Monday, July 02, 2007

Rail remains an afterthought

Draft agreement leaves rail out of I-10 plans

Metro wants it corrected, but there may not be room in design without sacrificing toll lane space

June 30, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

The Metropolitan Transit Authority's longstanding desire to someday squeeze a rail line onto the widened Katy Freeway may not be realized as soon as agency officials had hoped.

A new draft agreement among Metro, Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation for operation of the freeway's future toll lanes does not mention rail, an absence that has Metro officials concerned.

A March letter to TxDOT from Metro's capital projects director, Vincent Obregon, noted the omission: "We believe this is a fundamental issue that should be coordinated prior to action by our board."

TxDOT's Transportation Planning Director Gabriel Johnson responded that, "If, and when, light rail transit is provided by Metro within the corridor, the Operations Agreement will be amended accordingly."

The question is, where could Metro put its rails once the toll lanes are in place? There is no room in the freeway's current design without removing some traffic lanes, TxDOT spokeswoman Janelle Gbur and Metro board chairman David Wolff agreed.

Running rail down the middle of the freeway would displace two or more of the four toll lanes, which are to replace Metro's current High Occupancy Vehicle lanes and serve the same role for transit and carpools while generating revenue from other vehicles.

Nonetheless, Metro vice president Bryan Pennington told the agency board Friday it was "very realistic" to believe Metro could be operating rail in the Katy Freeway corridor within five to seven years.

"I think that's optimistic," Wolff said afterward. "It's intriguing because the demand is there in the I-10 corridor for rail — but the demand is there for traffic, too."

Current plans call for the toll lanes, two in each direction, to be operated by the Harris County Toll Road Authority, charging tolls that vary with the time of day or number of vehicles.

Outside of the rail omission, the draft agreement is similar to a 2002 memorandum of understanding that said Metro could run buses on the lanes for free and that carpools with 3 or more occupants could ride for free during peak hours.

Deputy toll road director Peter Key said he did not know details of the proposed operating agreement, but knew that current plans call for the managed toll lanes.

"That's what TxDOT has built, and the concrete is there now," he said. "The operating agreement is geared right now to how you manage those lanes."

The toll road authority is contributing $500 million to speed the freeway reconstruction and would need toll revenue from the lanes to pay off its bonds, said Alan Clark, who heads transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

Clark said if lanes are converted to tracks later, "Instead of buying right of way, Metro might agree to pay the toll road authority for its investment.

"It would be hard to do and expensive to do, and that kind of investment would require quite a bit of public involvement," he said.

However, Clark said the toll lanes were not Metro's only option for rail. Besides, he said, those lanes would pose problems getting passengers to and from the trains in the middle of a busy freeway.

There are road shoulders and transition areas as well as main lanes and frontage road lanes that could be used instead, Clark said.

The Metro board Friday authorized president and CEO Frank Wilson to negotiate the final agreement on the lanes' use with TxDOT and the county.

Wilson reminded the board that Metro has paid TxDOT $10 million to beef up the freeway's overpasses to carry the weight of trains, and called that a "down payment" on the plan.

Asked how an impasse between Metro and the toll road authority would be resolved, Clark and Gbur said any plan to replace lanes with tracks would go through the process for federal assistance.

That includes environmental and cost-benefit studies, and approval by H-GAC and its Transportation Policy Council, representing area governments and agencies.

A commuter line on I-10 isn't mentioned in the 2003 referendum in which voters passed Metro's rail plans.

However, a light rail line from downtown to the West Loop was included.

The ballot also authorized commuter rail along the Southwest and Northwest freeways and such "other corridors ... as are found to be feasible through consultation with other agencies."

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