TX: Rail Divisions Loom Over Uptown Bus Project

Aug. 22--A project to add dedicated bus lanes along Post Oak Boulevard is generating a lot of discussion, not for what it is -- a street project with buses -- but for the rail line it isn't.

With work to start early next year, the latest sparring over the planned bus rapid transit project is focused on assuring skeptics it is not a precursor to rail. Metropolitan Transit Authority officials want to design the project in a way that doesn't make a future rail conversion impossible. Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia has declined to sign a document stating that the project will not be engineered to support rail.

The dispute shows the potency of rail as a wedge issue in Houston transportation policy, even in connection with a non-rail project.

Dedicated bus lanes

Opponents of plans to extend light rail westward from the central business district have resisted Metro rail plans along Richmond and Post Oak. Metro officials, meanwhile, note that voters approved rail in both corridors in a 2003 referendum.

John Breeding, president of the Uptown Management District, said the Post Oak busway will be a huge benefit to the Uptown area. The district is developing the project in partnership with Metro and the city.

"What we want is something that is cost effective, functional and provides service for people who want to get from home to work," Breeding said, saying bus rapid transit fits the bill. "I care about service, not what the tires on the wheel are made of and whether they are rubber or steel."

The $192.5 million project will use dedicated bus lanes -- one in each direction -- in the center of Post Oak to ferry travelers between a future transit center in Bellaire to the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10. Seven stops are planned, enabling a rider to take a Metro park and ride bus from suburban lots to the Bellaire or Northwest centers, and then use rapid transit to get into the Uptown area.

Metro will buy and operate the buses. Uptown is overseeing construction, which will retain three lanes for vehicles in each direction on Post Oak by adding the bus lanes in the center.

Analysts estimated that more than 19,000 people would use the line daily by 2018, provided officials build a $45 million portion that includes dedicated bus lanes in each direction along Loop 610. Without the Loop 610 lane, about 14,100 are expected to hop aboard daily.

Money comes with strings

State transportation officials approved adding the Loop 610 phase to the state's transportation plan, making it eligible for $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission. When commissioners approved the project in June, it was clear they meant it to be a bus project.

"We've had very open discussions that there is not contemplation it will be used for rail," state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley said during the June 26 meeting in Baytown.

Pledge 'could be stronger'

State officials and skeptics of Metro's regional light rail efforts are looking for signed assurances that the bus lane won't be converted to rail, which Metro officials say they must carefully review.

The question becomes how far Metro must go in pledging not to build rail. In a June 2 letter to Moseley, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said "Metro has no plans to convert the dedicated bus service on Post Oak to light rail."

Moseley suggested Metro's pledge on not building rail "could be stronger," according to an email the same day.

Garcia reiterated Metro's lack of any defined rail plans last week, but he said transit officials can't take light rail entirely off the table because the 2003 referendum specifically lists a Post Oak corridor for future rail development.

"I am being respectful of the will of the voters," Garcia said.

As a result, his signature is missing from a July 3 agreement prepared by state transportation officials, seeking another assurance.

The one-page document says all the parties "agree that the I-610 dedicated bus lane facility is to be designed and built to support a dedicated bus lane. As designed, the facility will not support a rail component."

Metro chief hasn't signed

Uptown and state officials have signed, but Garcia said he is still mulling the significance of the agreement.

Converting bus rapid transit lanes to rail requires subtle but significant changes, and the initial design of the Post Oak project could make that conversion easier or more difficult. Sharp curves where buses are capable of going might not be as easy for trains.

"I don't think it is our role or intent to make this something it is not," Garcia said. "Likewise, I don't think it is good public policy to prevent a conversion."

His partners disagree.

"We favor building the (Loop 610) dedicated bus lanes so they cannot carry the weight of light rail," Uptown Houston board chairman Kendall Miller wrote in a March 7 letter to state transportation officials. "We also do not support building electrical utilities necessary for light rail transit being constructed."

Looking at fast turnaround

The request for relief from rail development is the latest in a longstanding demand from Uptown area officials, including Rep. John Culberson, who has long opposed rail development on Richmond and Post Oak.

Culberson has authored federal language barring federal money from being spent to advance rail along Richmond or Post Oak. The language is unique in current transportation spending bills. He has defended the ban as being in the best interests of local constituents and responsible federal spending.

In a statement, Culberson said he was less critical of the current plans on Post Oak.

"Bus rapid transit lanes on Post Oak will fundamentally transform the corridor and public officials should be sure that the people who live and work in the area support it," the statement said in part.

If construction starts early next year as planned, Breeding said, buses would start rolling in 2017.

That quick turnaround to results is one reason why he said officials want to sidestep talk of rail, for or against, if they can.

"It is not about 30 years from now, it is about getting people to work today," he said.

Copyright 2014 - Houston Chronicle

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