Houston grapples with mass transit - and its ego
As residents face a looming vote, city is tugged between its car culture and the realities of rising population and sprawl.
Dale Patterson has taught herself Spanish. Each day she spends about three hours driving to and from work - and that gives her plenty of time to catch up on the news, make cellphone calls, and listen to Spanish-language tapes.Skip to next paragraph
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Not part of her Berlitz lessons: How to politely complain to city officials that she's had it with these long commutes, clogged freeways, polluted skies, endless road construction, and practically non-existent mass transit. !!iexcl!!Caramba!
Ms. Patterson is one of 2.1 million commuters who take to the roads around Houston each day, frustrated and fed up. This transplant from Chicago says she'd gladly leave the driving to the city if that was an option. It's not - at least not yet.
This November, Houstonians will get their chance to vote on the most ambitious mass-transit proposal since the creation of the Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1978. It includes 40 miles of light-rail extensions, an eight-mile commuter train track to Missouri City, 142 additional miles of Park & Ride bus service, 44 new bus routes, and bike racks on all buses.
While it may sound good in theory, the idea of stepping out of cars and onto commuter trains is about as foreign to native Houstonians as a meal of leafy greens. This is a city built on the automobile, after all, fed on fossil fuel and the stretch of prairie land - with endless miles of road to cross it. But city officials warn that two million new faces will be pouring into the area over the next two decades, and freeways will simply not accommodate them all.
The result is a fight over the city's soul. Will Houston change its character, become a denser, more pedestrian-friendly community like New York or Boston? Or will it keep spreading, with ever-greater freeway systems that snake through southeast Texas?
That question will soon be in the hands of weary commuters who, according to a new report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, drive more miles per capita than residents in any other US metropolitan area - 37.6 miles each day.
"The future of our city is at stake," says Arthur Schechter, chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County. "If we don't do this [pass the mass-transit plan] or something like it, we're headed for disaster."
Houston's lack of public transportation is already being felt, says Mr. Schechter - and not simply on the freeways. The city lost its bid for the 2012 Olympics in part because of a low transportation score. A new Toyota assembly plant scratched Houston from its list, naming air pollution as the main drawback. And more and more CEOs say they're having trouble luring bright, ambitious workers to the city because of quality-of-life qualms linked to congestion.
But despite the clear hazards of sluggish mass transit, if history is any guide, the fight over the new multibillion-dollar proposal will be knotty. Opposition is well-funded and outspoken, spearheaded by business leaders (such as land developers and oil executives) who believe the answer lies in building more roads. They claim that cities with more sprawl have lower housing costs.