Thursday, June 24, 2004

Houston subway?

I admit to being initially against the Main Street rail line, on strictly transport-efficiency and cost grounds. I was ultimately won over by the sheer cool-factor and convenience, plus some arguments by Charles that the line could act as a terminus for the heavy-rail commuter lines I really want to see built.

So it's with no small sense of deja-vu that I find myself reacting negatively to the possibility of a subway line in Houston (ie, build the expansion of the light rail underground to reduce the collision-with-ignoramuses problem).

The main problem is not flooding - Boston has an extensive subway system too, and the Atlantic hurricane season is just as vigorous as the Gulf. Not to mention the fact that Intercontinental airport already has a mini-subway which was expanded for the new terminal, and that there are plenty of below-grade roads in town. A big storm like TS Allison will flood things no matter what, and even Boston had to send divers into Copley Square station on occasion.

Nor is construction as severe a problem as you might imagine. It is easier to simply open th eground, dig down, and lay track than it is to tunnel - and by closing up the line as you progress, you could mitigate the blockage of local businesses problem.

The real problem is cost of operation. If I recall correctly, there isn't a single subway system in the United States that pays for itself - even new York and Boston have to partly subsidize their lines (I am open to being fact-checked on this score). The cost of running a useful line will be quite high and ridership on the above-ground light rail line has not been conducive to rosy estimates of future traffic. I have to question whether any additional light rail lines can be built within budget for a city that is already facing severe challenges to paying its pension plans and whatnot.

The population density of Houston is just too low to support a subway system, IMHO. A commuter rail line, however...


  1. Well, I have heard that Toronto's mass transit system is actually able to pay all operating costs out of the fare boxes (or so I heard in a conversation with someone who grew up here). You are right though that what really hurts Houston is that it's just too damn big and spread out.

  2. Aren't we just too close to the water table to build a sub way system?