I grew up in Houston, Texas and the city is laid out quite differently than most large cities. Houston has more freeway/highway lane miles per capita than most similarly sized cities, and at the same time, we have a very piecemeal public transportation system.
I have been very interested in transportation my whole life and the transportation politics that determine what gets built and what doesn’t. The time I’ve spent following Houston’s policies has resulted in me being quite frustrated at the political situation in the city. Firstly, billions and billions of dollars are without question dedicated to building highways, many of which run through undeveloped areas where there is no need for highways. At the same time, investing in a light rail line which costs less than a billion dollars is extremely difficult and is met with strong political opposition.
It’s no coincidence that suburban developers have bought up lands outside the city that the highways are built towards, and it almost seems like local politicians are catering to suburban developers when they strongly support billions of taxpayer dollars to go towards a highway who’s need is questionable.
Not nearly the same amount of money is being invested in public transportation in Houston. To start, the city’s transportation agency (METRO) has a quarter of it’s funds that were supposed to be dedicated towards transit taken from them and put towards roads. Secondly, numerous comprehensive transportation proposals that include light rail, heavy rail, and improved bus service have all failed in the 1980s and 1990s. Each time there has been strong political opposition for these proposals.
Finally a proposition was passed in 2003 which included 5 light rail lines and improved bus service. But numerous setbacks and the recession of 2008 have prevented METRO from realizing their goal. There is currently one new line open with two more set to open next year, but the two lines with the highest project ridership have yet to be built and will most likely not ever be.
Very powerful politicians have strongly opposed rail expansion in Houston despite its success. While over 1 billion dollars was invested into an HOV lane park and ride system only returned around 30,000 riders a day, only 330 million dollars was invested into Houston’s first light rail line which returned almost 40,000 riders a day. Subways are out of the question and are impossible, most people will tell you. Nevermind the fact that there are miles of tunnels for pedestrians under downtown Houston currently. To top it off, congressman John Culberson, who was so instrumental for securing federal funds to construct highways to less populated areas, has banned federal funding for a key rail line in Houston. The federal funds he has banned would have been invested in his district, and instead will now be given to another city in the future, no taxpayer dollars will be saved.
Lots of strange things are going on in the political world concerning transportation in Houston, and I’d like to pursue a career that deals with these issues not only in Houston, but in other cities. For now, Houston is going to have to figure out a way to manage its growth efficiently, and while it looks like rail is off the table for at least a few more decades, there will be opportunities in the future to construct good infrastructure and hopefully Houston can capitalize.