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Oct. 27, 2003, 2:15PM

County touts commuter rail as cheaper

By LUCAS WALL
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Harris County can build a commuter rail system faster and cheaper than Metro's light rail plan, Judge Robert Eckels told reporters this morning.

Eckels released a draft of a commuter rail study Commissioners Court authorized July 29. It includes a 44-mile line between downtown Houston and Hempstead, built for $110 million, and a 39-mile line from downtown to Tomball for $94 million. The county estimates annual operating and maintenance will be $4.5 million for the U.S. 290 line to Hempstead and $3.8 million for the Texas 249 line to Tomball. Some of those costs would be recouped by passenger fares.

Numerous Republican leaders including Eckels are urging voters to reject next week's Metropolitan Transit Authority $7.5 billion expansion plan. That proposal calls for building $5.8 billion of rail by 2025: 65 miles of light rail as well as an eight-mile commuter line to Missouri City. Metro has no rail proposed to Hempstead or Tomball.

"There is a lot of potential for commuter rail in this community," Eckels said at a news conference at Houston TranStar. "We believe it's a viable alternative to light rail."

Commuter rail utilizes heavy trains, such as those run by Amtrak, and runs at high speeds on freight railroads with an exclusive right of way. Light rail utilizes smaller trains and runs at slower speeds, often on tracks embedded in the street.

The final report is due to Commissioners Court at its next meeting Nov. 4. That happens to be the day voters decide Metro's transit-expansion plan.

Eckels said he expects the court will authorize a more detailed study looking at other potential commuter rail corridors and moving ahead with plans on who would pay for and operate the proposed lines along U.S. 290 and Texas 249.

"There are 165 miles or more of commuter line candidates in Harris County with the potential to serve virtually every part of this community," Eckels said while standing behind a model of an East Coast commuter train. One coach was modified with a sticker reading, "Harris County Express."

A countywide commuter rail network at $5 million per mile could cost less than $1 billion, Eckels said, far cheaper than the $80-million-per-mile light rail system Metro proposes.

Metro supporters, however, dismissed the notion that commuter rail alone is a solution to the region's traffic problems and called Eckels' plan "an 11th hour Hail Mary." While they support the county's commuter rail plans, Metro allies said it must be in addition to, not in lieu of, light rail.

"We want a complete system that does something about the traffic mess we're into," said Paul Mabry, spokesman for Citizens for Public Transportation, the political action committee campaigning for passage of the "Metro Solutions" plan. "You start by addressing where the traffic is the greatest: down in the urban area. It is not up in Prairie View."

Shirley DeLibero, Metro president and CEO, expressed skepticism of the figures Eckels presented.

"I think his numbers are very preliminary," DeLibero said after a morning news conference at the Magnolia Transit Center where U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, endorsed the Metro Solutions referendum.

Metro officials were reviewing the county's study before commenting further.

Eckels has urged voters to turn down Metro Solutions and let the county come back next year with a better rail proposal. He said commuter rail could be operating by 2006, much more quickly than Metro's light rail expansion, the first piece of which wouldn't start running until 2008.

Most important, Eckels said, is that the larger trains are a better solution to traffic woes.

"Commuter rail is safer and faster, typically, than light rail because it runs in the existing rail corridors separated from traffic so you're not mixing with the cars on the road," Eckels said. "It runs where congestion is worse and can provide alternates for relief on congested freeways."

Eckels acknowledged some form of inner-city rail system is needed to distribute commuters once they arrive downtown on a heavy rail train. He encouraged Metro to come back next year with a smaller, less expensive rail proposal that would tie into the county's planned commuter lines.

"I would hope after this election we can sit down and work with Metro on a better plan," he said. "This makes a whole lot more sense."

How the county would fund commuter trains is up in the air. Eckels said there are several possibilities including forming a county rail authority that would use toll road proceeds, having Metro run the trains if its light rail plan is defeated, or handing the task to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Commissioner Steve Radack, who originally proposed that Harris County study commuter rail, was unavailable for comment early this afternoon.

Mabry questioned the timing and sincerity of the county's plan.

"Congestion in Houston is not a new problem yet we've only seen the county come forward in the last 60 days with a very preliminary study, which, by the judge's own admission, will take a lot more study," he said. "It's pretty obvious this is only coming forward 10 days before an election to create confusion in the minds of voters."

Mass-transit advocates, however, hailed the sure-to-be-controversial idea of diverting some Harris County Toll Road Authority money into commuter trains. To date, tolls have been used only to pay off tollway bonds and sell bonds for new highway projects.

"It's great we are finally getting some toll road money into other options other than just trying to pave our way out of congestion," Mabry said.

Commuter rail operates into 11 American cities: Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Los Angeles; Miami; Newark, N.J.; New York; Philadelphia; San Diego; and Seattle. Metro supporters note all of those cities except Seattle also have light rail or a subway system and Seattle is building light rail now.

Chronicle reporter Salatheia Bryant contributed to this story.