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.?
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.