The Houston area is growing, and so are its problems with flooding, infrastructure and traffic congestion.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) wants to help alleviate at least one of those issues, and it’s asking for assistance from the public.
METRO is seeking authority from Harris County voters to issue $3.5 billion in bonds, which it intends to supplement with federal matching grants, to execute its METRONext Moving Forward Plan. It’s a 20-year vision to expand a range of transit services across the region, including the addition of 16 miles of light rail, two-way high-occupancy vehicle lanes on freeways, new park-and-ride locations and 75 miles of bus rapid transit, which would utilize dedicated bus lanes, platform-level boarding and off-board fare collection.
Early voting ended Friday, and Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 5.
“It’s a huge deal for the region,” METRO board chair Carrin Patman said. “We’re going from 7 million (in population) to 10 million by 2040. When you consider the number of folks that METRO carries now and the importance of the services it provides, we really have no choice but to build out our system.”
One of the proposed bus rapid transit lines would connect downtown to the site of the former Northwest Mall, where a proposed high-speed rail project between Houston and Dallas calls for a station. METRO’s route would run along Interstate 10 in the southern portion of the Heights.
Another proposed bus rapid transit line, along with a proposed light rail line, would extend to the North Shepherd Park & Ride.
METRO’s bond referendum appears to have widespread support across the region, but not everyone is in favor. Houston accountant Bill Frazer, one of the organizers of the Responsible Houston political action committee, said addressing the area’s flooding and infrastructure problems should be more of a priority than expanding public transit.
Frazer said METRO’s ridership statistics show a decrease in passenger miles over the last 10 years, so he does not think an expansion of services is warranted. He also said METRO should focus more on regular bus services as opposed to more costly light rail and bus rapid transit.
“We are not against public transportation,” Frazer said. “We think that better bus transportation will provide better transportation for people that need public transportation. Light rail and bus rapid transit aren’t the answer. It doesn’t match the density requirements.”
But Frazer conceded that he’s fighting an uphill battle, saying there is “no well-funded organized effort” against the bond referendum. Responsible Houston had a remaining fund balance of fewer than $600 according to its latest campaign finance report filed with the state of Texas, while the Moving To The Future PAC in favor of the bond item had more than $192,000 in cash on hand.
Patman said she has not encountered much criticism of METRO’s plan, which was devised with community input and will continue to be fine-tuned with community input. There are many details, including route specifics, to be determined.
The overall idea, Patman said, is to reduce congestion and pollution by encouraging Houston-area travelers to take more cars off the road and make greater use of mass transit. She said the plan calls for doubling ridership over the next 20 years and eliminating 1.4 billion pounds of greenhouse gases now emanated by automobiles.
“It is imperative that it be passed so we can prepare for our regional growth,” Patman said of the bond referendum. “There is no sound basis on which to oppose this, which is why I think it’s garnered such widespread support.”