METRORail is the 12.8-mile (20.6 km) light rail line in Houston, Texas (USA). With an average weekday ridership of 38,300, METRORail ranks as the second most-travelled light rail system in the Southern United States and the 14th most-traveled light rail system in the United States, with the second highest ridership per track mile. METRORail is operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO).
This line was built after an approximately 20-year battle, starting in 1983 when voters rejected a rail plan by referendum. Voter referendum in 1988 approved a 20 mile light rail plan; however, Bob Lanier was elected mayor in 1992 and stopped the plan. In 1991, U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, removed $65 million in federal funding for the rail line. Then, Houston drew up a rail plan with entirely local funding. In 2001, several groups sued to stop construction, claiming that the METRO organization was a "private business" and subject to Houston City Charter provisions regulating business use of its streets; they obtained 2 temporary injunctions in January 2001, which were reversed by appeals court on March 9, 2001.
Ground was broken on this line on March 13, 2001. The opening of METRORail, which took place on January 1, 2004, came 64 years after the previous streetcar system had been shut down. The cost was $325 million  Houston was the largest city in the United States without a rail system after the 1990 opening of the Blue Line in Los Angeles.
Tom DeLay strongly opposed construction of the METRORAIL line and twice blocked federal funding for the system in the United States House of Representatives. Thus the Metrorail was built without any federal funding until November 2011 when a $900 million grant was approved for expansions.
In spite of the opposition of some groups to the Metrorail, surveys conducted by Stephen Klineberg and Rice University have shown consistent increases in support of rail transport and decreases in support for bigger and better roads/highways in the Houston metropolitan area in recent years. Klineberg considers these changes a "paradigm shift" or "sea change" on attitudes towards mass transit.
In the first year of METRORail, ridership, though increasing from 12,102 in January to 32,941 in October, tapered off slightly in the last two months of the year, and "fell short of the 35,000 goal transit officials had set" in early 2004, according to the Houston Chronicle. The line reached 75 million boardings in December 2011, four years ahead of schedule, but throughout that year, ridership numbers remained flat or showed small decreases. By 2012, average weekday ridership was 36,250.
Notable records in ridership have occurred on the following dates:
- February 1, 2004: 64,005 passengers rode the METRORail to Super Bowl XXXVIII
- February 23, 2004: 54,193 passenger boardings were recorded, the highest weekday at the time
- February 27, 2007: 56,388 passengers were recorded the day of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo
- March 15, 2012: 70,611 passengers were recorded; many of whom attended the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and a performance by The Band Perry after the rodeo at the Reliant Park sports complex.
- March 19, 2014: 76,925 passengers were recorded due in part to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
Route and infrastructure
The route is a 12.8-mile (20.6 km) double-tracked, 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge line with 24 stations approximately a 1⁄2-mile (0.8 km) apart, running from UH–Downtown to the Northline Transit Center Station/HCC Railway Technology. The entire route is at grade and on city streets. Power supply is from 600/750 Volt DC overhead wires with nine substations. The line follows Main Street for 8 stations from UH–Downtown to Wheeler Station, then follows Fannin Street for the remainder of the route until Fannin South. However, northbound trains run on San Jacinto Street (rather than Fannin) for a small section of the route between the Wheeler and Museum District stations. The tracks are usually in the center of the street; however, the southbound tracks between the Wheeler and Museum District stations "hug the left curb" according to one source.
Significant businesses and institutions along this route include the University of Houston–Downtown, Houston's restaurant district near Preston Station, the Downtown Transit Center, Houston's museum district, Rice University, Memorial Hermann Hospital, the Texas Medical Center, and Reliant Astrodome.
A Park and Ride parking lot is available at one station: Fannin South. It has approximately 1,200 parking spaces. Parking fees included a daily rate of $3 and a monthly hangtag contract of $40.
Architectural firm Pierce Goodwin Alexander & Linville, of Houston, Texas, was in charge of the final architectural/engineering design and design support, with a $2.3 million contract. However, all stations south of Burnett Transit Center were designed by the Houston office of St. Louis-based architectural firm Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum. All the stations are of similar design—250-feet long and partially covered by glass roofs. Station length was constrained by the distance between crosswalks in downtown city blocks; station platforms are low-floor and 350mm high.
The right-of-way and the stations were built by three contractors for approximately $115 million: Texas Sterling Construction Co. of Houston, Bencon Management of Houston, and Beers Construction Co. of Atlanta. The line construction was divided into five sections, with a resident engineer for each section, to speed up construction.
The line has a yard and a maintenance facility connected by loop track to the south of the Fannin South station.
Houston operates a fleet of 18 Siemens-built Avanto S70 light-rail vehicles, delivered in 2003-2004, purchased for $118 million, and built in Florin, California. Each 96-foot (29 m) long, double-articulated vehicle has four low-platform doors per side, is 70% low-floor, and has a capacity of 72 seated and approximately 169 standing passengers, or a total capacity of around 241 per car. This approximately 250-person capacity has been reached on certain Super Bowl weekends. These S70 cars have a top speed of 66 mph (106 km/h). On this system, trains are operated as single cars or in 2-car sets.
For future expansion of the METRORail system, Metro had originally turned to CAF USA, with a total order of 105 cars. This order was cancelled in February 2011 as it did not meet the "Buy America" clause. CAF gave a refund, which METRO will apply to new cars.
In the spring of 2011, METRO purchased 19 Siemens Avanto S70 cars (the same model as its original 18) that were originally slated for Utah Transit Authority's UTA TRAX system for $83 million. The cars are being built in Florin, California, and differ slightly from the cars Utah received in detail, including having more air-conditioning units. They were slated to be delivered in October 2012 and enter service by that December. METRO said that these cars were ordered to accommodate ridership that was 4 years ahead of expectations and to get cars more quickly.
In September 2011, the METRO approved the purchase of 39 cars from CAF upon receipt of a new proposal from CAF that is compliant with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Buy America guidelines.
The standard fare for this rail line is $1.25 for both cash and MetroQ Fare Card riders; $3 for a Day Pass. The discount fare of $0.60 available for MetroQ Fare Card riders who are seniors 65-69, disabled, Medicare cardholders, or full-time students (elementary, high school, and university); $1.50 for a Day Pass. All discount riders must show ID (except for elementary and high school students). Free transfers to METRO buses are available with the MetroQ Fare Card only, for 3 hours in the same direction only. The MetroQ Fare Card holders can earn "Rider Rewards" of 5 free trips for every 50 paid trips. Tickets and cards are purchased from machines at the stations. No charge applies to Houston Texans home game days, nor to seniors over 70.
Tickets and cards are checked by inspectors randomly aboard trains. Failure to pay the fare is a Class C Misdemeanor and is subject to a fine of up to $500. Consumption of alcoholic beverages is prohibited on the train platform and subject to the same fine as a Class C Misdemeanor.
The light rail line operates all 7 days of the week. It begins operations at 4:30 a.m. weekdays and 5:30 a.m. weekends, and ends service at midnight Monday thru Thursday nights, 2:20 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights and 11:40 p.m. Sunday nights. Scheduled train frequency varies from 6 minutes during the day on weekdays to 20 minutes after 9 P.M. on all days.
The scheduled time for an end-to-end trip through the entire12.8-mile (20.6 km) route is on average 50 minutes.
METRORail operations are controlled from Houston TranStar, a traffic and emergency management center for the city and surrounding region. One source claims that the trains have priority signalling at intersections. However, another source claims that the trains do not have signal priority at intersections in the vicinity of the medical centers, but at several intersections north of the medical centers the traffic lights for road traffic in all directions turn red when a train crosses the intersections.
This line has been the subject of several controversies from critics. It also has several supporters. Some businesses along the Main Street route applauded the line when it opened because of the anticipation of more business in the area. The line has been credited for an increase in the population in Houston's core area (in the Houston Downtown Management District)  Light rail supporters noted the higher than anticipated early ridership statistics for this line. Numerous Houston politicians such as Houston representative Sheila Jackson Lee  and former Houston Mayor Lee P. Brown  and even one state-level Texas Republican politician, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, have supported the line.
For a full year before the Metrorail system's opening, a program to prepare drivers to share Houston streets with the Metrorail trains was conducted, consisting of driver safety classes, community forums, and public service announcements. However, in the beginning of METRORail's operation, the line averaged 11 crashes per track mile per year, compared with the national average of 0.55 for similar rail systems, giving rise to local derogatory nicknames among detractors such as the "Wham Bam tram" and becoming part of Houston lore. METRO has consistently blamed driver error as the cause of the high collision rate and the transit agency's police department regularly tickets motorists who cross paths with the train. METRO also argued that an independent panel of transportation experts at Texas A&M University issued a report in 2004 finding no fundamental flaws with the Metrorail system, although this report did recommend minor adjustments to signal timing and signage.
For accidents occurring during the first year and a half of operation, the METRO and its police have blamed all but one on pedestrians getting too close to the tracks or motorists making illegal turns or running red lights. Red light running is the main cause in downtown, whereas near the Texas Medical Center illegal turns are the main cause. Some of the people involved in the crashes have claimed that poor signage and signal layouts have contributed to the problem. Critics argue that such a high rate of driver error must be attributable to an environment conducive to it.
Critics have also noted the fact that the system is at-grade, while supporters contend that lack of federal funding due to political opposition made construction of a grade separated rail line unfeasible. Supporters of the METRO also claim that the Main Street corridor that the train travels upon had a high accident rate even before the METRORail entered service. METRO has rearranged some signals and altered some sign arrangements to try to make things clearer. These new signal arrangements decreased the accident rate to a fourth of its former level by August 2005, approximately 20 months after opening. Sociology and urban studies professor Stephen Klineberg argues that the high rate of crashes in Houston is attributable to the high rate of automobile driving and low rate of walking in Houston.
CAF-USA Expansion Order Controversy
The Federal Transit Administration investigated whether METRO's plan to order light-rail vehicles built for five new rail lines by Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF) violated federal "Buy America" rules. All federally funded projects require rolling stock to be assembled in the United States. If METRO violated the rules, $900 million in federal funds could be rescinded. METRO argued that its plan to have CAF build the 2 prototype cars for this order in Spain was permitted because only local funds were used for these cars and this order was separate from the order for the remaining 103 cars (to be built the US with federal funds). However, the FTA disagreed, stating that the prototype contract was an "integral" part of the total contract  and that METRO's overall compliance to the rules was the most important issue.
In February 2008, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) responded to an inquiry that was made by a prospective rail car supplier. In March 2008, the FTA outlined this as one of the issues regarding the North/Red Line Extension and Southeast/Purple Line. The FTA wanted a response from then-president Frank Wilson in April 2010,; whether he responded is unknown. METRO argued that they were purchasing "off the shelf, standard vehicles" to which (they claim) the rules do not apply. In a July 2010 Record of Decision on the University Line, the FTA instructed METRO to refrain from purchasing any trains. According to internal METRO emails, when Frank Wilson was approached by railcar contractor Siemens AG in January 2009 with what Siemens claims was a low bid on 29 new cars for the Red Line/Red Line Extension and the East End/Green Line, he allowed them to make their presentation but avoided any type of discussion or negotiation.
On September 8, 2010, the FTA found METRO in violation of the rules, stating that METRO must rebid the contract. The FTA blamed the previous METRO administration for "both alarming and disturbing" findings. METRO was blamed for working together with CAF to avoid numerous provisions in "Buy America" to the point that CAF had an advantage over other domestic firms.The FTA stated that the federal funds could be approved if METRO rectified the situation. An online copy of the report is available.
METRO announced that all new line construction would be delayed by up to a year. Construction of the Uptown and University lines was threatened due to the FTA decision. Texas Governor Rick Perry argued that former Houston mayor Bill White needed to own up to his decision to appoint Frank Wilson as the METRO CEO. A stop-work order was issued by METRO to CAF USA, and METRO considered what could be done to retrieve the $40 million invested already. CAF faced an investigation in order to confirm is it still qualified to be a bidder. CAF USA argued that the FTA decision was based upon incomplete and incorrect information and requested that the FTA reconsider it. CAF threatened to sue METRO if they rebid, and the METRO considered litigation "likely". METRO planned to deal with a $430 million budget cut by removing 160 printers. Property owners whose land were taken for the planned METRO lines complained about their land and that the lines may never be built.
In September 2011, the METRO approved the purchase of 39 cars from CAF upon receipt of a new proposal from CAF that is compliant with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Buy America guidelines.
Examiner.com claims, in an article titled "Houston METRO Transit uses local money to bail out another 'Buy America' problem", that Buy America violations also disqualified 1,200 radios purchased by METRO.
During the 2003 expansion referendum, critics of the system opposed METRO for spending public funds for "educational advertisements" about the proposed system, which critics claimed promote the referendum.
The main political action committee (PAC) supporting the bond was accused of having a conflict of interest because it received over US$100,000 in contributions from contractors and equipment suppliers for METRORail who stood to gain financially from its expansion.[dead link] This includes a US$50,000 donation from Siemens AG, the corporation which built METRORail's original 18 trains.
In November 2007, local NBC station, KPRC Local 2, reported that METRORail did not respond to disabled patrons, resulting in one being stranded. According to KPRC, little was done after 3 years of complaints.
The METRO agency was accused of document shredding in January 2010. This led to an investigation by the Harris County District Attorney, followed by a seizing of documents by investigators. Mayor Annise Parker replaced five members on METRO's board in order to move ahead. CEO Frank Wilson resigned in May and the case was settled by June 2010. METRO was acquitted of any wrongdoing on July 27, 2010 by the Harris County District Attorney. However, Mayor Parker asked for further investigation, which showed that there were no records of METRO committee meeting decisions. Michael Reed argued that METRO had been deteriorating financially under Frank Wilson.
Allegations were made that METRO lied about the income from their sales tax revenue to allow them to gain $900 million in federal funds for all five planned rail expansions. However, city officials found no such attempt by METRO to mislead them, but the Federal Transit Administration continued to withhold its approval for the money until further figures can be examined.
The Woodlands (an unincorporated Houston suburb) became entangled with the City of Houston when it agreed to pay a sum of money in order to avoid annexation. This has led to the Woodlands area funding another METRORail project in which light rail stations would be better connected and walkways expanded. Comments about this have given rise to allegations of extortion.
The new North line began operation on 21 December 2013, while the Southeast and East End lines are tentatively scheduled to be completed sometime during 2014. Central Station will also be added to the current Red Line in order to provide transfers to/from both the Southeast/Purple and the East End/Green lines.
In August 2010, a budget shortfall of $49 million was announced by METRO, which has halted progress on the University/Blue Line. The line has already received a final Federal Record of Decision but there are no official words regarding when construction would start or how the line would be funded. METRO previously claimed that the completion of construction and opening of the Red Line Extension would be by 2013 and the East End/Green Line by 2014. However, METRO announced on September 9, 2010 that the opening dates for the North, Southeast, and East End lines had been pushed back to 2014, and by December 2011 the start date had slipped back to 2015.
On December 8, 2011, the FTA announced an award of $900 million, broken into two $450 million grants from the New Starts transit program, to fund construction of the North and Southeast lines, by that time estimated to begin service in 2015.
Following METRO's 2010 annual audit, the agency has decided to cancel the Burnett Plaza project. This is part of a US$168,000,000 asset liquidation. The price of the land US$21,000,000 is valued separately.
METRO offered the public a chance to name stations on its expansion lines.
Due to lack of funds, it was announced in early 2013 that the Uptown/Gold Line will be constructed initially as a bus rapid transit line. The design will feature the ability to easily convert the line to light rail in the future. This will allow the line to be functional as early as 2017.
|North / Red Line Extension||5.3 mi (8.5 km)||UH–Downtown Station to the Northline Transit Center||Opened December 21, 2013|
|Southeast / Purple Line||6.6 mi (10.6 km)||Smith Street in Downtown Houston to the Palm Center at MLK & Griggs Street||Under construction|
|East End / Green Line||3.3 mi (5.3 km)||Smith Street in Downtown Houston to the Magnolia Transit Center||Under construction|
|University / Blue Line||11.4 mi (18.3 km)||Hillcroft Transit Center to the Eastwood Transit Center||Planned|
|Uptown / Gold Line||4.8 mi (7.7 km)||Bellaire/South Rice Station on Westpark to the Northwest Transit Center||Planned|
- List of METRORail stations
- List of light-rail transit systems
- Light rail in North America
- List of United States light rail systems by ridership
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