While light rail gets the attention, studies continue for commuter rail in Houston. HGAC is evaluating possible routes, and TxDOT’s selected alternative for the SH35 corridor includes commuter rail. As I’ve said before, commuter rail isn’t an alternative to light rail. But the only way we’ll have an effective commuter rail system in Houston is if it connects well to light rail. And that means it makes sense to include commuter rail in light rail planning and vice-versa.
The fundamental problem is this: commuter rail needs to use existing railroad rights of way. And none of those rights of way enter any of the major employment centers in the urban core. So every commuter rail passenger will need to transfer to another mode of transit to get to work. And, since that mode should be as frequent, fast, and reliable as possible, it should be light rail, not buses in traffic lanes. And, of course, the transfers between commuter rail and light rail need to be as easy as possible.
METRO’s plans already include two light rail-commuter rail transfer stations: the Intermodal Center (just north of Downtown) and Northwest Mall. Both serve the 290 line, connecting it to Uptown, Greenway, and the Texas Medical Center as well as to Downtown. But the other commuter rail lines need to be connected to the activity centers as well. And that means creating more transfers at key points where the light rail lines intersect commuter rail. The most significant of these places:
At this point, commuter rail is still speculative. The lines on the map above are those rated highly by HGAC (with the exception of the I-10 line, which HGAC studied despite the fact that the railroad line is now occupied by the Katy Freeway) as well as the SH 35 corridor studied by TXDOT. Some of these may be built; it seems unlikely all of the will be built, and it’s entirely possible none will. But transit systems have long made provision for possible future expansion.
It may seem a bit premature to plan a transit line around another speculative future line. But it would seem really stupid if 10 or 20 years from now a commuter rail line crossed a light rail line that connects to a lot of jobs, and there’s no way to transfer from one to the other.