Circling Houston 4: On Shifting IH 10

Once you start thinking about using one-way operation as a framework for capacity expansion you immediately look at IH 10. There’s not a lot of extra room in the existing ROW. It’s got the tightest mainline corner in the Downtown Loop. Sight distance is less than awesome. And there’s a lot of vacant land to the north that makes an ideal place for a freeway. So what could you do?

The simplest thing to do is retain the geometry of the existing 10-59 interchange and start the shift west of Elysian:

This takes out Reader’s Wholesale, which is kind of a dick move. It’s a cool building, it’s a going industrial concern, and said building was built by said industrial concern. When you consider the kind of stuff that holds up projects elsewhere (e.g. junkyard owner wants to sell to the DOT, but can’t because the junkyard was the site of a brewery 100 years ago), it shouldn’t be too hard to avoid this. A more context-sensitive alignment might shift the “Freight Main” to the north.

This is basically “threading the needle” in that you’re putting lanes through the vacant lots while preserving almost all the existing buildings. You also have the option of depressing the entire facility below grade. When IH 10 was built it had to go up and over the M-K-T which also meant overpassing Main and San Jac. But since that’s now the Heights Bike Trail, you could lower IH 10 and send the bikes over the top of it.

The downside to this is that the new alignment is only mildly less curvaceous than the old one, particularly where you have to thread IH 10 around the freight main bridge over White Oak. A more radical option is to abandon the freight main entirely and replace it with a three-track passenger main, possibly using some of the right of way of the old IH 10.

I’m not sure I’d personally go this route, but it could be done.

Circling Houston, Part 3

So let’s talk about capacity expansion.

One of the big things that separates current thinking about freeway interchanges from 1950’s thinking about interchanges is the question of through capacity. Originally, the idea was that you could reduce capacity through the interchange because some traffic is getting on and off. So for instance you might have an eight-lane freeway which was six through the interchange area with one or two lanes cutting off to the crossroad and one or two rejoining. Texas does not have a lot of surviving examples of this setup (they tend to jam up, and we tend to fix that thing), but you can find it if you go elsewhere. Like Tacoma, Washington where I-5 is eight lanes throughout south Tacoma, all the way down to the Air Force base, but necks down to six lanes as the outer lanes leave for the 38th Street / SR 16 C-D roads. (WashDOT is actually widening this section as we speak so enjoy it while it lasts.)

The current thinking is that you maintain all the through lanes through the interchange area, and any additional lanes you pick up get spooled off one-by-one into downstream local exits. This is pretty clearly seen on the westbound Katy Freeway free lanes where you have four lanes going under Beltway 8, pick up another from the frontage/local feeder entrance, pick up another two from the BW8 interchange, then spool them off one by one into Kirkwood, Dairy Ashford, and then eventually SH 6.

The Downtown Houston freeway loop can really be thought of as one very large interchange rather than a bunch of separate freeways and their associated interchanges. For instance if I’m at the Market and I decide I want to get to the UH, I’m going to just jump on 45 and that’s that. But if I’m at say the TxDOT Houston District HQ and I want to go to the car wash on OST I’m lookin’ at 10 East to 45 South to 59 South to 288 South. I don’t see where one journey is appreciably more complex than the other; in both cases I got on one freeway, transited the Downtown Houston interchange complex, then ended up on another. But numerology suggests otherwise.

If you think of the Downtown Loop as one big ol’ interchange instead of a bunch of small ones it logically follows that the loop capacity should be slightly greater than the sum of the roadways entering it. So for instance if the Gulf/South/Southwest lane combination is 22 dropping to 18, the loop combination at that point should be… 20. This suggests adding capacity somewhere. But where?

45 and 59 are both adjacent to rapidly-developing areas in the Fourth Ward and EaDo. But the area around IH 10 is largely vacant. When IH 10 went through in the 70’s, there was an actual, functioning rail yard up there. Now there’s a heap of gravel and the ashes of a very grandiose yet low-capacity rail station plan. Conceivably, then, you could shift IH 10 to the north and open up more of the area north of downtown for other land uses besides bail bondsmen… something like the Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s North Canal proposal (PDF), for example.

And 45 and 59, while both in vital areas, have completely different contexts. The Pierce Elevated causes minimal interruption to the street grid beneath it, and in fact there’s a decent amount of pedestrian traffic there. The Downtown Transit Center is there. Any addition to that facility would have some serious negative impacts on the street life. But 59, on the other hand… well, just look.

Basically, the GRB kills any and all street life behind it. Even if you put on your best urbanist bona fides and depressed 59 with a park over the top of it, you wouldn’t change the fact that there’s a 2000-foot wall between EaDo and Downtown. What could it hurt, then, to add a second level? Especially if it was supported on wide, single-column bents which sprout through the median of the existing roadway. Then there wouldn’t even be any adverse lighting effect on Chartres.

And it’s in that context that maybe the Giant Traffic Circle really isn’t all that crazy an idea. For it to work, though, one has to drop the pretext of getting more use out of the existing capacity and instead use it as a framework for adding capacity.

Circling Houston, Part 2

As mentioned earlier, the reason you get afternoon backups in both directions on the Pierce Elevated is that 45, 59, and 288 comprise 18 lanes entering the Downtown Loop while the capacity of the Pierce Elevated and 59 combined is only 14 lanes.

Could the “traffic circle from hell” address that? Maaaaybe. By taking out the median on the Pierce Elevated, for example, you could get seven lanes instead of six. But how would the exits work? A decent chunk of downtown-bound traffic leaves the radial freeways before they interface with each other. For instance, if you’re coming in from Sharpstown, you get off at the Spur. But a number of exits exist within the downtown loop. How would those work?

Basically, with one-way operation you need contraflow lanes to handle the following four movements:

—Traffic from 10 EB and 45 SB desiring to get off at McKee

—Traffic from St Joseph/Pease desiring to get on 10 WB or 45 NB

—Traffic from San Jacinto desiring to enter 10 EB

—Traffic from Walker Street desiring to enter 45 NB or 10 WB.

Realistically, you could probably delete Walker and send that traffic up Louisiana or Travis. But then if you already have contraflow to handle the Pease/St Joe traffic it’s trivial to add Walker to that. Likewise, if you have contraflow to allow 45S/10E traffic to exit McKee, and more contraflow to allow San Jac to enter 10E/59N, there’s basically no reason to divert the IH 10 EB mainline flow down to the Pierce Elevated. Moreover, the length of the diversion – a full 3 miles – suggests that if you *did* construct it like this, eastbound traffic would exit McKee, double back on Sterrett or Providence, then get back on at San Jac.

So even if you start with the premise of “downtown traffic circle,” realistically the only one-way flow you get is 45 from Brazos to 59, and 59 from 45 to Ruiz. Which is to say, 2.2 miles out of a total loop length of 5.7, or less than 40% of the total mileage.

Why the Pierce Elevated backs up.

By now you’ve probably heard about the idea to turn the Downtown Houston freeway loop into a giant traffic circle.

It’s a useful concept, in that it clears the idea space for other radical ideas. I was once on a Value Engineering committee where we were discussing storm drainage design alternatives. I proposed “Amish children with buckets.” Now, there was approximately a 0.0% chance of Amish children being selected. But it made everybody laugh, and it made any other crazy ideas seem just a little bit less crazy. In politics they call this the Overton window.

So now we turn to what might be done with the downtown Houston freeway network. And I think it’s useful, before we get into traffic counts, before we send out origin-destination surveys, before the consultants show up with detailed microsimulations, to just take a step back and look at the big picture.

Coming in on 59, after the Spur peels off you have six lanes. There’s a short weave where traffic comes on from San Jacinto and heads off onto 288, and then you’re once again at six.

Coming in on 288, after the ramps to 59 south peel off you have eight lanes. It gets sort of complicated because the northbound freeway widens out in anticipation of as-yet-unbuilt express lanes, but in the southbound direction it’s a pretty simple setup of two lanes from 59 and two lanes from the C-D from 45. So oversimplify and call it eight lanes for both directions.

Coming in on 45, you lose the C-D to “Downtown Destinations” and pick up a lane from Spur 5, which leaves you with an eight lane cross section going over the Columbia Tap. (I’m not counting the C-D lanes since they don’t interface with the downtown freeway loop).

That’s twenty-two lanes total. How many lanes are available downtown? The Pierce Elevated has six. And a cross-section of 59 at the GRB has eight. Add ’em up and you get fourteen. 22 into 14. 11/7. This is why the Pierce comes to a standstill.

Of course, some traffic is headed from 59/288 to 45, and won’t enter the downtown freeway loop. Presently the ramp from the 59/288 C-D to 45 SB is one lane. So let’s subtract one lane each way from 45 and 59/288. You still have eighteen lanes into fourteen. 9/7. The approaches have 30% more capacity than the loop does. Since the downtown freeway loop already has pretty good geometry, any proposal which doesn’t address this imbalance probably isn’t worth considering.

Annex 362.

This is a short post, but it occurs to me that with the coming opening of Segment E, the existing strip annexation along Katy-Hockley isn’t far enough west. Right now the ETJ ends at 2855 and beyond that there’s no MTFP. But if you annex 362, which is the line that runs north out of Brookshire towards Waller, then the ETJ is basically contiguous as far as the Brazos.

Without the MTFP you get site plans like Cross Creek Ranch (PDF) which is nice enough on its own merits but is a veritable Berlin Wall for through traffic, killing all east-west connectivity for nearly three miles between Westpark and what will eventually be Roesner.

Beyond the integrity of the thoroughfare network there is also the question of whether there will be a need for more limited access facilities. There is some talk among developers of a fourth ring (you can see it on the Cross Creek site plan), and if there are two rings through the Katy Prairie then you’ll need some more east-west capacity to avoid loading all the radial traffic onto IH-10 and potentially overwhelming what is already the widest freeway in Houston and the second-widest in North America after 401.

With an expanded MTFP and HCTRA buy-in you can get these lines down on paper and not have to deal with some of the acquisition headaches that Segment F is going through. I’d also like to ponder whether we can add transit ROW to the MTFP. There is no available rail between the Union Pacific along Hempstead and METRO along Westpark, a distance of 20-25 miles. But if you can get out ahead of development, it becomes a fairly simple matter to extend Metro’s ROW north from Westpark to Prairie View which gives you a ton of transit development opportunities as well as an outer transfer between the Westpark rail and any intercity service that goes in along Hempstead.

Goldilocks Urbanism and the perils of Density Caps

Interesting article in the Atlantic Cities about a Brit who moved back to the suburbs because he found that the chic urban districts weren’t really any less Stepford than Londoners’ most negative stereotypes of the ‘burbs, they were just a different kind of Stepford.

Most people should be familiar with the cycle by now. Poor creatives (artists) move into a neighborhood, which then attracts affluent creatives (architects, marketers). These in turn attract affluent people who wish they were creative (lawyers), by which point the neighborhood is no longer attractive to the artists. (Civil engineers are commuting from exurban tract homes in a Kia Sedona with crushed cheerios on the carpet.)

The eventual gentrification of every neighborhood in which artists congregate is sort of inevitable. But the “forcing out” which Mr. O’Sullivan describes, where upscale people and establishments “take over” from what was there before, is largely a product of zoning, specifically of density caps.

Let’s look at the Montrose. When I lived there I always got my dry cleaning done at the 7-7 cleaners. Originally this was in the stripmall next to Copy.com. But eventually their lease was up for renewal and the owner wanted to bump their rates a little.

Now if the Montrose was under strict caps on new development, what probably would have happened was that 7-7 stayed next to Copy.com and just raised their prices. But this is Houston. No zoning. And in the interim, some California investors had opened up another stripmall a few blocks east. So the cleaners moved there, and last time I looked there was still no tenant where they used to be.

The same thing rolls out with residential. If the ‘trose was under density caps, what would happen is that the bungalows would stay put and the garden apartments would get torn down to make way for condos, pricing out the people who live in the 1BR garden units now. But again, there’s no zoning. So what actually happens is the condos and townhomes get built where the bungalows used to be, and if anyone tears down a garden complex, it’s to replace it with an even larger apartment complex.

People complain about how the Montrose is too expensive now, but I just did a quick craigslist search and found a decent selection of 1BR’s for $650 or so. Five years ago those same apartments were going for $525-535. So yeah, it’s more expensive, but that’s only like a 4.20% annualized increase. No one’s being run out of there.

Of course, if you’re the starving artist type, $650 a month for a 1BR is still a bit much. Maybe you’ll head to the 3rd, or the 5th. Or you might just recognize that Sagemont is the new Heights and get a jump on the crowds.

The Houston approach to Light Rail is the best one.

In Boston, they’ve got a turn of the century streetcar system that has some new vehicles on it. It’s not appreciably faster or more convenient than it was 80 years ago.

In Phoenix, they’ve got a city with top-notch highway infrastructure and extremely low density zoning regulations. In theory, they could do without LRT – but they’re a growing city, and sleek trains gliding along main streets add some cachet. By stringing together a mall, the airport, downtown, and multiple institutions of higher learning on a single line, they’ve pulled in some very decent ridership. But the city outside this “starter” corridor is much, much sparser, and it’ll be very difficult to justify further extensions.

In Portland, which was in the 80’s a very low-density city, they started an LRT system as an intentional decision to pursue trains instead of and in lieu of roadways. The LRT system, which is geared towards suburb-to-city commuters, is nice enough. But extensive street running and frequent stop spacing makes MAX impractical for crosstown commutes, and leads to some heinous backups as workers in the West side’s tech industry try to return home to their affordable houses on the city’s eastern flanks. Any attempt to add even a smidgen of additional highway capacity is heavily politicked.

In Dallas, they started building LRT about the same time Portland did, but without the attendant anti-freeway politicking. Dallas’s DART is also focused on suburb-to-city commuter markets, mostly following old interurban or freight rail rights-of-way. Dallas has built an impressive, extensive LRT system. But a focus on suburban commuters paired with continued highway expansion has led Dallas to have the lowest ridership per mile of any US light rail system.

In Houston, the city expanded as far and as long as it could on highways. Reversible HOV lanes were piggybacked on existing freeways; Houston’s park and ride buses carry about half as many people as Dallas’s DART does. The first LRT line hit so many major destinations that it now has the highest ridership per mile of any post-WWII LRT line. The plan for expansion calls for a thick network within the Inner Loop, oriented towards a multi-centric city – some lines, like the University and Uptown, won’t touch Downtown Houston at all.

Houston’s LRT isn’t ideological, a triumph over the evil of cars. Nor is Houston’s LRT an “alternative,” designed to be just another “option” for suburb-to-city commuters. Rather, Houston’s LRT is a tool. Developers aren’t blind. The inner loop is a treasure trove of unrestricted reserves and expired deed restrictions, just waiting to be redeveloped at more and higher densities. But this can’t and won’t be accomplished by building more and wider freeways. Those are fine for the periphery, where their construction continues apace. But for inner-ring density, at some point, you need the capacity that only comes from rail.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the approaches these other cities have taken. But I like Houston’s the best, because it provides the strongest refutation to the troglodytes who snipe “boondoggle” articles off of CRT monitors in sleepy, stale towns. Houston is a city that grew up on the auto, that took much of its prosperity from the oil industry, that continues to grow with cars as more toll roads open up more land to more single-family development. Yet at the same time that its edges sprawled out, Houston allowed its cores to rise up, and in doing so has found the approximate limits of a strictly auto-based transport system.

Is Matt Yglesias the new Tom Friedman?

This is a bit meta, but Matt Yglesias driving across the Throgs Neck Bridge and making large-scale inferences about the state of American infrastructure is less than a degree of separation from Tom Friedman’s inability to get good wireless internet coverage on the Acela train.

Beyond that, I think the key takeaway here is that it’s less about how old your infrastructure is and it’s more about whether your city is growing.

In Houston, for instance, we had old infrastructure – the six-lane Katy freeway – which was overcapacity. There were also geometric deficiencies that emerged out of that overcapacity – short weaving sections can be fine when the adjacent roadway is operating at LOS A, but as volumes rise and it becomes harder to merge you need a longer weave to avoid total breakdown.

Lucky for Houston, the western suburbs and the “Energy Corridor” were growing rapidly enough to justify building the Westpark Tollway. The Westpark was essentially a brand-new, four-lane, 70mph construction detour. Except that now that the Katy Freeway is done, it’s still there. And as a result there is a fair bit of spare capacity in the system for when it comes time to add managed lanes to 59 through Sharpstown.

In the case of New York, there was long talk of a Rye to Oyster Bay crossing, a fifteen mile causeway across Long Island Sound. We U.S. Americans are pretty damn good at that, whether you’re talking about the the Ponchartrain, the San Mateo, the Chesapeke Bridge-Tunnel, or the entirety of Tampa-St. Pete. If NY built a brand new bridge across the Sound, they could give it six months for trips to adjust and then shut down all or half of the Throgs Neck and do a full superstructure replacement. Combined with periodic microsurfacing that could give you 20-30 years of uninterrupted commutes, just infrequent nighttime closures.*

The problem arises because where Long Island was sort of a booming place in the 40’s and 50’s, at this point development has sort of ossified into a balkanized mess of little boroughs and hamlets that are all suspicious of growth. Coincident with that suspicion of new growth is opposition to the sort of new infrastructure that would support such new growth. Combine that with the usual NIMBYs and no one is seriously talking about a Rye-Oyster Bay crossing right now, which means you can’t use it as a reliever route while you redo the Throgs Neck.

And it’s not just road infrastructure.

One of the mind-blowing things about the East Coast is that you have historic and world-class transit infrastructure which is almost criminally underutilized. So where in the South and the West you have New Starts rail lines with upzoning or tax increment financing around stations, in the east you have quarter-acre lots backing up to electrified train stops. If you posit that there should be skyscrapers in Brooklyn, then maybe it’s time to bring brownstones to Little Neck.

In the transit realm, it would not be incredibly difficult to connect the Port Washington Branch of the LIRR to the express tracks of the Queens Blvd IND and have a single-seat ride to Midtown and the Financial District. With a Rye-Oyster Bay crossing you could conceivably link the inevitable train component with the Tappan Zee replacement and have a Voltron-esque circumferential that runs Suffern-White Plains-Hicksville-Jamaica-Atlantic Terminal.

But the difficulty is, again, it’s very difficult to find the political will to (i) fund these improvements and (ii) overcome NIMBY objections without a sufficiently-growing population to force your hand. Without the growth you don’t have the infrastructure improvements and without the infrastructure improvements you don’t have an increase in the standard of living.

*I’m a big fan of the “Arizona model” of closing entire highways for short periods of time as opposed to complex construction phasing which preserves the route but spreads the pain over a much longer area. In the NYC case you just disperse a shit ton of portable VMS’s that say THROGS NECK CLOSED USE WHITESTONE. And the Whitestone jams up, and in 48 hours it’s all over.

Y’all can join in too.

Yglesias remarks that “In the future, everyone will live in Texas” and links to a Forbes contributor who states that “When Houston is the only place America can build things, all things will be built in Houston.

Well, yeah.

But I’d like to point out that this is in fact super easy to replicate. Just delete your zoning code. Really, that’s it. Houston has a lot of things going for it that aren’t related to land use – strength in multiple sectors of industry and business, the Texas tax and regulatory climate, a highway network that is impressive by national and global standards alike. But it’s also hot, humid, and the air isn’t exactly what you’d call “clean.”

The magic of no zoning is that it allows growth on all fronts at once. You can have your outer periphery sprawl, your inner-city high-rises, your mid-rise condos and townhomes in established neighborhoods, and this is all going on simultaneously. There’s no particular reason you couldn’t pursue a similar strategy in, say, D.C.. You’d have office towers going up in downtown, you’d have mid-rises and tower blocks springing up in neighborhoods like Columbia Heights or Van Ness, and you’d also have a lot of new single-family going up in Montgomery County.

In principle there is no reason why the entire run from Bethesda to Frederick should not be one continuous sprawl. You already have the commuter rail in place; it can be double-tracked. You already have the heavy rail in place; it could be extended. And you could run a toll road from the 270-495 interchange complex, parallel to 270 but much closer to the Potomac, rejoining I-70 west of Frederick. I’ve been reading up on Dallas’s Trinity Parkway lately, so I get that toll roads aren’t “hot” in the current chic urbanist mindset. But Houston has the Hardy and the Westpark, Dallas has the DNT, so clearly the concept is sound.

Instead, what you have is a very strict growth limit that’s preserved out of some mistaken notion that large swaths of Montgomery should forever be preserved as estate residential and hobby farms. This isn’t just a heinous restriction on supply, it’s also just a little bit classist. You can argue with the aesthetics of Houston sprawl all you want, but the fact is the median person making the median income and paying the traditional 28% can choose either a new house on the periphery OR a new condo downtown or near the med center OR lots of stuff in between. In Montgomery County, that person is herded into garden apartment conversions.

This is where you need to combine Yglesias and the Cato idiots into one Voltron type creature. Matt is livid against restrictions on supply in the core but only begrudgingly accepts peripheral single-family. O’Toole and friends have no problem with density restrictions to “preserve neighborhood feel” but don’t get him started on UGBs. Yglesias thinks transit is cool; Cato positively fetishizes toll roads, and in fact most of their transport policy is just tollroads in drag. (“HOV lanes… that can also be used as toll lanes! Busways… that cars can also drive on for a small fee!)

Put the two together, and you get downtown density plus suburban sprawl, toll roads plus trains. Which is a solid recipe for growth. Which is Houston.

How to do Texas HSR

I’m getting a lot of hits on a post I did awhile back arguing that High Speed Rail is pro-sprawl. So if a bunch of people are going to link here off of a HAIF discussion on HSR I might as well jot down all my views in one place. So, starting with Houston…

Use the SP site / Barbara Jordan PO site for the terminal.

This is so flipping obvious. For one, it’s essentially the same site as the current Amtrak service, so there’s continuity there. For another, it was originally built as a train station, so all of the roadway infrastructure necessary to support a train station is already in place. For a third, it’s within walking distance of a substantial portion of the CBD. The commuter rail plans drawn up by Metro and their consultants really like to look at L.A., which has a station some distance from the CBD with a forced subway/LRT transfer. But it’s much more refreshing to ditch the forced transfer and just walk directly to your destination. And the destinations around the SP / PO site aren’t just dense but they’re 24 hours. Far from just office, there’s already a critical mass of clubs, drinking establishments, and parks. The sort of ecosystem which urban design consultants imagine growing up around train stations already exists, so just dropping a train station into it is the definition of synergy.

The “North Intermodal Terminal” site is poo. Besides the forced LRT transfer, there’s not enough rail capacity in the design, and the site constraints would make expansion difficult. Moreover, the alternatives analysis in Metro’s EIS was heavily biased towards “redevelopment” in order for the NIT to come out on top. “Redevelopment” is an acceptable goal for a suburban rail station but when you’re building a hub and spoke network into a major city, the downtown station needs to be downtown.

A high speed rail network provides an opportunity to bypass all this questionable planning and start from square one, which should be the post office site. Oh and did someone mention it’s for sale? Seriously now.

290 is the exit route

It doesn’t really matter whether you’re building a “Texas Triangle” or a “Texas T-Bone” or whatever shape you desire, 290 is your corridor. IH-10 is way too built out, the Katy ROW long since subsumed by the freeway. 45/Hardy’s north/south alignment adds needless time for Houston-Austin and Houston-San Antonio trips. And the BNSF corridor from Garden Oaks out to Tomball just isn’t developed enough, not to mention it’s a skinny right-of-way that goes through tons of residential backyards. I’m seeing NIMBY suits.

But the 290/Hempstead corridor isn’t just perfectly-aligned to handle trips to Dallas and San Antonio with minimal delays, it’s also a near-continuous strip of low-rise industrial. That means you’re dealing with the CBREs and the Transwesterns instead of the Smiths and the Joneses. You can get through practically the entire acquisition process while only dealing with MBAs. Sure, there might be a suit or two over appraisals, but there’ll be none of the concern trolls who want to derail the project because it destroys the unique nature of their livable community, like the kids on the SF Peninsula who keep trying to kill California’s trains. No one’s heart aches that you might put a bullet train through an industrial park. It works.

Get out of San Antonio on IH-10, but resist the siren song of 130

I-10 is the natural route out of SA. It’s flat, it’s relatively undeveloped, and it’s damned straight. But SH 130 isn’t so great. The trouble is, the route between Seguin and Lockhart is a string of almost continuous 1 degree S-curves. That’s nice curvature for an 85mph cruise in a Suburban, but it’s massively inadequate for trains at 220 or even 150mph. There is little getting around the fact that HSR will need a brand new alignment roughly parallel to 130.

The good news is that HSR is skinny by Texan right-of-way standards. On flat ground, you really only need 100′ – same as a standard H-town arterial. And where rails cross active farm or ranchland, you can build overpasses that are little more than culverts. A couple MSE walls and a few beams to span 12 or 16 feet is all you need. Simple.

Have a three-way with the Metroplex

The only way to deal with Dallas-Fort Worth is two lines, one running directly into Dallas, one directly into Fort Worth. This wins from a travel time perspective, but gets tricky from a scheduling perspective, since you’re dividing trains into multiple termini. The trick, then, is to “close the loop” with a direct HSR link from Dallas to Fort Worth. Thus any train going to one city is going to the other, and vice versa, it just might take a bit longer. I don’t think the routing matters all that much. You can run it along the TRE for ease of acquisition, you could send it through Arlington or Grapevine, or you could go deep into multi-billion-megaproject territory and tunnel under DFW with a station at the terminal, a la CDG or Narita. As long as the trains can make the loop.

Avoid Downtown Austin

This will be seen as sacrilege by some, but think about it. There’s no conceivable way to run through trackage through Austin. You can’t elevate over 35 because 35 is already elevated over 35. You can’t run it up MoPac because MoPac is ROW-constrained on all sides by well-heeled neighborhoods. And this similar neighborhood impact stuff happens with every taking you could conceivably do. Moreover, there’s a lot of bleed-over between Austin and places like like Boulder, Colorado or Portland, Oregon with people who like ATX but wouldn’t dream of living in Houston or Cowtown. These people are persnickety and litigious. What I’m saying is, NIMBY shitstorm.

But Austin can’t be a stub terminal because it lies between all of the other major cities. You need Austin to be a through-stop for trains from SA to FTW or SA to HOU. Hence the alternatives analysis for Austin should be a couple routes stopping at ABIA and a couple stations along SH 130 or further out. For my money I’d put the station right at ABIA and then have a driverless metro (a la Skytrain) for frequent service between planes, trains, and Emo’s. The reason you do a driverless Metro and not conventional LRT is because conventional LRT always ends up with crappy late-night headways – if not from the get-go, in the first round of budget cuts – and Austin is a late-night town. Driverless avoids this, and you can run 6-8 minute headways even in the wee hours.

Tying it all together

Once you’ve decided how the trains are going to run in the cities, the next step is just drawing out some 20-minute curves through the cows. For me, I am agnostic here. There remain substantial questions such as how do you serve the substantial ridership base at Temple/Fort Hood, do you run tracks through Waco or College Station, etc. But I don’t really have an opinion on this. I think if you make the right choices about how to run it through the major cities, and if you set clear standards for how the system should run through the rest of the countryside (e.g., minimum curve radii and the like), then any system that results is a good one.

And the technology?

Shinkansen. And here’s why. Most of the off-the-shelf HSR trainsets out there are built to Euro spec, which means they’re in the range of 9’6″ to 9’8″ wide. This is narrower than the traditional US spec of 10’2.” Siemens has a variant of the ICE it sells which roughly parallels the US spec, and is cylindrical in shape, similar to an Amfleet car. But the 700 series Shinkansen is a slab, square-profiled, 11’1″ in width. Which is to say, it’s the biggest. Now, I’m big. If you’re reading this, and you’re in Texas, you’re probably big too. Not a dis – it’s just what happens when you have ready access to chicken fried everything and the best goddamned mexican food on the planet.

The 700 is so big, in fact, that in standard-spec it seats five across. Now of course, this will not do. Four-across seating is the order of the day. In Japan, this is the Green Car. Add some legroom and make it the Lone Star Car. In fact Judge Eckels signed up with a company that’s trying to do just that. And while it’s not exactly good policy to preselect a vendor, there are enough JR Group companies that they can each affiliate with a different set of firms and submit a different bid. LSHSR is hitched up with JR Tokai to sell the 700? Some other group can hook up with JR East and sell the E5. Hayabusa. Just write a spec for width or cross-sectional area that excludes all known ICE variants, and voila. Besides, Siemens already has a near-monopoly on US Light Rail Vehicle production. Let someone else sell the high-speed ones.