Photo: Flickr user Ed Schipul.

Still preliminary, the plan includes airport rail connections, bus rapid transit and more but will likely face serious financial constraints.

After a bus system overhaul that garnered the attention of other cities looking to do the same, Houston's transit agency is in the midst of creating its long-range plan, MetroNEXT, to take the multimodal system well into the future. The agency presented several preliminary draft plans Thursday that would update the previous long-range plan created in 2003 and that include projects like rail extensions to airports, a bus rapid transit network and big increases in potential riders.

The agency was careful to say, however, that, given current projections, any plan would likely face serious financial limitations, partly due to federal policies. "We're going to have to pick and choose because we can't do it all," said Carrin Patman, the board chair.

Patman added that little was set in stone and that even the types of transit modes used in the draft plan were provisional; "it is entirely possible that new technologies will supplant some of the modes we use in this study."

The agency offered three plans: a blockbuster conceptual plan and two, smaller alternatives given the agency's current financial projections.

"This is big, it's bold," said Clint Harbert, vice president of system and capital planning for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, told the board of the $35 billion vision. "It would create a 460 percent increase in people served and a 120 percent increase in employment areas covered within one-half mile of high-capacity transit." In total, the plan includes 90 miles of new bus rapid transit, 100 miles of extended light rail with 211 new light rail vehicles, 448 new buses and investments in 33 high-frequency corridors.

The plan would expand access to light rail and bus rapid transit for low-income households by 440 percent and include improvements in the mayor's Complete Communities, according to Thursday's presentation. "A lot of this focused where we have transit-dependent populations," said Harbert.

The preliminary plan was developed after 25 public meetings plus dozens of other meetings attended by board and agency representatives.

Metro's preliminary long-term draft plan.

Working from where Metro has already made investments in rail, the plan's light rail vision includes rail connections to Hobby Airport, toward Little York and Acres Homes and a connection to IAH. It also includes potential for rail extensions that go outside the service area--like a route to Missouri City and Sugar Land--with the collaboration of other regional agencies and entities.

The plan's bus rapid transit focuses a lot of the investment on the west side, building on an agreement with the Uptown Management District, and would seek to create an experience similar to light rail, with level boarding and comparable station amenities. The network would connect some of the system's busiest routes, according to Harbert and would include Third Ward's university campuses and north to Kashmere Gardens.

It would also focus on a Boost network, with several corridors of frequent service, improving overall service, implementing signal prioritization, utilizing exclusive bus lanes and adding upgraded shelters, as well as other improvements.

Under the plan, the local bus network would see new routes, community connectors where standard service has been difficult, expanded weekend service and other changes, while the regional express service would move to two-way, all-day service that essentially turns many park and rides into stations.

Throughout the plan, he said, attention was paid to first- and last-mile connections, transit-oriented development, accessibility and resiliency, among other considerations.

Patman described that vision as "almost a pie in the sky plan" given the financial constraints facing the agency, which estimates only 3 to 8 percent, or roughly $1 billion to $2.8 billion-worth, of the projects included in the long-term vision plan could be completed by fiscal year 2040. Art Smiley, Metro's chief financial officer detailed those constraints, including projections about available tax returns, maintenance costs and cash reserves. 

"I'm very curious about what we're really accomplishing," asked board member Troi Taylor. "It seems like it's going to be a very small drop in the bucket."

Given the projections, Harbert laid out two alternative plans.

The more financially optimistic plan includes rail extensions to Hobby Airport from the red and purple lines, as well as one to the Tidwell Transit Center, plus a more limited bus rapid transit network that would include Gulfton and the west side of town plus, Third Ward, Second Ward and north through Fifth Ward.

The plan would still support new bus routes, expanded weekend service and other improvements to the existing network, according to Harbert.

The less optimistic option also includes regional express service to IAH and other outlying areas, weekend service expansion, a light rail extension to the Tidwell Transit Center and bus rapid transit to Katy.

According to the timeline in the draft, the final plan is expected in summer 2019. The agency expects to go to the voters in 2019 for approval to increase its ability to borrow, according to the Houston Chronicle. Still many of the plan's components rely on potential partnerships. "We have to have some help coming up with money from our elected officials and others," said Patman.