Bank Grand Central

This past weekend I had the chance to visit friends and family in Fort Worth. The Cowtown folks have recently opened a pleasantly serpentine radial tollway, the Chisholm Trail. While construction only finished recently, some of the right-of-way was acquired nearly 30 years ago. You can see it in historic aerial imagery, in the arcs of apartment parking lots and residential streets, now bounded by the new highway.

In transportation engineering this is called right-of-way banking; the act of acquiring land now so it’ll be available for some use later.

Right-of-way banking works for highways. We ought to be using it for trains, too. And in Houston at least, one spot in particular stands out: Grand Central Station.

Grand Central, 1959. c/o the Railroad and Heritage Museum, Temple, Texas

Originally constructed by the SP in 1934 (replacing two older terminals at the site), Grand Central Station was torn down in 1959 to make way for the Barbara Jordan Post Office. 55 years later, USPS no longer needs the site, but it hasn’t moved despite several years on the market. The recent announcement that downtown PO boxes will be moving to Midtown suggests the postal service is following a common Houston development strategy, “raze it and they will come.”

If the Grand Central / Post Office site passes to a private developer, it will be lost as a potential rail station site. And this would be a shame, because the Post Office site is the best spot for a rail station in Downtown Houston.

Why should trains stop at Grand Central?

It’s the closest to Downtown

Other proposed rail station sites are far outside the core business district. A ten-minute walk from Metro’s former North Intermodal Terminal (now rebranded as Burnett Transit Center) gets you to Buffalo Bayou, while a ten-minute walk from the East End light rail station at Capitol and Paige doesn’t even get you to 59. But a ten-minute walk from Grand Central gets you well into the core downtown business district.

Grand Central Station; 1/2 mile walkshed based on actual walk routes, not GIS circles

Moreover, the site is very close to the Downtown tunnel network. Existing entrances to the tunnels at the Alley Theatre and 717 Texas are only a couple of blocks away.

It’s got beefy infrastructure

You can’t just plonk down a terminal rail station on any old city block. You need room for the traffic it’ll generate: pick-ups and drop-offs, taxis, Ubers, buses. The Grand Central site has the distinct advantage of having already been a train station, so this is all designed in.

Franklin Street is partially elevated over Buffalo Bayou, to make room for seven lanes of traffic. The Smith Street extension, originally designed for six ten-foot lanes, currently carries three:

Smith Street extension has ample capacity for station traffic.

No other site in the Downtown area has this much reserve capacity for the additional vehicular trips generated by a terminal station.

Downtown evolved around it

Here’s the station in 1944, in its heyday:

Grand Central Station, 1944

And here’s what it looked like just a few years ago:

Grand Central site, 2008

Note that the existing overpasses for IH-10, IH-45, and their associated ramps are already configured to make room for railroad tracks. Note, too, that the promenade attached to UH-Downtown is designed to span multiple tracks. Very few potential station sites come with the grade separations already constructed.

What trains would use it?

Recall the reference to Chisholm Trail at the beginning of this post. When land in Fort Worth was being reserved, the route was intended to be a freeway. The era of building principal radial routes as toll roads hadn’t yet started in Texas.

Likewise, it’s not particularly important what train service utilizes the Grand Central site, so long as it’s some sort of medium-to-long distance service. What might use Grand Central?

  • Texas Central’s proposed high speed rail to Dallas, or a later extension of that line
  • An alternate high-speed line to Austin, which has been studied by TxDOT
  • Commuter/regional rail to College Station, which would link multiple A&M campuses (Biosciences, Prairie View, and Main)
  • Commuter/regional rail to Galveston, which has preserved its own historic rail station
  • Improved rail service to Louisiana, which has been a federally-authorized high speed rail corridor since the 90’s.

While the station could conceivably serve several of these services simultaneously, only one need come into existence to justify preserving the land for a terminal. And if we think on freeway/tollway timescales of 20-25 years or more, only one of these lines needs to open by 2040.

It seems preposterous to suggest that a city that’s growing as fast as Houston, in a state that’s growing as fast as Texas, won’t have so much as one commuter, regional, or intercity rail line operational by 2040.

This is especially true if you prefer the Gattis/Kotkin sprawl uber alles vision to the Crossley/GCI garden city one. For the farthest-flung, lowest-density suburbs are only serviceable with fast trains. The commute from Bridgeport or New Haven to Manhattan, at 60-80 miles, is only possible because of 90/100mph trackage installed long ago. The Utsunomiya-Tokyo run, a 70-mile haul undertaken by more than a few salarymen, takes just 54 minutes on the Tohoku Shinkansen – less time than Woodlands commuters spend on the bus.

Who ought to buy it?

The Grand Central site could pass to any number of entities, provided it was purchased by (i) a public or nonprofit agency (ii) for the express purpose of preserving land for a future terminal station. Possible owners include:

  • The City of Houston
  • The Gulf Coast Rail District
  • A dedicated 501(c)(3)

A special-purpose entity seems like the obvious choice. Such a nonprofit could pool funding from the city and county, METRO, management districts, and private philathropists. Houston uses a similar model for parks; the Houston Parks Board, a 501(c)(3), partners with other agencies to move trails and park improvements forward, while the Houston Parks and Recreation Department is a traditionally-organized municipal division tasked primarily with maintenance and operations.