Houston, Texas/Downtown to Astrodome Light Rail
Downtown to Astrodome Light Rail
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 distribution system for the existing 85-mile Regional Bus Plan and HOV system (expanding to 120-miles by 2010).
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 is currently proposing that the project be constructed without any Section 5309 New Starts funds. 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.
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. The overall project rating applies to this Annual New Starts Report and reflects conditions as of November 2000. 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.
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 completion of an Environmental Assessment.
The Advanced Transit Program was authorized in ISTEA. TEA-21 Section 3030(b)(20) authorizes the Advanced Transit Program for final design and construction. Through FY 2001, Congress has appropriated $5.92 million in Section 5309 New Starts funds to the project.
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 being in 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.
The Medium project justification rating reflects adequate project performance projections in transit-supportive land use and mobility improvements, and an above average cost effectiveness rating.
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.
Based on 1990 census data, there are an estimated 2,000 low-income households within a 1/2 mile radius of the proposed 17 LRT stations.
The Houston region is a "severe" non-attainment area for ozone. METRO estimates the following annual emissions reductions.
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).
METRO estimates the following costs per passenger mile for the proposed system.
METRO estimates the following cost effectiveness index comparing the proposed new start to the no-build alternative.
Transit-Supportive Existing Land Use and Future Patterns
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 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 that are pedestrian- and transit-supportive. The City of Houston has established Tax Increment Reinvestment 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 that are pedestrian- and transit-supportive.
The City of Houston, on behalf of the Main Street Coalition, has been awarded two successive USDOT Transportation and Community System Preservation grants to coordinate infrastructure investments in the corridor, and a Corridor Master Plan is being developed. Funds have also been received from the FTA's Livable Communities Initiative, and a new joint public/private venture is incorporating transit accessibility in new project design and development. 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. The Medical Center plans to add 9.3 million square feet of new space and 25,000 employees by 2015. Formal parking policies in the corridor are limited. However, the Medical Center Master Plan includes significant transit promotion to compensate for a reduction in parking availability.
Local Financial Commitment
Proposed Non-Section 5309 Share of Total Project Costs: 100%
METRO currently proposes no Section 5309 New Starts funds for this project. The financial plan for the 7.5 mile LRT project includes $275.4 million (92 percent of total project costs) in METRO Sales Tax Proceeds funding, $15.6 million (5 percent) in sale of excess land funds, and $9.0 million (3 percent) in leaseback revenues.
Stability and Reliability of Capital Financing Plan
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 receives 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 45%. METRO has no outstanding debt.
Capital Cost Estimates and Contingencies: Current capital cost estimates, averaging $40 million per mile for an at-grade LRT system, appear reasonable at this time.
Existing and Committed Funding: METRO proposes that $275.4 million (in escalated dollars) from the dedicated 1% sales tax and cash reserves will be available. 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 as working capital is estimated to decline to $39 million by the proposed opening of the LRT, resulting in potential cash flow pressures for this project and the overall capital program.
New and Proposed Sources: One innovative financing technique is identified as a project funding source. A lease/leaseback agreement will transfer the depreciation benefits of METRO-owned maintenance facilities.
Stability and Reliability of Operating Finance Plan
Rating: Medium - High
The Medium-High 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. METRO expects to have a commensurate reduction in local bus operating costs plus farebox revenues to offset the full light rail operating from the current budget. Operating cost estimates appear reasonable given the proposed operating plan and service frequencies.
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. For example, systemwide farebox recovery is projected to increase from 21% currently to 28% in the opening year of LRT service.
New and Proposed Sources: All proposed operating revenue sources currently exist.