Saturday, September 20, 2003

Local Control

Charles Kuffner brings us a lovely tale of a Houston Congressman doing his best to obstruct the will of his constituents.

Reader rp fleshes the story out some more:

This is a story about a big city called Houston, my local Republican congressman by the name of John Culberson, & mass transit.
The Metropolitan Authority of Harris County has built a light rail line that is supposed to open on Jan 2004. This Nov.4, there will be a bond election on the next segment of rail to be built. However, Rep. John Culberson has announced he has gotten the Federal Transit Administration to agree to make Houston ineligible for federal transit funds because of the current ballot language, that is, the ballot doesn't list all the rail segments to be voted on. This would effectively kill the rail plan.

What is interesting is that Culberson is also pushing the expansion of I-10 in West Houston. The Texas Dept. of Transportation's plan calls for building ten lanes in each direction [!]. Some people object to this. They are suing TXDoT to stop construction. They also want room left on the freeway for future rail. The current plan for expanding the freeway was speeded up when the Harris County Toll Road Authority announced it would build a toll road down the middle of the Katy Freeway. HCTRA is controlled by the Harris Co. Commissioner's Court, which is controlled by County Judge Robert Eckels and two other Republican Commissioners. Judge Eckels has stated he thinks that the transportation needsof the Houston area could be filled by the Toll Road Authority building more highways. He also has talked about building a toll road through Memorial Park, Houston's biggest, on railroad right-of-way. The Toll Road Authority has previously talked about building a bridge to replace the Bolivar ferry in Galveston County ,and seems to be interested in building part of the Grand Parkway in Brazoria County .

All of this raises questions about why Rep. Culberson is trying to keep Houston from having a rail system like Dallas . John Culberson could be defined as a cheap-labor conservative, who mistrusts public transportation or other public infastructure. He also may want to increase the power of Judge Robert Eckels by increasing the power of the Toll Road Authority. He may want to make developement in the Houston area keep heading outward towards the Grand Parkway instead of being refocused inside Loop 610. No matter, I just wish folks will tell him to stop.

The anti-rail fanaticism really confuses me. The highway fetish freaks out in LA and OC in California have fantasies about double decking all the highways, which is the only way to do much expansion without starting to knock down lots of properties, and I don't think mowing down entire neighborhoods like they once did to construct urban highways is gonna fly anymore.

I'm not very familiar with the Houston area, but from what I understand they have in spades that problem that many areas increasingly have. Since modern subdivisions are frequently built with only one access road to the "main" road (often gated, but either way), you can have huge traffic problems where there really need not be any. There's only one way to get from point A to B, so there's no way for excess traffic to spillover to smaller routes. Obviously it's understandable why people want to restrict traffic access to their cozy neighborhoods, but once everyone does it ...Houston, we have a problem.

I'm a big rail fan, though I recognize that it's only going to "work" if attitudes about land use radically change. Unless it's accompanied by a willingness to allow some transit-oriented development - higher residential and commercial density around the stations instead of giant parking lots and garages - even this fan has to grudgingly admit it's mostly a waste of money. Of course that high density development isn't putting little Manhattans everywhere, it's just putting a modern version of the center of the "small town" we're all supposed to be nostalgic about.

In Orange County, CA, my former home and home to blogger extraordinaire Calpundit, they've been trying to push a light rail system through forever. The people seem to roughly want it (barely), but they just don't want it running through their neighborhoods. I heard a story that years back the then (and now current again) mayor tried to establish a plan for a high density corridor for a proposed rail system, and printed up nice advertising pictures of a small urban center with people strolling and sidewalk dining and whatnot. Opponents took the pictures and added in numerous homeless people and circulated them. There's OC for ya.

Once upon a time the Red Line went all the way to Balboa. Ah, the good old days...