County Judge Promises Commuter Rail

Commuter rail could be coming to Houston sooner rather than later. It's an idea that has been talked about for decades. But Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says the talk needs to turn to action. He wants to open two commuter rail lines within three years. Laurie Johnson has the story.
With gasoline at nearly $4.00 a gallon and ever worsening freeway congestion, commuter rail is an attractive option to many people. Until now, transportation officials have thought of commuter rail in the long-term.

But Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says he's tired of waiting. He wants to develop a line along the 290 corridor and one coming up Highway 3 from Galveston. He says commuters can't wait decades for transportation relief.

"It's a matter of somebody has to step forward and put all the pieces together. And everybody now sees that commuter rail, particularly on the two corridors we're talking about, is a critical component of the transportation needs and will help us meet our mobility needs."

Emmett announced his plans to the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

That group just issued a study on commuter rail. The report calls for a comprehensive rail system to be built by 2035.

H-GAC's Transportation Planning Director Alan Clark says he thinks Emmett's plans could work within the parameters of the long-term goal.

"When we look at a regional concept it's logical for us to then think about where are the early potential opportunities to implement these services. And his interest is in further investigating that so he's working with other local governments, with the railroads, with METRO and our transit providers to see what could be done."

The idea is to have commuter trains running on existing freight rail lines. Union Pacific operates those lines. UP's Vice President of Public Affairs Joe Adams says the county has already approached them about collaborating on the project.

"There are several lines that are very heavily traveled corridors. And then there are others that have customers on them, but have less freight traffic. And those are the ones that the judge has identified as being prime candidates for this program."

Of course all of this depends on funding. But Emmett says it may not be as expensive as some project.

"You're not investing in new railroad tracks and you don't necessarily even have to buy equipment. A lot of the commuter rail operations, they lease equipment."

And there's money to be had from the federal government and even the state. Still, the county would likely have to build at least one transit center and spend upwards of $100 million to jump-start the commuter rail plan.

Laurie Johnson. KUHF-Houston Public Radio News.
Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...