Houston's New Tracks

Houston’s New Light Rail Lines Open This Weekend, But Are More On The Way?

After much delay, Metro is set to open two new light rail lines, but it remains to be seen if other lines will be built. In Part 1 of our series “Houston’s New Tracks,” we take a look back at the history of light rail and what the future may hold.

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A new light rail train arrives wrapped in plastic on July 2, 2014.

 

In late 2009, Metro applied for $900 million in federal funds for light rail construction. The money was essential to expand the service across the city.

But by 2010, things at Metro were in chaos. The CEO was under fire. The D.A.’s office was investigating claims of illegal document shredding. And the agency was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

Chairman Gilbert Garcia says when he first arrived at Metro it was like “Rome was burning.”

Garcia was appointed by Mayor Annise Parker in 2010 to overhaul the agency, and he says they immediately got to work plowing through its twisted finances and drastically cutting the budget.

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Then the Federal Transit Administration told Metro it was in danger of losing that $900 million. That’s because Metro bought rail cars from a Spanish company, a violation of the government’s “Buy America” provision. And with that, Garcia says things came to a halt.

“The previous board had already torn up streets and all of a sudden we had to stop the entire rail effort and we knew that was going to create so many difficulties for our friends and all the businesses on the lines,” Garcia says.

Metro then decided to cooperate with the FTA’s investigation of its procurement practices. In 2011, the agency got its first installment of federal light rail money.

The agency then got to work on three new lines, the East End and Southeast Lines, and the North Line extension that opened in late 2013. The agency started an aggressive public outreach campaign for people along the routes, but as construction progressed several issues surfaced.

The latest came when a contractor broke a chilled water line late last year. Metro CEO Tom Lambert says they’re still waiting to be reimbursed for about $10 million dollars in damages.

“A whole section of track had to come out, a whole section of street had to come out. All the communications and fiber optic cables that tied the next train arrival announcements, that all had to come out and we had to replace it all,” Lambert explains.   

All of the problems led METRO to push back the opening of the East End and Southeast Lines that were set to open late last year. Lambert says he knows people are frustrated, but it’s Metro’s goal to put out a high-quality product that will last for decades.

“This is an extremely complicated project. We went from seven miles of rail in December 2013 to almost 24 miles of rail in about 18 months,” Lambert says.

So once riders start boarding the new lines this weekend, what’s next for commuter rail in the region?

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Congressman John Culberson (left) and Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia sign agreement on future transit funding.

An agreement has now been signed between Metro and Congressman John Culberson, a longtime critic who’s fought hard against the proposed University line along Richmond.

Culberson has now agreed to seek federal funding for a proposed commuter train that would connect Missouri City to NRG stadium along Highway 90A. In return, Metro will seek voter approval before seeking to build the Richmond light rail line, which would go from the University of Houston main campus to Southwest Houston.

Culberson says it’s a historic agreement.

“Because now the entire Houston area congressional delegation will be able to work together to make sure Metro gets credit for local money already spent, on for example, the Harrisburg line, and spend it on 90A,” Culberson says.

But considering Metro would need hundreds of millions of dollars for the project, along with the cooperation of local communities, it could be years before commuters can leave the region’s clogged highways and take a train from the suburbs.

 

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Gail Delaughter

Transportation Reporter

From early-morning interviews with commuters to walks through muddy construction sites, Gail covers all aspects of getting around Houston. That includes walking, driving, cycling, taking the bus, and occasionally flying. Before she became transportation reporter in 2011, Gail hosted weekend programs for Houston Public Media. She's also covered courts in...

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