TX: Rail Line Changing Fabric of Northside Neighborhoods

Bob Falcon waited years for better transit near his Lindale Park house -- so long, in fact, that he retired in the interim. Disembarking from a Metropolitan Transit Authority train Monday afternoon, however, his spirits were high.

"In this neighborhood, we're really banking on it," Falcon said, just before yanking his bike off the hook he secured it to on the train.

Nearly six months since trains began rumbling north of the central business district along Main and Fulton on the north side, residents and community leaders said the Red Line is becoming a valued part of the neighborhood and a critical link for many transit travelers, even as it contributes to record-setting use of Metro's light rail system.

"I'll be honest, it wasn't an easy construction time," said Rebecca Reyna, executive director of the Greater Northside Management District. "No construction is easy. Now that it's there, it is slowly becoming a part of the fabric of the north side."

For years, residents and businesses in the working-class, largely Hispanic neighborhoods were cut off from downtown, caught between Interstate 45 and U.S. 59. The eight residential and commercial stops now give them access via rail, but it came at the expense of left turns and lanes along Main and Fulton.

In the months since it opened, north side residents and business owners have settled into the new geography of the line, which snakes past homes and apartments, restaurants, warehouses and schools.

After adding 5.3 miles of track from the University of Houston-Downtown to Northline Commons outside Loop 610, the Red Line posted more trips for the first three months of 2014 than in any three-month period in the light rail system's history. Based on ridership data compiled by the American Public Transit Association, more than 3.5 million trips were logged on the Red Line from January to March.

Route 15 bus no more

What's harder to calculate is how many of those rides were skimmed from the bus system. Route 15, which largely followed Fulton, was discontinued when the northern extension opened. Two lines that run a similar north-south path along nearby streets, Route 78 and Route 24, have experienced slight decreases in ridership.

When the bus and rail routes are all compared, overall ridership on the Red Line, Route 24 and Route 78 was 4.7 percent higher for the first four months of 2014 than the same lines -- and the discontinued Route 15 -- during January through April of 2013.

Metro officials have declared themselves pleased with the ridership, though they said it is too early to draw conclusions.

"I don't think right now is a good sample," Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said in May. "We haven't fed into the (bus) system, which we are doing when we complete the system reimagining in about a year."

Criticism over costs

Metro plans to open two new rail lines, serving east and southeast Houston, later this year. And the agency is seeking public comment on a major redesign of bus service in the Houston area. If approved later this year, the revised bus system would debut in mid-2015.

Skeptics point to the $756 million cost -- $142.6 million per mile -- for the north line and suggest the money could have been better spent adding bus service. Federal funds awarded solely to rail projects covered $450 million of the cost.

Riders, however, prefer the train to riding a bus.

"This is quicker and more convenient," said Damuel Lawson, who said his two-bus trip is faster now that one of the buses is replaced by the Red Line.

Druscilla Williams, carting her granddaughter around in a stroller, agreed. Getting on and off the train is easier with children and large items, she said. The new line also makes getting to popular destinations such as the Houston Zoo much simpler.

'Going to be wonderful'

Ultimately, some see the rail line's popularity boosting land values and investment on the north side.

"Now that it's finished, it is spurring a lot more interest," Reyna said, saying the management district fields calls and walk-ins from Realtors and developers with questions about the rail access.

Falcon, who has lived in Lindale Park for 30 years, said he has no doubt the line is improving the neighborhood and its economic prospects.

"Overall, it's going to be wonderful," he said, relishing the ease with which he can take a midday bike ride along the bayou paths, simply by hopping the line. "It already is for me."


Copyright 2014 - Houston Chronicle

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