Rail expecting increase in riders over time

July 10, 2015 Updated: July 10, 2015 9:30pm

Packed shoulder-to-shoulder on a Metro train, the crowd celebrating the opening of the Green Line on May 23 made its way down Harrisburg, eager for all the opportunities the new service could create for Houston’s East End.

On Thursday, Alberto Felix waited alone at the same station on Harrisburg near Lockwood where those opening-day riders had boarded. A woman got off the train, and Felix stepped on.

“It’s never crowded,” he said.

Slightly more than a month after the Metropolitan Transit Authority christened two new rail lines – built at a cost of $1.4 billion and seen by critics as little more than an unnecessary and expensive replacement for buses – ridership on both is less than expected.

The problem is most acute on the Green Line, which remains a work in progress because of an overpass still to be constructed over some freight lines to connect it to two more stations. The project is prompting fresh concerns from business owners about access and losses during another year of work.

The Green Line, which runs from downtown through the heart of the East End to the Magnolia Transit Center near the Gus Wortham Golf Course, has seen a 13.5 percent decrease in daily boardings in June compared to the few days it was open in late May.

Many owners of shops along Harrisburg already have endured six years of construction to get the Green Line opened. They say they are optimistic about the line but worried about the effects of more construction.

Building an overpass at the Union Pacific Railroad tracks near Hughes will close that section of Harrisburg from February until May. The overpass is expected to open in late summer 2016, connecting the two final stations to the Green Line.

The eastern portion of the project was delayed after residents near the rail crossing with the freight tracks bitterly opposed an overpass. Metro, with city urging, agreed to build an underpass, only to renege on the commitment when construction proved too costly and time-consuming because of soil contamination in the area.

‘We survive on traffic’

The delays and community discussion put the construction months behind the rest of the rail line work.

Merchants along Harrisburg worry the effect on their sales – even if they’re just inside the planned detour route – will be devastating.

“We survive on traffic,” said Mark Rodriguez, who owns a car lot along Harrisburg and has organized some of the business owners to voice their concerns to Metro.

The Purple Line runs from downtown to the Third Ward.

In June, their first full month of operation, the two lines combined averaged 4,719 boardings per day, including at downtown stations where they share stops. This is well below the 5,927 average officials predicted for the first year, though they cautioned that early estimates will be skewed.

The Purple Line splits from the Green Line near BBVA Compass Stadium on the east side of U.S. 59 near the central business district. From there, it snakes down Scott, Wheeler and Martin Luther King.

Because it serves the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said, officials do not expect its true ridership to become clear until most students return in late August, which could add hundreds of new daily riders.

Downtown stations and those along the Purple Line already are attracting more riders. Compared to the daily average for a few days in May, shortly after the lines opened, June’s average daily ridership was up about 6.3 percent at downtown and Purple Line stops.

Transit officials urged patience: “It is still premature to derive any conclusions,” Gray said.

‘Substantial’ outreach

In Houston generally, rail use has consistently increased, with few exceptions. A 5.3-mile northern extension of the Red Line opened in December 2013 and averaged about 4,500 boardings per day in April 2014. By April of this year, stations north of downtown were hosting about 6,000 riders per day, with half the stations posting growth above 30 percent.

Metro also is adjusting bus routes as part of a complete overhaul of the system, scheduled for Aug. 16. Until then, some buses are operating similar routes to the new bus lines, and eventually some of those riders can be expected to switch to the train.

A marketing campaign for the new rail lines and bus system changes also is coming, Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

“This has always been part of the plan, regardless of ridership,” Garcia said in an email. “I always said the outreach would be substantial – and it will be.”

Skeptics of the rail plan said the low numbers show that the rail lines were a mistake.

“What a waste,” Veronica Stills, a financial planner, said as she walked downtown on Thursday.

A lifelong Houston resident, Stills said that until rail is built into suburban areas, it’s “just replacing buses, which are fine.”

To mitigate disruption from the additional Green Line construction, Metro’s board last month approved another round of payments – up to $25,000 per business – to affected shops and restaurants.

Metro is among the only agencies in Houston to pay businesses for lost sales because of construction, though the amount is sometimes less than owners say the construction has cost them.

Critical to success

The overpass work, however, is critical to the line’s success, Metro officials insist. The Magnolia Park Transit Center, about a mile east of the overpass, is expected to radically boost ridership by connecting a popular transit point to the rail system.

Other issues also concern businesses along Harrisburg, owners said. Eager to see traffic and transit use pick up and bring them customers, some are also adjusting to having a rail line or station out front.

Erik Mrok, the owner of Lenox Barbecue, lost his dining room to the construction of the line and now focuses on carry-out dining and catering. He watches as cars speed through his parking lot to avoid a traffic light installed to control turns and let pedestrians cross.

“I have become nothing but a drive-thru for anyone that doesn’t want to wait for the light,” Mrok said.

Dug Begley

Transportation Writer, Houston Chronicle

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