TX: Why isn't there a train to Houston's airports? Because something is always in the way.

June 5, 2024
While plans have existed to build a rail connection to Houston area airports, competing priorities have interfered with the progress of those plans.

Jun. 3—Each time he and his carry-on luggage are waiting at the Uber pick-up area at Hobby Airport, Peter Hall admits the thought crosses his mind.

"There should be a train. Why isn't there a train," Hall said, with his driver just a few minutes away.

It is a question Houstonians often ask, but with few simple answers as the Metropolitan Transit Authority plots and operates a transit system for the Houston area.

Metro has repeatedly planned for light rail to the airport, or in Houston's case airports, but has never followed through. In 2003, when voters passed a long-range transit plan that led to the construction of the Red Line and eventually Green and Purple Lines, all of the maps included tracks to both airports.

"Historically, Hobby Airport has long been seen as the terminus of what is now the Purple Line," said Christof Spieler, who served on Metro's board from 2010 to 2018 and has written extensively on the intersection of trains and buses in urban areas.

The Red Line, the first seven miles of which opened in 2004, was expected to snake farther north, possibly along Interstate 45 or the Hardy Toll Road and eventually into George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

All that sounds great to Hall, 36, who said he flies once or twice a month and almost always takes an Uber to and from Hobby and his Midtown apartment.

Hall, however, is the exception in terms of typical Houston traveler, as he already lives along a light rail line.

But trains never leave the station when it comes to commuting to the airport.

"We have never been at a point where a line to the airport was imminent to happen," Spieler said, calling the efforts "the step after the step we are working on."

Here's three reasons why, and two things driving why it isn't likely to happen anytime soon.

There were other priorities

Roughly 72 miles of rail were listed in the 2003 "Metro Solutions" plan, but less than 23 miles were ever built, as Metro failed to get many of the projects beyond the drawing board. Officials spent some $2.3 billion extending the Red Line and adding the Green and Purple Lines, using a combination of local taxpayer funds and $900 million in Federal Transit Administration awards.

Due to slowness and struggles with construction, Metro took more than a decade between when it opened its first 7.5 miles — the Red Line — and partially opened the Green and Purple Lines.

The new lines, meanwhile, have never met the lofty ridership predicted, in part because the larger system they were intended to connect to never materialized and transit use in the region plateaued or dropped.

Rather than race to the airport, Metro focused on the University Line light rail, which stalled despite more than $100 million spent on its development.

Aside from some commuter bus projects and improvements to transit centers, the only other capital project resembling a project on the 2003 solutions map is the Silver Line bus rapid transit through Uptown, which carries about 1,000 riders on a good weekday.

"One of the biggest wastes you can point to is the rapid transit line," Mayor John Whitmire said this week.

There are still other priorities

The struggles of implementing the Metro Solutions projects didn't deter officials, however, from including a light rail line to Hobby Airport into the 2019 long-range plan, also approved by voters. That plan, called MetroNext, settled on not only extending the Purple Line but also the Green Line to Hobby, via a shared route.

"If you compare the two, there are really strong arguments for both," Spieler said, noting both serve transit-ripe communities and have connections to downtown.

Prior to the 2019 vote, with political pressure to extend the Green Line and the Purple Line individually, Metro officials opted for a $1.1 billion-plus plan to have both lines meet and then share track along Broadway into Hobby.

The MetroNext plan, meanwhile, replaced light rail to Bush with bus rapid transit, which would rely on new managed lanes along Interstate 45, part of the $11 billion freeway rebuild.

Much like the 2003 plan, those projects are not among the first to receive attention. Metro has previously said the University Line — now planned as bus rapid transit — and bus service along Interstate 10 within Loop 610 are the most pressing major projects and the first which Metro has committed millions to engineering and design.

Those projects are in the early pipeline for federal transit funding, a crucial step as $3.5 billion of Metro's long-range plan is presumed to come from federal money.

It is complicated and expensive

The design and engineering for airport trains could take years, even before construction. Spieler noted that often people forget the distances involved. For example, getting from Greenspoint, near I-45 and the Sam Houston Tollway, to Bush Airport would likely take the same length of track — about eight miles — laid for the entire original Red Line.

While a train to Hobby would take far less distance, that area is also far more dense, leaving other challenges to fitting a light rail train through.

Then there are engineering complications for how you connect a train to where people want to go at an airport.

"You don't have an at-grade path that gets you to a terminal," Spieler said.

Not a ridership windfall

There is a presumption on the part of many that a train to the airport would do well. People flying want quick and easy ways to get where they are going. Spieler said often someone from Houston will go elsewhere and on that trip hop the train, so it is natural to wonder why Houston does not have it.

"I think people do want to take it themselves and think their lives would be easier if they took it," Spieler said.

Now count how many times you go to the airport versus how many times you drive or take a bus to the office.

"Even if they use the train for every airport trip they take, that might be eight trips a year," Spieler said.

Business travelers, some of the most frequent fliers, meanwhile have different considerations.

"They are on expense accounts and not price-sensitive," Spieler said.

Other travelers might want a convenient train to two or three locations, such as downtown and Uptown, where there are concentrations of hotels. However, even taking into account those factors and demand from airport workers, Spieler said, it still rarely adds up to enough passengers for the cost.

Three recent rail projects to airports are illustrative, Spieler said, for how a train's service, location and the layout of the airport make a difference. In Washington, the train to Dulles Airport, which opened in 2022, gets around 2,500 boardings per day, less than half that of the train to Reagan National Airport, which is closer to the metro core but also a smaller airport. In Dallas, fewer than 1,100 riders daily hop on the train to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

"It's a long ride from Dallas, and the station directly serves only one of the terminals," Spieler wrote in an email. "There's a people-mover between terminals, but it's inside security, so... airline passengers who are checking bags have to take a shuttle bus."

The most successful line might be the one in Denver, which attracts more than 14,000 riders per day.

"That's really high," Spieler wrote. "What works well here is a single terminal airport (the train is about as convenient to security and baggage as cars are), a fast travel time on a long trip (people don't like driving that far) and good transit connections on the downtown end."

Still, even under the best scenarios, about one-fifth of the people going to an airport will take the train. In many places, it could be as low as one-in-10.

"Airports do not get you the ridership that a typical job center or medical center or university does," he said.

For that reason, he said, a line to Hobby or Bush in Houston stays in the planning stage.

"It tends to hang out there because the ridership you get tends to be lower than the ridership you get with other major activity centers," Spieler said.

All that adds up to little political will

Often, especially as Metro puts together its long range-plans, links to the airport draw discussion. In some cases, there is still a chance for inching the Purple Line along toward Hobby and strong support from local elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who has championed further development of the Purple Line in her district.

Since Whitmire took office, Metro officials have slowed emphasis on their major capital projects — saying the six new board members installed since February need time to acclimate to the plans.

"This is a new board, and I think the public expects the new board to do a careful review," Metro Chair Elizabeth Brock said of the MetroNext plan.

Plans for bus stop and sidewalk improvements — which officials have said are crucial to everyday riders — have not slowed or stopped, as Metro continues with this long-range plan.

Whatever resumes, and whenever, means a line to either airport — by rapid bus or rail — remains something travelers such as Hall will wonder about.

"I'm not expecting any miracles," Hall said, his Uber driver nearing. "Not if people are just saying 'no.'"

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