METRO plans HOV lane conversion, mulls park and ride in Fairfield

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Cy-Fair could be getting several new park and rides in the future, but the proposed public transit improvements in the far northwest part of Harris County largely end there based on a $7.5 billion mobility improvement plan in the works.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County  released a draft of the first phase of its 2040 plan,
METRONext, in late 2018. Billed as a way to prepare for future mobility needs, METRONext could result in a $3.5 billion bond referendum being placed on November ballots. However, a bond has not been formally called, and the date and dollar amount are still being worked out and are subject to change, officials said.

The transit authority began collecting public feedback on the plan in January, including at a meeting
Feb. 7 in Cy-Fair. The main proposals in the Cy-Fair area entail extending regional bus services down Hwy. 290 and Hwy. 249, including the construction of a new park-and-ride facility in the Fairfield area, METRO officials said.

“It’s very important we track where we see population growth, where we see job growth, and give people options [to]safely and efficiently move throughout the region,” METRO CEO Tom Lambert said.

METRO is also partnering with the Texas Department of Transportation to extend a high-occupancy vehicle lane down Hwy. 290 to Mason Road, a project that could be completed around mid-2019.

If a bond election is called for, it would not require a tax rate increase, officials said. METRO is funded largely with sales tax revenue it collects throughout Harris County, including in Cy-Fair. As population growth in unincorporated Harris County outpaces growth in the city of Houston, a larger portion of sales tax revenue collected by METRO is being paid by residents in unincorporated areas.

Cy-Fair area improvements

The rationale for putting a park and ride in the Fairfield area is based on increasing use of the nearby Cypress Park & Ride—located at Skinner Road and Hwy. 290—and population projections, Lambert said.

In 2011, the average number of passenger boardings per weekday at the Cypress Park & Ride hovered around 1,200, according to METRO data. In 2018, the authority was seeing about 2,100 passenger boardings per day on average. So far in 2019, about 1,460 vehicles are being parked on-site per day, putting the park-and-ride close to its capacity of 1,500 vehicles, officials said.

“The Cypress Park & Ride has really been a success,” Lambert said. “We are basically over capacity there now, and we know there is going to be tremendous growth continuing in the northwest part of the county.”

More than 6,000 new homes are expected to be built in areas south of Hwy. 290 and west of Fry Road by 2028—largely within the Dunham Pointe and Bridgeland master-planned communities—according to a 2018 report from the demographics firm Population and Survey Analysts.

Andrea French—executive director of Transportation Advocacy Group Houston, a coalition that supports transportation infrastructure funding—said transit improvements can help take traffic off existing infrastructure, such as Hwy. 290.

“What we’re seeing is that at some point, the traffic and the congestion will demand the service,” she said.

Details on the Fairfield Park & Ride, including its size and location, are still to be determined, Lambert said.

“We’re not that micro at this point in time,” he said. “As we move forward, we’ll get more specific.”

Other proposed improvements in northwest Harris County include several park and rides on Hwy. 249 and a bus rapid-transit line connecting the West Little York Park & Ride to Missouri City along Gessner Road.

In the meantime, METRO is also planning to convert a Hwy. 290 main lane into an HOV lane during off-peak hours, a shorter-term solution not connected to METRONext. The move would help buses make faster return trips to the Cypress Park & Ride, Lambert said. The switch is expected to take effect later in 2019, but an exact timeline for implementation could not be immediately confirmed.

“Our long-term plan is to work with all of our regional partners—TxDOT, the city of Houston, Harris County, the Harris County Toll Road Authority—to get two-way HOVs on every freeway corridor,” Lambert said.

Community reactions

In deciding where to add new bus routes, METRO officials said they look for where demand for services would justify the cost of adding them. Lambert said ridership in Cy-Fair would be limited because of the lack of sidewalk and ramp infrastructure.

“If you don’t have good sidewalk infrastructure, you’re not going to get transit ridership,” he said. “[Cy-Fair] is not an area that we would look at [adding]services because we couldn’t serve it very well.”

Officials with Cypress Assistance Ministries—a  nonprofit that provides financial assistance to individuals in need—said more comprehensive public transportation would help lower-income residents. Janet Ryan, the group’s director of development, said Cy-Fair residents without a car face difficult challenges when it comes to getting to and from work.

“Without additional public transportation, this situation is unlikely to change in our area,” she said.

In the seven ZIP codes that make up the  Cy-Fair area, about 1.4 percent of workers ages
16 and older do not own a vehicle, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Ryan estimates about 35 percent of the clients who come to CAM for financial assistance deal with transportation issues.

“If they are working, it has to be within walking distance of where they live or they try to catch a ride with co-workers,” she said of residents without vehicles.

Lambert emphasized METRONext is still in the draft phase, and other solutions could be implemented later. He said a new service launched in 2018 in Missouri City called Community Connector could be rolled out in other parts of the county, including Cy-Fair. The on-demand service allows individuals to be picked up at their doors and taken to transit networks nearby.

Lambert said a METRO pilot program using autonomous vehicles will be launched soon at Texas Southern University. He said autonomous vehicles could eventually serve as another tool connecting people to transit in places such as Cy-Fair.

Although the majority of sales tax revenue collected by METRO comes from the city of Houston, unincorporated areas of Harris County—including Cy-Fair—are contributing an increasing share as population grows. Contributions from unincorporated areas have grown by 38 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to data obtained through a public records request by Community Impact Newspaper. Sales tax revenue from within the city of Houston has increased by 4 percent over that time.

Some residents who attended the Feb. 7 meeting said they were disappointed by the lack of added services in Cy-Fair in the draft proposal.

Resident Bill Brune said the Fairfield Park & Ride was a “no-brainer” but was disappointed in the plan’s general lack of attention to the Houston suburbs. He said he would have liked to see a more innovative approach to connect job centers on the west side of the county.

Cypress resident Orlando Felix said he did not think the Fairfield Park & Ride was enough to satisfy growth in the Cy-Fair area. He would like to see more ways to access transit networks that lead downtown as well as to other Cy-Fair area institutions, such as Lone Star College-CyFair.

“If this goes to vote and the only thing we have for us is another park and ride, I’m voting against it,” he said.

Lambert said the METRO board will continue to take and review public comments through July before making a decision on whether to call for a bond referendum and how large it would be. Residents can view more information and submit comments on METRO’s website.

“The plan today is to have a referendum November 2019, but they haven’t formally called that yet, so they’ll have to make that decision,” Lambert said

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Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.
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