TAG panel discusses merits of rail transit in Houston region

Agencies such as the Gulf Coast Rail District and the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County are concurrently working on solving transportation problems in the region despite heavy competition for state and federal funding.

During a Transportation Advocacy Group event on April 29, panel members from both organizations agreed that while greater emphasis has been put on funding highways in recent years, less focus has been placed on mass transit.

"It's not about how many more rails [are built and] where is the best place for them—it's also about expanding tollways and roads," Metro President and CEO Tom Lambert said.

Texas Central Railway President Robert Eckels also discussed the challenges associated with the proposed high-speed rail system the company plans to develop from Houston to Dallas.

"We have to look at the short term and at how all the modes [of transportation] work and fit together," Eckels said.

Lambert said his agency is working on improvements that will revitalize METRO's image. He said a greater effort is being made towards developing rail and multiple modes of mass transit.

"We piecemeal projects without developing a bold vision that will serve a regional community," said Bert Keller, Gulf Coast Rail District chairman.

Competition for funding for various projects has at times hampered progress in the eyes of some of the panelists.

"We do not advocate for competition for money, but it is the real world," Keller said. "On the money part our system is designed to have competition."

Eckels said TCR has moved forward with a regional mobility plan but has encountered some roadblocks, notably a lack of revenue streams, a lack of taxpayer support and inefficient long-term designs.

"As a private entity we have cherry picked the route we think we can afford to build," Eckels said. "It gets back to money. The frustration I do get from TxDOT is that we don't design the roads for future needs."

Keller said his dream would be for the state to allow local agencies to work together and develop local options for rail and mass transit.

"We've been successful at the local level, but at the state level we can't get survivability for some reason," he said.

TCR narrowed a list of possible routes for the high-speed rail system last fall, and in February the agency informed the Federal Railroad Administration that it recommended a single preferred corridor known as the utility corridor expected to travel near Hwy. 290 in Harris County and north through a portion of Grimes County.

Though the high-speed railway system has been controversial in some circles, Eckels said it has nevertheless garnered support from various individual entities in the Greater Houston area.

He said some opposition to the high-speed rail proposal has come from residents who fear division of their property and county roads.

"What we're finding is we've dealt with the majority of the property owners' concerns by taking the route and working closely with the Gulf Coast Rail District and the city of Houston on coming up with the I-10 alternative to come into downtown to avoid those neighborhoods," Eckels said.

Eckels said TCR is working very closely with METRO, Harris County and the city of Houston to ensure the train system's success.

By Ariel Carmona
Ariel Carmona Jr. received his bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and an M.A. in Communications from California State University Fullerton. Ariel has written for the O.C. Register, L.A.N.G. newspapers and AOL’s Patch media. He currently works as a reporter for Spring Klein covering city and education news including Spring ISD.


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