America Fast Forward: Keeping Houston’s light rail solution on track

The rail component of the Metro Solutions plan. The first light rail line in downtown Houston opened in 2004.

This is the fifth story in our series examining how L.A. County’s 30/10 financing model — and its national counterpart America Fast Forward — could help other cities around the country.

A light rail car on Main Street in Houston. Photo by accent on eclectic, via Flickr.

Los Angeles’ image as the nation’s capital of cars and sprawl persists, despite its having among the highest number of transit riders in the country and dozens of dense, urban neighborhoods. There are almost certainly many other regions as dependent on private vehicles as L.A. and one of them is Harris County, Texas.

After all, it’s the home of Houston, a city that’s both the petroleum energy capital of America and less than half as densely populated as Los Angeles. It’s also a region that’s considering a third outer-belt highway bypass into undeveloped prairie lands, one that Infrastructurist skewered as a “highway to nowhere.”

But there’s a competing vision on the table for the future of Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city. And this transit alternative vision was embraced by Houston-area residents in November 2003, when they approved a long-range transit plan to be implemented by Metro, the regional transit agency for Harris County. Light Rail Now described the measure’s passage accordingly:

Voters approved by 52% the Metro Solutions plan – including an immediate $640 million revenue bond measure for Metro, the transit agency, to undertake construction of 22 miles of rail transit, with both light rail (LRT) and regional “commuter”-type rail. The vote also authorizes 44 new bus routes, doubles HOV lanes, and extends Houston Metro’s participation in local road projects…The bonding program is part of a $7.5 billion regional transit plan which will build eventually 73 miles of rail transit. Metro will now seek federal matching funds for the new rail projects.

Houston’s vision has already paid off. The city’s first light rail line, the 7.5-mile Main Street line, averages about 40,000 boardings each weekday — a number it wasn’t expected to hit until 2020 — giving it one of the highest riders-per-mile rates in the country.

And construction of three more lines is underway. These combined will add 15.3 miles and 28 stations to the system. To speed up construction on these lines, Metro began a five-year, $2.6 billion bond sale in 2010 and locked in construction costs with builder Parsons Transportation Group to help stave off inflation.

A Metro train travels down Main Street in the heart of Houston. Photo via

At the same time, America Fast Forward is moving closer to hopefully being enshrined in law although there are certainly obstacles. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently announced its intent to expand TIFIA, the federal program that provides “credit assistance in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees, and standby lines of credit to finance surface transportation projects of national and regional significance.”

While it’s too early to tell just how Houston could take advantage of America Fast Forward, it’s definitely something their transit agency is considering. Harris County Metro Media Specialist Carolina Mendoza shared the agency’s thoughts on AFF:

[Metro is] aware of TIFIA and America Fast Forward. TIFIA has been a funding scenario for the University Line for the past couple of years. However, the line is further down the road. Bottom line – yes, America Fast Forward is on our radar screen but [the University Line] project is still in the planning and design phase.

Local transit advocacy group Houston Tomorrow has called that line “the key to Houston’s greatness.” Unfortunately, the recession has taken a bite out of local sales tax revenues dedicated to transit. Worthy projects like the University Line could slide further into the future without a stable funding source. It’s a story echoed around the country.

It’s also probably safe to say that an expanded pool of federal loan dollars via America Fast Forward could give Houston a greater chance to make the University Line a reality sooner as the Houston Metro area continues to grow. The same goes for other communities pursuing ambitious transit expansion plans: That’s why America Fast Forward isn’t just a good deal for L.A.

As we’ve shown in the past, AFF holds promise for cities in all corners of the U.S. See our previous features on Denver, Salt Lake City, Charlotte and Minneapolis.

1 reply

  1. The line is beautifully constructed and is a great way to get around. I’ve been through there twice on my way to new Orleans and both times I went into downtown just to ride the metro. The new downtown mall is new and still empty as of last year but an awesome 3 level outdoor shopping center. I feel like Houston is kind of like la in that downtown really doesn’t have too many attractions which seems to be changing for both cities with new investment in public transit and other alternatives. The only thing I didn’t like much was that the trains cross at street level for all intersections with no signal priority which slows the train down a bit. This may have changed but as of last year that’s where they were at. My favorit part was where the trains go through a pond and the tracks are designed so that the train looks as if it were to be hovering over water,… Pretty sweet