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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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 future of our city is at stake'

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.

That's the main reason Kaysie and Matt Colman live so far outside Houston. "You get more for your money," Kaysie says. They recently moved closer - but still commute two hours daily. And although they work at the same restaurant, they often drive in separately. Kaysie has visited cities with subways and says she'd definitely use one here, but Matt is more hesitant. He loves being independent and alone behind the wheel.

"It's a sensible idea," he admits. "I would probably use it once in a while." But Kaysie smirks as she straightens her apron, unconvinced by the image of Matt on a subway.

The will to drive and the drive to build

Critics of the mass-transit plan say that fierce Texas independence - and the way it is manifested behind the wheel - may prove unconquerable by buses in a city with freeways nearly as wide as they are long.

"The car culture is absolutely intrinsic to the whole nature of Houston. It was built by, for, and on behalf of the automobile," says Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston. "So Houstonians are never going to want to give up their cars, but that does not mean they wouldn't want to ride in a state-of-the-art rail system."

Indeed, recent polls show enormous frustration with congestion and overwhelming support for mass transit - even if respondents say they wouldn't use it themselves. And though city leaders don't like to use Dallas as an example, that city's new light-rail system has exceeded all expectations - doubling the number of anticipated riders in its first year of operation.

Other Western cities built around cars, have had varying success with mass transit. Denver and Salt Lake City are held up as good examples, while Los Angeles is still struggling to get commuters aboard.

But most agree that mass transit should play a large role in their futures.

"The list of cities in the South and West that want more transit is impressive: Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas," says Anne Canby, president of the Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington. "They are realizing that one transportation model may not be adequate to do the whole job, especially with the demographic changes happening in the next 20 years."

But back in Houston, the big question is funding. With the economy already sputtering and cities forced to cut budgets, voters wonder how much they'll have to pay - and whether it will be worth it.

Jamie Older, an IT manager downtown, has watched construction on the already- approved light-rail system, set to open next year. It will stretch 7.5 miles, linking downtown Houston with the medical center and sports arenas. "You're talking about a very small area being serviced when large suburbs don't have service," says Ms. Older, who gave up driving an hour into work each day and now rides an express bus in half the time. "I just don't see the benefit of it."

While city leaders say this is just the first piece in a larger transit plan, it's still unclear whether Houstonians will agree to more.

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