? you go to different places and there are different cultural biases. And one here is that this is my road and I?m on it and nothing should be in my way.?

Wilson says he?s thankful the architects installed external cameras on every rail vehicle the system has. This has dramatically changed the opinion of the police and local media when it comes to accidents involving Metro Rail vehicles.

?The media comes in and the first question is, ?Can I have the tape?? They want to see who caused it. And we say why bother? You know who caused it, ain?t us. So what, out of 180 accidents in five years, we?re responsible for two,? Wilson says.

Wilson says some of the accidents probably shouldn?t be classified as such. For example, when a person walked into the train. No, not the path of the train, the middle of the train as it went by.

?And I said why is that an accident? You know this guy?s got a death wish, he did this intentionally. How do you miss a 90,000-pound vehicle?? Wilson asks.

?But you get people doing that. You get people making left turns in front of the train, trying to beat it. It?s a sport you know, running the red lights.?

To reduce the accident rate, Wilson says the agency has instituted all red phases and advance green lights for the trains at intersections to prevent cars from trying to beat the train off the line and turn left in front of it.

One other thing Metro has done is install a ?visual barrier? at intersections. Wilson says, ?There?s a series of lights in the street. And even in the daytime you need sunglasses to see it because they light up red like you can?t believe. So you take the traffic signals and you outline the signal in red and you put a strip of red lights down [on the pavement across the intersection].

The visual barriers are made up of energy-efficient red LEDs that blink when the train is coming near the intersection and stay red when the train is in a station on either side of it.

?You?re trying to create a visual barrier that says something serious is going on here. You may not see the train, but you don?t want to go through here.

?And most people just won?t violate that. So through a lot of experimentation, a commitment to owning that railroad and making it safe, we dropped the accident rate down tremendously.?

Metro Bus
Wilson arrived in Houston in 2004 to an agency that hadn?t purchased buses in a long time; a situation he describes as not good. Realizing the buses were the backbone of the system, Wilson discovered Houston Metro had no fleet management plan.

?Well, it doesn?t take a genius to take 1,200 and divide by 12 ? the average life of a bus ? and say Metro needs to have a hundred buses a year rolling in here, every single year, with no gaps and no nothing.

?Well I?ve been in this business a long enough time to realize and know, you don?t buy buses for a while and then you buy a thousand of them,? Wilson says.

?God forbid that bus has got a fatal flaw in it and you?ve got a thousand of them. You don?t have a hundred of them, which you can manage. You?ve got a thousand of them.?

Wilson explained that buying a hundred buses a year allowed Metro to phase in technology upgrades at a moderate pace rather than in a hurry all at once. It also allows the system to manage the fleet better by normalizing the maintenance activities and keeping the buses at a good average age.

In its third year of the new fleet management program, Metro no longer purchases the hundred buses a year, instead opting to lease them by using its Formula Funding ? a steady source of income ? to keep a steady source of buses coming in.

?We intend to keep our bus fleet right where everybody would want it ? six years of age introducing technology as we go,? Wilson says.

Now with the implementation of a new rail line, the bus service had to be realigned. As Metro Rail came on line, Wilson says they were already looking to cull 600 bus movements from the downtown during rush hour, which in essence created at least one if not two free lanes of traffic for cars.

But taking bus service off Main and adjacent streets, and focusing on the rail line wasn?t without controversy. Wilson says most people would point to this as forcing a transfer, which he just shrugs off.

?OK, we did. You tell me what transit system worth anything doesn?t have transfers,? Wilson shrugs.

?You know you don?t run in competition with yourself. We have a high-capacity, cost-effective way of carrying people on Main Street. Why do I have to duplicate that 200 feet over on another street? All it?s doing is running up and down.

?The business is replete with the notion that transfers are a penalty, but if the transfer is easy and it?s quick, not that big of a penalty.?

Every bus Houston Metro now leases has a hybrid diesel-electric powerplant. As Wilson says with a laugh, ?Much better fuel economy, much better on emissions, much higher price ? $725,000. This was not an easy decision, but we did it.?

Wilson says Metro is trying to standardize around the hybrid powerplant as its technology, but it will upgrade to the latest technology when it becomes commercially viable. For Wilson and Houston Metro, keeping on top of the latest technology is what keeps them on top of their games as transit providers.

?From front to back, including the powerplant now, this thing is the most technologically sophisticated vehicle out there,? Wilson says.

?Now I don?t care what kind of car you?re driving. Most times when you tell people that, it?s ?Really??

?What do they know about a bus? You get on it. You get off of it. You get behind it on the road ? you?re screwed.

?They don?t realize what?s rolling down that street and how it?s evolved over time. What does that mean for us? It means the skill level for the maintenance people has migrated up the chart.

?What does that means for us? It means we have to recruit more effectively. It means we have to pay better. It means we have to retain these guys, because now you?re trying to pull out of the upper stratosphere of talents and skills.?

Signature Bus
Houston Metro is looking to expand its existing 7.5 miles of rail to 30 miles of light rail over the next few years. In the meantime it?s still in an expansion mode, so it is in the process of implementing what Wilson calls the signature bus line ? or a BRT starter system ? with one ready to go and two more under construction. Add in the three more in the planning process and you have the five or six rail lines Houston Metro is planning on building. But what makes these lines different from regular Metro bus lines ? style.

?Every station is remarkably different,? Wilson says, ?It?s not a sign on a post with a bench. It?s a station environment.

?Now it?s not a railroad station environment, but it is a pretty good-looking station environment. And its got amenities in it that you don?t see in a regular station, like the ?next bus? feature.?

Wilson says station location is key because the station isn?t going anywhere in the near or far future. The station for the signature bus line will one day become the station for Houston Metro?s future light rail line, although it might shift a bit.

?Now it might be out in the middle of the street instead of on the sidewalk, but the folks who invested in that station area and what is in that station area will be a permanent investment so you invest for the long term. So we?re trying to influence land development without controlling land development,? Wilson says.

?We?re not going to move the station a mile away and say, oh sorry this is where the activity is going to be so you may have to develop some space for parking or you may have to develop some open space park environment around it. And we?re starting with a very upscale bus station.?

The vehicles on the signature bus line will all be top-of-the-line with, as Wilson says, ?all the bells and whistles,? including traffic preemption, que jumpers and a streamlined, rail-like appearance.

Oh, and it will have one more thing, a mascot ? the bunny.

?What does a rail line have that makes it so good? It?s got a physical presence,? Wilson says.

?You know where it is. There are the tracks. There?s the wire. What does a BRT have? As you go from station to station, what do you got? You got nothing. Well you gotta create the visual route. OK.?

Wilson showed me a big round sign with a stylized bunny in it and explained that the new signature bus lines would be like the Wilshire Boulevard BRT line in Los Angeles and will be called the Quick Lines.

?It?s just a little bit better than [Wilshire Boulevard,] but the same concept. It?s a heavy route but we?re going to put an express service on top of it,? Wilson says.

?There?s nothing quicker than a bunny, so we named it the Quick Lines.

?They?re not express. They?re not Metro direct. They?re the Quick Lines,? Wilson says.

He explained that the bunny sign would be put into the pavement in the Quick Lines? lanes every hundred feet or so to show where the bus is operating.

?It?s reinforced by flags on light poles or telephone poles. So as you go down the street you know beyond a shadow of a doubt, there?s a transit line running there. And then when you get to the station, the station lights in the ground blink like they do at rapid transit systems,? Wilson says.

Off the Rack Procurement
Houston Metro is in an expansion phase. As part of this, it?s looking to expand its light rail fleet. Rather than putting out an RFP and initiating the standard bid process, Wilson decided to cut to the chase when it came to getting the new cars in what could be called an unorthodox approach ? although one that might just come to be an industry standard.

Wilson says the best way to make the right purchase is to, ?marry the right vendor and let them do what they do best and get the Hell out of the way. Don?t tell them how to do their business.?

So when Houston Metro went to purchase its new light rail vehicles, it gathered all the prospective vendors in a room and instead of giving them a list of specifications a mile long, they had a short list ? there are no specifications.

When questioned Wilson explained, again, that there would be no specifications on the car and he wouldn?t tell them what he wanted on it. Instead, he wanted the vendors to choose the car they felt the most comfortable with and pitch that to Houston Metro. As you can imagine the response was stunned silence.

?This industry has said owners are their worst enemy because they over-specify equipment,? Wilson says.

?They customize everything. And every time I go out we?re buying for the first time and they?re making it for the first time. Except this client is saying, you made this car a hundred times, I am going to take 100 more just the way it is.?

The next question that arose was how the evaluation process would be handled. Wilson said they needed one thing: a client somewhere in the world that is already running at least 10 of their vehicles. That?s it. More silence followed.

?And so how do I evaluate?? Wilson says. ?We?re going to go visit your customer. And we?re going to talk to the guys who run them. And we?re going to talk to the guys who maintain them. And they?re going to tell us what your car does.

?And we?re going to come visit your shop and make sure you?ve got a real shop and you?re actually putting these cars through and you?re actually making these cars.

?That?s it. I?m not looking at anything else. Oh ? one more thing, the price.?

Wilson gathered seven of his people and sent them across the globe looking at different vehicles in action. They had to learn five different languages. And they spoke with operators and maintainers and found out all the quirks and good things about the vehicles proposed to them. And what did it come down to in the end? Price.

?Everyone?s car was acceptable,? Wilson says.

?This all came down to price. But it was their car on their terms at their price. I?m just selecting the one that looked best price wise. So we didn?t start out low bid. And we didn?t start tinkering with it. It was what it was.

?And that?s how the whole program is going. We?re not dictating the terms, we?re accepting the terms from the marketplace.

?We?re doing exactly what the industry says it wants to have done and the way it wants to compete. And they?re finding it disorienting because there is nothing to fight over.

?Just give me your best offer on your best car. I?ll either accept it or reject it,? Wilson says with a smile.