Hoping for federal funds, Metro is trying to move quickly on bus rapid transit through Richmond

Transit officials, sensing the time may be right to leverage federal funds for major projects, are moving quickly on portions of a planned bus rapid transit line, seen by some as the backbone of the future Houston movement.

The section of the planned university line between the Hillcroft Transit Center in Gulfton and the Wheeler Transit Center in Midtown is one of the most sought after but historically controversial routes in the Metropolitan Transit Authority system.

Designed as a bus rapid transit that uses certain reserved lanes to stop at key stations, providing rail-like service without the expense or design complexity, the project was included in the long-distance metro plan. approved by voters in November 2019. With a new federal government in place, proposing a massive investment in public transit, metro officials said it made sense to speed up at least the central parts of the line.

“Getting it online for potential federal funding is essential,” said Sanjay Ramabhadran, Metro board member. “The sooner we do it, the better.”

Speeding up the project means starting discussions with the Federal Transit Administration around September, pending approval from the metro’s board of directors next month. From there, planners would spend about two years designing the project and holding public meetings to assess community preferences.

That timeline would allow the project to get federal approvals – and possibly money from Washington – by September 2023. Construction would take months, if not years, depending on what exactly Metro is building.

“There is a risk in going there,” said Tom Jasien, deputy general manager of Metro, of the acceleration. “We’re going to have to work our way through this project development process very quickly.”

The payoff, however, is federal authorization for a long-sought link, as well as its funding.

“This is our best shot at getting the federal funding that we keep hearing about,” Jasien said.

Congress is debating a bill on large-scale infrastructure that will likely include public transit funding possibilities. Lawmakers could outline billions of projects planned by the summer. Local officials have previously said that a planned extension of the Purple Line streetcar to Hobby Airport is a potential recipient of future federal funds. In submissions to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Local officials identified 11 other priority transportation projects, including various bus and sidewalk improvements along Westheimer, Scott and Fondren, a new bridge on Clay Road and the Texas 36 expansion in Fort Bend County. .

Having projects being planned for construction in three to five years is warranted, Metro officials said, noting that the agency’s $ 7.5 billion long-term plan means transportation planners will need to juggle many projects simultaneously so that they are all ready for action. design or construction when money is available.

Those targets align with indications from federal officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who said plans to add transit options are needed to revive U.S. cities.

Speaking at a transit station in Atlanta on Friday, Buttigieg said there was a “pretty clear roadmap for where the needs are, we just need to be able to invest the resources, and also support planning to take shovel-worthy projects that aren’t. ready to shovel and run them through the pipeline. “

“It’s about looking back to the 2040s on what we did in the early 2020s and saying, ‘OK, this is how we created America for the future, a community to both, ”he said.

If fully constructed, the University Line is poised to be among the longest single-bus rapid transit lines in the country, running more than 25 miles from the Tidwell Transit Center north of the 610 loop near from Interstate 69, south of the University and the University of South Texas. from the Houston area, then west to the Westchase area.

On a provisional basis, the authorities have divided the construction of the route into five segments:

Westchase Park and Ride to Houston Community College West Loop Campus

West Loop Campus at Wheeler Transit Center

Wheeler at Eastwood Transit Center

Eastwood at the Port of Denver Transit Center

Port of Denver to Tidwell Transit Center

These are the second and third segments that metro officials believe they can speed up, with a small stretch west to the Hillcroft Transit Center, based on previous efforts that never made it past the design stages.

“We are building on a number of work that has already been undertaken,” said Clint Harbert, vice president of systems and capital planning at Metro.

Transit officials spent 12 years planning the University line as a light rail project as part of the 2003 Metro Solutions plan approved by voters. While the red line was extended north of downtown and the green and purple lines were built, Metro was unable to build the rest. In 2015, the agency noted a loss of $ 104 million on its financial report, essentially wiping out the money it spent on rail engineering studies along Richmond.

Running mainly along Westpark and Richmond, the University Line between colleges and Uptown has faced tremendous opposition from businesses along Richmond, some residents of the 610 Loop west of Shepherd, and elected officials skeptical of the public transport.

While the 2019 Bond faced some opposition, winning 68% of the vote, critics have historically spoken out as individual projects progressed.

Meanwhile, Metro is pursuing various projects in a precarious time for transit as it resumes normal operations after more than a year of service cuts due to the COVID pandemic. Overall ridership last month increased 25% from April 2020, but remains well below pre-pandemic levels as many workers continue to work remotely and others choose to drive rather than drive. to take buses and trains.

The lack of office workers in Uptown limited use of the area’s first bus rapid transit system along Post Oak and the 610 Loop between Interstate 10 and Westpark Drive. Opened last August, the Silver Line continues to average less than 750 runners per working day, despite being designed to accommodate thousands of passengers.

Metro officials have said since opening that the line’s potential has been blocked and that they have chosen – citing guidelines to limit travel – to abandon any marketing efforts or encourage use of the line. line. However, as the service resumes full operation, this is subject to change.

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