Houston, Texas/Downtown to Astrodome Light Rail

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Houston Downtown to Astrodome Light Rail

Houston, Texas

(November 1999)

(Houston Downtown Map)

Description

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Metro) in Houston, Texas is proposing to build a 7.5 mile light rail transit (LRT) line as part of the Advanced Transit Program, in conjunction with completion of the Regional Bus Plan. The 7.5 mile Downtown to Astrodome Corridor Light Rail Project is proposed to provide an inner-city collector and distibution system for the existing 85-mile Regional Bus Plan and HOV system (expanding to 120-miles by 2010) which radiates from, but does not currently penetrate, the core of the inner-city.

The Downtown to Astrodome corridor extends 7.5 miles from the University of Houston-Downtown Campus at its north end, through the Houston Downtown Central Business District, Midtown, Museum District, Hermann Park, Texas Medical Center, and the Astrodome area. The proposed Light Rail Project is an at-grade system, generally operating within reserved lanes within existing streets. The project will serve a number of multimodal stations, including: the McKinney/Lamar Station Super Stop that integrates with the downtown underground/aerial pedestrian system and bus system; the Downtown Transit Center; two stations with Texas Medical Center Skywalk System; and the Texas Medical Center Transit Center. The construction of the light rail line will be integrated with the reconstruction of Downtown/Midtown and South Main streets.

The estimated capital cost for the 7.5 mile LRT system totals $300 million (in escalated dollars). METRO proposes start of operations in 2004, including 6-minute service frequencies in the peak periods and 12-minute off-peak frequencies. Ridership is forecast to total 33,100 average weekday boardings in the year 2020.

Houston Downtown to Astrodome Light Rail Summary Description

Proposed Project 7.5 miles, 17 station LRT
Total Capital Cost ($YOE) $300.00 million
Section 5309 Share ($YOE) $64.90 million
Annual Operating Cost ($YOE) $23.50 million
Ridership Forecast (2020) 33,100 average daily boardings
3,500 daily new riders
FY 2001 Financial Rating: Medium-High
FY 2001 Project Justification Rating: Medium
FY 2001 Overall Project Rating: Recommended

The Recommended rating is based on the project’s Medium project justification rating, relatively low cost-effectiveness and adequate transit-supportive land use, and strong capital and operating financing plans for this stage of project development. The overall project rating applies to this Annual New Starts Report and reflects conditions as of November 1999. Project evaluation is an ongoing process. As new starts projects proceed through development, the estimates of costs, benefits, and impacts are refined. The FTA ratings and recommendations will be updated annually to reflect new information, changing conditions, and refined financing plans.

Status

METRO completed a Major Investment Study/Environmental Assessment for the Downtown to Astrodome Corridor. The locally preferred alternative (LPA), consisting of a 7.5 mile light rail option, was adopted by METRO’s Board of Directors in September 1999. The Houston-Galveston Area Council (the region’s MPO) formally adopted the LPA as part of the Metropolitan Transportation Plan in September 1999. In October 1999, the Federal Transit Administration authorized METRO to initiate preliminary engineering on the 7.5 mile light rail project. METRO is currently working on the completion of required environmental documentation.

The Advanced Transit Program was authorized in ISTEA. TEA-21 Section 3030(b)(20) authorizes the Advanced Transit Program for alternatives analysis and preliminary engineering. Through FY 2000, Congress has appropriated $5.92 million in Section 5309 New Starts funds to the project.

Evaluation

The following criteria have been estimated in conformance with FTA's Technical Guidance on Section 5309 New Starts Criteria. Information reflects the 7.5 mile light rail transit project from the Houston Central Business District to the Astrodome. With FTA’s concurrence, Houston Metro did not provide criteria for the TSM alternative. N/A indicates that data are not available for a specific measure.

FTA has evaluated this project as entering preliminary engineering. The project will be re-evaluated when it is ready to advance to final design, and for next year’s Annual Report on New Starts.

Justification

The Medium project justification rating reflects relatively weak cost-effectiveness balanced by average ratings in transit-supportive land use, mobility improvements and other criteria.

Mobility Improvements

Rating: Medium

Metro estimates that the 7.5-mile LRT system will serve 33,100 average weekday boardings, will attract 3,500 daily new riders by 2015 and would result in the following annual travel time savings.

Mobility Improvements New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
Annual Travel Time Savings (Hours) 1.20 million hours N/A

Based on 1990 census data, there are an estimated 1,800 low-income households within a 1/2 mile radius of the proposed 17 LRT stations, roughly 21 percent of total households within ½ mile of proposed stations.

Environmental Benefits

Rating: Medium

The Houston region is a "severe" non-attainment area for ozone. METRO estimates the following annual emissions reductions.

Criteria Pollutant New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
Carbon Monoxide (CO) decrease of 54 annual tons N/A
Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) decrease of 24 annual tons N/A
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) decrease of 15,208 annual tons N/A
Particulate Matter (PM10) decrease of 92 annual tons N/A
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) decrease of 7,074 annual tons N/A

METRO estimates that in 2020, the 7.5-mile LRT system will result in the following savings in regional energy consumption (measured in British Thermal Units - BTU).

Annual Energy Savings New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
BTU (millions) decrease of 82,867 million annual BTU N/A

Operating Efficiencies

Rating: Medium

METRO estimates the following costs per passenger mile for the proposed system.

Operating Efficiencies No-Build TSM New Start
System Operating Cost per Passenger Mile (2020) $0.42 N/A $0.42

Values reflect 2020 ridership forecast and 1999 dollars.

Cost Effectiveness

Rating: Low-Medium

METRO estimates the following cost effectiveness index comparing the proposed new start to the no-build alternative.

Cost Effectiveness New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
Incremental Cost per Incremental Passenger $20.00 N/A

Values reflect 2020 ridership forecast and 1999 dollars.

Transit-Supportive Existing Land Use and Future Patterns

Rating: Medium

The Medium land use rating reflects strong existing conditions and trip generators in the corridor with a pro-active public and private sector effort to implement plans and policies.

Existing Conditions: The corridor connects two major employment and institutional centers in Houston, the Central Business District and the Texas Medical Center. Over 180,000 jobs currently exist within these two areas, approximately 10% of the region’s employment. Current employment along the entire corridor totals 240,000 and is expected to increase by 50,000 (23%) in the next 20 years. Population in the corridor is expected to increase from 31,000 to 55,000 (78%). The corridor includes many high trip generators, in addition to the CBD and Medical Center, including the Theater and Museum Districts, three universities, Hermann Park, and the Astrodome area (which includes convention/exhibition space, new football stadium and an amusement park). There is a substantial supply of parking in the corridor, including 85,000 spaces in the CBD and 37,000 spaces in the Texas Medical Center area.

Future Plans and Policies: While there is no zoning within Houston in the traditional sense, the majority of the corridor is within private, public, and semi-public jurisdictions that regularly produce and implement district development plans. These include the Downtown Management District, the Midtown, Market Square, and OST/Alameda Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones, Hermann Park, the Texas Medical Center, Rice University, and the Astrodome complex. Anticipating significant growth, these districts are planning with the light rail project as a central feature. The Main Street Coalition, a public-private partnership endorsed by the Houston Mayor, is coordinating the corridor’s institutions, public agencies, neighborhood associations, and other stakeholders in developing and implementing a comprehensive vision and plan for the corridor with the light rail project as its center piece. Another non-profit organization, Making Main Street Happen, has been raising private funds to assist in this effort. The Master Plan for the Texas Medical Center includes significant infrastructure investment and other initiatives which are pedestrian- and transit-supportive. The City of Houston has established Tax Increment Zones in the corridor (Midtown, Market Square, and OST/Alameda) as well as other Public Improvement Districts to promote redevelopment through reinvestment in infrastructure (including light rail). These efforts include new land use regulations and zoning plans. Policies to solidify mixed uses and additional housing are not yet solidified. The City has also established neighborhood development standards and implemented amendments to its Development Ordinance which are pedestrian- and transit-supportive.

The City of Houston, on behalf of the Main Street Coalition, was awarded a U.S.D.O.T Transportation and Community System Preservation grant to coordinate infrastructure investments in the corridor. A significant amount of new development is either underway or planned throughout the corridor, including in the CBD, the Midtown and Medical Center area, and the Astrodome area. Formal parking policies in the corridor are limited. However, the Medical Center Master Plan includes significant transit promotion to reduction in parking availability.

Local Financial Commitment

Proposed Non-Section 5309 Share of Total Project Costs: 78%

The financial plan for the 7.5 mile LRT project includes $64.9 million (22 percent of total project costs) in Section 5309 New Starts funding, $36.0 million (12 percent) in CMAQ Federal Flexible Funds, and $199.1 million (66 percent) in dedicated local sales tax revenues.

Stability and Reliability of Capital Financing Plan

Rating: Medium-High

The Medium-High rating reflects the sound financial condition of Houston Metro, the agency’s strong dedicated revenue sources available to construct and operate the proposed LRT project, and a proven track record in implementation of major capital investments.

Agency Capital Financial Condition: Houston Metro is in strong financial condition. METRO has a substantial dedicated local revenue mechanism enabling METRO to have a sizable ongoing capital program for mobility improvements while operating and maintaining its bus, HOV and other mobility services. METRO received capital and operating revenue from a dedicated 1% regional sales tax, generating over $300 million annually. Over the past five years, sales tax revenues have increased by 43%. METRO has no debt, no outstanding bond liabilities or other long-term debt.

Capital Cost Estimates and Contingencies: Current capital cost estimates, averaging over $37 million per mile for an at-grade LRT system, appear reasonable at this time. However, preliminary engineering is needed to produce more detailed cost estimates.

Existing and Committed Funding: METRO proposes that $199.1 million (in escalated dollars) from the dedicated 1% sales tax and cash reserves will be available as the non-Federal funding share. The METRO 1% sales tax mechanism, contributing over $300 million annually in revenues, has been in place and generating significant revenue for METRO projects for many years. METRO’s capital program continues to grow such that $225 million currently available in available working capital is estimated to decline to $84 million by the proposed opening of the LRT, resulting in potential cash flow pressures for this project and the overall capital program. The financing plan also includes $36 million in Federal CMAQ funds. The MPO has programmed the initial $10 million of these funds in the FY2000-2002 TIP.

New and Proposed Sources: Only existing sources are proposed for the project.

Stability and Reliability of Operating Finance Plan

Rating: Medium

The Medium rating reflects the strong dedicated local funding source and METRO planning for LRT operating expenses in projected cash flow balances.

Agency Operating Condition: Houston Metro is in strong operating financial condition, reporting positive annual operating surpluses and currently covering a 21% systemwide farebox recovery ratio. The dedicated 1% sales tax mechanism generates approximately $300 million annually available for capital and operating expenditures.

Operating Cost Estimates and Contingencies: Annual operating costs for the 7.5-mile LRT line are estimated at $23.5 million. Operating cost estimates appear reasonable given the proposed operating plan and service frequencies. More detailed operating plans and cost estimates will be examined in greater detail in preliminary engineering.

Existing and Committed Funding: All of the project’s operating funding requirements are proposed from a combination of system generated revenue and the existing regional sales tax. The dedicated 1% sales tax mechanism has a strong historical pattern as a stable and reliable revenue source for operations. More details on the operating budget and revenue sources need to be examined in preliminary engineering. For example, systemwide farebox recovery is projected to increase from 21% currently to 28% in the projected opening year of LRT service. This may be optimistic. Operating plans and projected expenditures on proposed interrelated bus and light rail services will be examined in greater detail.

New and Proposed Sources: All proposed operating revenue sources currently exist.

Locally Proposed Financing Plan

(Reported in $YOE)

Proposed Source of Funds Total Funding
($million)
Appropriations to Date
Federal: Section 5309 New Start $64.90 $5.92 million appropriated through FY 2000
Federal: CMAQ Flexible Funds $36.00 N/A
Local: Dedicated 1% Sales Tax and Cash Reserves $199.10 N/A
Total: $300.00

Note: Funding proposal reflects assumptions made by project sponsors, and are not DOT or FTA assumptions. Totals may not add due to rounding.

Houston Downtown to Astrodome Light Rail Map. The Downtown to Astrodome corridor extends 7.5 miles from the University of Houston-Downtown Campus at its north end, through the Houston Downtown Central Business District, Midtown, Museum District, Hermann Park, Texas Medical Center, and the Astrodome area.