METRO envisions expanded Inner Loop rapid transit as part of broader overhaul


A new vision for Houston’s public transit system includes $7.5 billion in investments that would bring 75 miles of rail-like service throughout the city—without the rail.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County’s new plan, dubbed METRONext and expected to go before voters in November, reflects a shift away from light rail, a favored approach in previous plans.

“It may not meet everyone’s wish list. They may not agree with every part of the plan, but it’s a compromise that’s trying to serve the greatest number of people and the transportation needs of our community,” said Cindy Siegel, co-vice chair of METRO’s board of directors.

In an average workweek in 2018, METRO transported 1.4 million people. That burden will grow, as the Greater Houston area is expected to add another 4 million people in the next 20 years, according to METRO projections.

“The decisions we make now could stagnate us tomorrow. We can’t be a city that stagnates because we didn’t invest,” said Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards, who also sits on the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s High Capacity Transit Task Force.

The plan

Last year METRO officials started with a list of about $35 billion in potential improvements, including 100 miles of light rail, 90 miles of bus rapid transit and 200 miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

From there, $7.5 billion made the cut in the final plan under the agency’s financial constraints. In its 2019 fiscal year, METRO is budgeted to bring in about $1.4 billion—over half of which comes from a one-cent sales tax approved in 1978—and spend roughly $1.2 billion.

Christof Spieler, former METRO board member and author of the book “Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit,” said the plan delivers on the highest value projects.

“In general, the resources we have are inadequate to the need. And so any plan you put out there inevitably includes a lot of things where, if we had more money you could do this or that,” Spieler said.

The plan calls for about 20 miles of light rail extensions at a cost of $2.45 billion that would connect existing downtown lines to Hobby Airport to the south and North Shepherd Park and Ride to the north.

At a cost of almost $1.37 billion, the plan also calls for upgrading the agency’s park-and-ride network, which brings in some 15,000 to 20,000 commuters in and out of the city every day. The network would operate continuously seven days a week with two-way service, making it more accessible to Inner Loop residents.

“That means that if you live in the city and work in a suburb like Clear Lake, that becomes equally useful. It means if you are commuter and have to leave the office midday or later in the day, it’s more useful,” Spieler said. “And it means you can use it for a lot of things other than work—see an Astros game, visit the museums.”

In contrast to METRO Solutions, the agency’s long-range plan approved in 2003 that called for about 63.5 miles of light rail—of which about 22 were built—METRONext puts an emphasis on bus rapid transit, or BRT. The city’s first BRT segment is set to begin service this year on Post Oak Boulevard.

Getting on board

Up to this point, Houston has not seen this kind of option, which functions like rail but with rubber tires instead of rail tracks.

“People have not experienced BRT,” Spieler said. “Done well, it is a rider experience that is quite similar to rail—you buy tickets at a platform, you have level boarding, you have dedicated lanes.”

Previous attempts to build out light rail were divisive. A rail line that would have gone down Richmond Avenue was sidelined after protests from businesses and lack of support from then-Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, who added provisions to transportation funding bills to ensure a Richmond rail line would never get built.

METRONext opts for BRT in place of some former light rail routes, including the Richmond corridor connecting downtown to the Galleria area. Though an exact corridor is yet to be determined, this route has the support of community members who originally backed the light rail vision.

“We have seen that BRT does offer some advantages in terms of how quickly it could be built and that it could be done incrementally,” said Kay Warhol, who was a volunteer with a pro-Richmond rail effort in the Montrose area. “It’s much longer than originally planned, so there would be even greater connectivity.”

Designed well, BRT lines can be upgraded to light rail when the capacity demands it, Spieler said.

Federal and regional partnerships

If final drafts of the plan are approved by METRO’s board of directors this July and the bond election is passed by voters this November, projects will take shape over the next two decades, with all aspects of the plan to be finished by 2040. Until then, projects, routes and designs are subject to change, and public input is still being factored in, officials said.

“I would tell the voters and the people in the metro area, think about sitting in rush hour traffic. … Think about the impact in your community and the current transportation gridlock that we see. Imagine if the population doubles,” Siegel said.

As METRO works to shore up local support, the agency has a new ally in Congress in Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, whose backing it will need to help garner about $4 billion in federal funding to make METRONext a feasible plan.

“I have the ability to be an advocate for the transit projects that we want to do here in the region, whether it be METRONext plan or other projects emerging in our region that need federal dollars,” said Fletcher, who has been appointed to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Meanwhile, H-GAC’s transit task force is looking into regional approaches. Edwards, who sits on Houston City Council, said Los Angeles, where voters in 2016 approved $120 billion for a massive transit overhaul, offers an important lesson.

“The transit system has got to benefit everyone, not just one footprint inside the city where no one else has access to connect to it,” Edwards said. “That’s not going to get the buy-in you need for a paradigm shift in funding. If you’re going to get people to buy in, they are going to have to see a benefit.”

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  1. This plan should be defeated by the voters in November. Ridership on the Light Rail lines is abysmal and the ridership on the local bus routes has been falling for years. A recent survey conducted by the HBRC, released last week, shows that 93% of Houston voters prefer using their cars to get to work and back.

    Instead of spending $7 billion on insider contractors and major contributors to Mayor Turner’s campaign chest, we should spend money on fixing our flooding and drainage issues and on fixing our pot hole filled streets.

  2. jim scarborough

    The plan should be defeated in November . BRT ( Bus Rapid Transport) is currently under construction on Post Oak Blvd. fora cost between $200-300 M . We should wait until that is complete to see if it will work. . This referendum is a blank check to be used to enrich already rich contractors

  3. We need to take in consideration how our money has been spent by Metro for the last 40 years. The voters agreed to a 1% sales tax to fund Metro in 1979 or 1980. Originally, it was for a rail system that was to be built along the Westpark Corridor. At some point, Metro decided to move the plans along Westheimer. Small businesses and others objected to the damage it would cause on Westheimer. Then, Metro decided to move it to Richmond Ave. through the Afton Oaks neighborhood. An exorbitant amount of money was spent on new studies and elaborate brochures explaining that no house would be disrupted on Richmond Ave. Members of Afton Oaks Homeowners Board physically measured the amount of space needed for the rail. It came within 3 feet of the front doors of the Richmond Ave. houses. So much for the expensive studies and propaganda from Metro. In the meantime, Westpark was developed and left no space for the rail. Why have millions of dollars been wasted? Why wasn’t a rail put on Westpark where we were told it would be before we agreed to the sales increase? Why wasn’t a rail built from Sugarland to Downtown? To the Woodlands to Downtown? To Clear Lake to Downtown? And to Katy to Downtown? Why should we give Metro more money to play with?

    • William Phillips

      Light rail was and is never meant to move people from the far outlying suburbs… IT is amazing for moving people inside or near the 610 loop.. TO go from the near north side to the museum district or any of the three major pro sports team arenas.. Or to more from 610 to inner city dining or work… I lived on the red line near north side tidwell line.. We used it every weekend.. To go to texans games.. or downtown to walk around and see the sites…


    Mass Transit takes lots of cars off the road, so it is needed to fight congestion. I also think it is cheaper to move 100,000 people by a new transit line than adding 3-4 lanes to do the moving by road, so Yes it is a bargain despite all the claims of waste and overruns (but they never mention the cost of jamming in more road lanes which is the alternative). I like the idea of Rapid Bus option, the Light Rail always seemed a desperate attempt to get White people to use transit whereas minorities are glad to use the bus since they aren’t snobs. Sorry to be blunt, I take the bus and this is what I see. No one loves mass transit, but for all these reasons it needs to be done. No knowledgeable professor or researcher thinks we can afford the cost of jamming in more lanes, and this should end the discussion unless someone can find a contrary professor or researcher. This aint Russia, this is well meaning politicans and bureaucrats who will use most of the money well and build something, the jerks who claim “Fraud” or “Communism” need to have some perspective and intellectual dishonesty rather than be so shrill and dishonest. Personally I prefer to live within mile of work and walk but too many morons like to clog the roads. PS I moved from Minnesota 3 years ago and your bus system really speeds along as crazy speeds and has far cheaper far (Minnesota is $2 or more), so Houston REALLY HAS A FAIRLY GOOD TRANSIT SYSTEM.

    • William Phillips

      move back.. your racist idiotic comments that white people prefer light rail are stupid and myopic.. Light rail is awesome for weekday or weekend travel.. far more comfortable than standard bus travel and to be honest it’s just more fun….. simple as that.. BUILD more rail.. to the west side.. the heights, montrose.. far west side… IMO.. you haven’t lived here long enough to have any opinion worth listening to..


    I previously commented. About any idea of longer transit lines to distant suburbs. Minnesota tried a STUPID long distance daily train called NORTHSTAR and people did not use it and it was an embarrassing costly failure. People won’t risk being stranded too far from home, so any long transit ideas are stupid, like to Woodlands, or Clear Lake. Really.

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Matt Dulin
Matt joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2018 and is the City Editor for Houston's Inner Loop editions.
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