Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Richmond rail squabble

Anybody who lives in Houston is by now pretty familiar with the "rail on Richmond" debate (if not, there's an extremely lengthy discussion about it over on the Houston Architectural Information Forum). In a nutshell, METRO would like to construct an east-west light rail line (called the "University Corridor") to complement its existing north-south rail line along Main Street (known as the "Red Line"). METRO is currently studying where exactly this east-west line should go: should it be built down Richmond Avenue, should it be put within an old railroad right-of-way adjacent to Westpark Road, or should it be built using a combination of the two?

From a ridership standpoint, Richmond makes much more sense than Westpark (as local engineer and transit advocate Christof Speiler explains). However, there is intense opposition to such an alignment from homeowners and business owners along Richmond who, naturally, fear the property losses and overall disruption that the construction and operation of a light rail line down Richmond might entail. There's also the little fact that METRO's 2003 referendum specifically named this extension as the "Westpark" corridor (and Christof takes issue with this point as well, although in doing so he seems to frame an absurdist discussion as to whether "Westpark" really meant "Westpark" [yet, to be fair, the Westpark right-of-way essentially ends at Shepherd, well before it reaches the existing Main Street line]).

But the "Richmond-versus-Westpark" discussion might be academic at this point. US Represenative John Culberson, a Republican representing the Texas 7th Congessional District who also sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, may have essentially settled the issue today when he announced his opposition to any rail alignment along Richmond Avenue. The section of rail in question sits in his district, and, given his influence in Washington, without his support for the project it likely won't get built.

No surprise here. Culberson is an opponent of urban rail. He co-chaired the coalition that opposed the 2003 METRO Solutions referendum. He knows that the Federal Transit Administration is not likely to provide matching funds for a Westpark alignment because it won't generate enough ridership to make it competitive with competing transit projects. And without federal matching funds, the project simply won't get built. Thus, by limiting the alignment to Westpark - even though Westpark doesn't exist east of Shepherd - Culberson might keep the project from being built at all. Back to Christof, who calls Culberson's manuever a political stunt.

This fight might not be over. METRO says that it has no plans to take a possible Richmond alignment off the table in spite of Culberson's stance, and there remains the possibility that some sort of compromise will be worked out in the coming weeks. But, by virtue of the fact that he controls the federal purse strings, Culberson's the one who has the most control over the issue.

Given that fact, I'm not going to bet that we'll be seeing any light rail on the west side of town anytime soon.

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