Value Beyond Ridership
Houston’s METRO transit agency is delivering on its voter mandate to expand and enhance mobility options, with efficiency, universal accessibility and sustainability at the forefront.
By Sanjay Ramabhadran | Board Chair, Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas (METRO)
The transit system in greater Houston is in the midst of unprecedented investment in system expansion and improvements, all aimed at expanding mobility and opportunity for the people in all of our communities. The METRO transit system is vast – covering 1,300 square miles – and we are moving forward rapidly to catch up with the region’s current demands and prepare for significant population growth. For our community to grow and thrive, we will need responsive public transportation services that are safe, reliable, frequent, accessible and equitable. We are committed to accelerating system enhancements to meet that demand.
METRO provides transportation services, across several modes, to Houston, large parts of unincorporated Harris County, and more than a dozen surrounding cities. In 1978, Houston-area voters had the foresight to approve a one-cent sales tax, which funded the creation of METRO and began to establish a much-needed public transportation system.
Yet, even as this work advanced there was a parallel and far more intense focus on building out our region’s highway network. As a result, greater Houston now has more than 4,000 lane-miles of highway and holds title to the nation’s only 26-lane highway.
Resounding Mandate for Transit
The investment gap between highway and transit assets, and our current mobility constraints, presented our region’s leaders with questions as we entered the new millennium, such as:
- How can we support an appealing quality of life for the people who live here?
- How will we provide transportation options and social equity and mobility for everyone?
- How can we attract and retain businesses and new talent in the years to come?
It has long been METRO’s contention (and that of most transit agencies) that a well-funded, responsive public transportation system can play a powerful role in answering those questions. So, we took our better-transit proposition to Houston-area voters in November 2019 in the form of our METRONext Moving Forward Plan. This plan called for $3.5 billion in bonding authority to move forward with a range of major public transit projects, new construction and improvements, over the next 20 years.
The result: Nearly 70% of voters supported our plan at the ballot box. Houstonians clearly looked at our extensive plan, reflected on their current mobility challenges, and acknowledged that we could not stay on our current track – all options had to be on the table.
The public’s approval of METRONext in 2019 has given our agency the fuel to accelerate certain long-envisioned projects.
First, we are making bus rapid transit – and buses, generally – the keystone of our public transit approach. We have significant rail assets, which continue to serve us well and which we will build out to their logical conclusions to provide optimal service. METRO has already begun work on three of our most significant BRT projects presented in the 2019 referendum:
- METRORapid University Corridor BRT – This project will create a fully accessible BRT corridor that is 25 miles long, which will be the longest in the nation, and will benefit people in a range of residential, business and education centers. METRO has been working with the community for several years to develop this project. The University Corridor is so named because it connects multiple campuses of the Houston Community College system, Texas Southern University, University of Houston and University of St. Thomas.
- METRORapid Inner Katy Corridor BRT – This project will improve the connection between Houston’s Uptown and Downtown, which are two of our biggest employment and activity centers. The BRT service will augment and improve upon existing local bus service on the city streets and recently completed Silver Line, METRO’s first BRT service. It’s a much-needed enhancement because Inner Katy is one of Houston’s most congested roadways and which, because it has lacked an HOV lane, has long presented a challenge both to motorists and our agency’s Regional Express/Park & Ride buses.
- METRORapid Gulfton Corridor BRT – This project serves a highly transit-dependent community and ties one of the most dense, diverse and highest propensity transit riders anywhere in the region. It brings critical north-south connectivity for commuters seeking to avoid traffic congestion.
We will improve experience and efficiency on many of our most utilized local routes. The 82 Westheimer is one of the most heavily used bus routes in Texas– and a true workhorse of METRO’s transit system. We recently were awarded $5 million in federal funds, which will help us improve accessibility upgrades, build new bus shelters with real-time service information, and better synchronize traffic signals.
Almost half of the 75 miles of BRT improvements will be in the process of being designed / built within the first five years since the 2019 referendum passed. This demonstrates our very real sense of urgency.
METRO places a high priority on access and inclusion in our planning. Of the 25 miles in the METRORapid University Corridor, for example, 10 miles are accessible to underserved neighborhoods. We also are installing Bluetooth beacons to help visually impaired customers navigate our system more easily when they get close to a bus stop or transit center. Under the Universal Accessibility initiative, we have upgraded over 4,000 bus stops to go above and beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
We also think about neighborhoods where the narrow roads cannot accommodate large buses, and in certain parts of the city offer curb2curb, a personalized, on-demand service that lets passengers get picked up, transported and dropped off within a specified zone (a bit like Uber) and also connect to our broader transit network.
We are re-imagining our Park & Ride facilities and transforming them from concrete parking lots to destinations with mixed use, transit-oriented development.
Climate Action, Houston Style
By its very nature, transit can have a lower environmental impact than many other transportation modes. METRO’s plan calls for making our system even more environmentally friendly in the years ahead. In early 2022, we were among the first transit agencies in the country to adopt a Climate Action Plan that supports both Houston’s and the nation’s strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through innovation. We’re putting that plan into practice on a number of fronts.
One standout initiative is the introduction of electric buses into our fleet mix, which can meaningfully improve environmental performance. As a start, METRO ordered 20 electric buses, thanks to a $21.6 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. And, since it takes skilled mechanics to work on these new zero-emissions buses, METRO was fortunate to receive $1.2 million from Harris County to broaden our apprenticeship program and provide education and hands-on training opportunities.
The METRO Board has resolved to buy only zero-emissions buses after 2030, and in the interim will use a mix of clean-diesel, electric-hybrid and compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles. We are proceeding deliberately because we provide not only transportation but also a public service. In particular, we live in a hurricane-prone region so we must be ready to help our customers when they need it most. We need CNG buses and the redundancy of CNG-fired generators to be able to charge electric buses if the grid is down. Also, we are planning to leapfrog into hydrogen fuel cells with a pilot program in the next year. As we move forward, Houston will become one of the country’s largest hubs of hydrogen fuel production.
Value Beyond Ridership
At METRO we understand that we are in the mobility business, but we also see ourselves as being in the socio-economic mobility business. Achieving socioeconomic mobility requires having transportation connections between all of the vital resources you need – education, housing, jobs, services and everything else you need to live and thrive.
For this reason, I contend that transit ridership numbers tell only part of the story of what a strong mobility network delivers. The bigger part of the story is value – the sometimes-unquantifiable benefits that accrue to individuals, families, neighborhoods and society as a whole when people can connect safely, quickly and affordably. It’s value beyond ridership, value beyond revenue, and value beyond mobility. It’s the value of connecting people to opportunity, economic vibrancy and quality of life.
All of us at METRO are proud to contribute to the future success of every Houstonian, and to deliver on the public’s mandate to make our public transit system among the world’s very best.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sanjay Ramabhadran, PE, is chair of the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (METRO) of Harris County, Texas, having been appointed in February 2022 by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Prior to becoming METRO board chair, Sanjay chaired the agency’s Capital & Strategic Planning Committee, where he helped to oversee the planning, design, construction, and launch of major projects that enhance mobility throughout the region. A registered Professional Engineer, he has served in senior executive and board roles with global and regional firms delivering transportation, water, and flood mitigation projects for 25 years.
Sanjay’s leadership roles with Houston’s influential civic and business organizations have uniquely positioned him to help steer METRO’s future. He has served as president of The Texas Lyceum, chaired the board of directors of Leadership Houston, is a senior fellow of the American Leadership Forum, and also served as resident of the HESS Club and the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Houston. In 2012 he was recognized as among the Ten Outstanding Young Americans by the U.S. Junior Chamber.
A graduate of BITS-Pilani and Texas A&M University with executive education at the Harvard Kennedy School, Sanjay and his wife live in Houston and their sons attend public schools.