Planning Houston's Transit Future

As more METRO light rail is about to go down on the ground — the city of Houston is examining how transit development should fit in to existing neighborhoods. Houston councilmembers held a hearing this week to seek input from the community. As Laurie Johnson reports, transit planning could have a longer term impact than nearly any other project councilmembers undertake.

As Councilmember Sue Lovell puts it, Houston is at a transition time in the city's history as light rail expands.

"We're encouraging now more density, you know people are moving back in. And then we have neighborhoods behind that. And so what we're trying to do is figure out how we listen to the neighbors, the neighborhoods that are going to be in the middle of this development, how we encourage the development which is great for the city and at the same time how do we move the traffic through there? We're pioneers."

The city's public works department is developing an ordinance that will help guide how the city integrates light rail into existing neighborhoods. That ordinance requires more pedestrian-friendly elements like wider sidewalks.

Kay Warhol co-chairs RichmondRail.org, a community organization that lobbies for neighborhood-friendly rail. Warhol told councilmembers her group supports the city's plan, but asked for pedestrian projects to go even further.

"Expand the scope of the city's participation in the upgrading and creation of pedestrian facilities along the corridor. The city takes ownership for creating a safe and efficient facility for cars, why not for people on foot."

But there could be a problem with the proposed transit ordinance. John Breeding with the Uptown Houston District says a little known city document called the Infrastructure Design Manual conflicts with the new ordinance.

"The goal of the ordinance is to encourage increased development density within transit corridors. The goal of chapter 15 is to control, reduce or ultimately prohibit additional density development if it increases traffic."

Breeding says the stipulations in chapter 15 of the manual undermine what the city is trying to design into its new transit corridors. And that concerned a number of councilmembers, including Pam Holm.

"How do we work together for the same goals so that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing? How do we coordinate when we have one department that is setting policies that frankly I believe what's in that design manual ought to be codified in ordinance. I think the things that are said in that design manual are detrimental, important to the policies of how we are going to develop tomorrow."

Councilmembers Holm and Toni Lawrence threatened to hold up the transit corridors ordinance unless the design manual is reviewed and amended.

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...