Full Speed Ahead: Metro Okays Rapid Transit Deal

It will cost about a billion dollars, but Metro says the next phase of its local rapid transit plan will officially begin later this summer with early work on four new corridors. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, the expansion is the latest in Metro's ambitious, long-term rapid transit vision.

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"Today we begin the rapid delivery of rapid transit."

Metro Board Chairman David Wolff says the four new rapid transit routes, the Southeast, East End, Uptown and North Corridors, will add about 20 miles to the current system, the original Main Street light rail line that opened a few years ago. The Metro board officially approved the new routes by choosing a preferred construction contractor, Boise, Idaho-based Washington Group International.

"The implementation of Metro Solutions, Phase Two, is the most important development for public transit in Houston since the creation of Metro in 1978. It will improve mobility and enhance the quality of life for the nation's fourth largest metropolitan area. It will foster the development of new businesses and trigger the growth of many small and minority-owned firms."

Metro will likely start the routes with bus-like vehicles that look similar to light rail cars, but actually travel on tires. This is Metro's George Smalley.

"There is of course interest in converting these corridors to light rail as quickly as possible but it's a money issue. We have to quilify these projects for federal funding so that we can get the money necessary to build them. So if we can get the money, we'd love put light rail on from day one, but that's a hope and not something we can commit to at this point."

Officials say the new phase will be paid for with a mix of federal and local dollars and should be complete by 2012. Light rail track will be built into each corridor from the beginning. Robin Holzer is with the Citizen's Transportation Coalition and says the new corridors come with some apprehension, but are the right choice.

"Neighborhoods are faced with do we want to widen our streets to make more traffic lanes for cars and trucks and buses or do we want to put in a transit option that will move a whole lot more people and be less disruptive to our neighborhoods. There's a lot of fear and uncertainty about what that's going to be like but a lot of Houstonians are excited about a transit option that will give them an alternative to cars."

Opponants of light rail in Houston say the city doesn't need or want new rapid transit. Paul Magaziner owns a printing business along Richmond Avenue, the site of a fifth route, the University Corrider, that will start as light rail.

"This is not about smart mass transportation. This is about real estate redevelopment and being able to award out billions of dollars worth of contracts. It has nothing to do with mass transit and the transit rider."

Metro also plans to build a huge Intermodel Terminal just north of downtown. Construction could start as soon as July, with an estimated 60,000 jobs that could be created as a result of the new corridors.

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