Photo: Flickr user Sean Davis.

Years in the making, the latest MetroNext plan includes miles more of bus rapid transit and light rail than the previous draft plans.

After presenting two long-range plans earlier this year as part of the MetroNext planning process, the Houston area's Metropolitan Transit Authority unveiled its latest long-range draft plan this month following several public meetings.

The latest plan, Plan A Plus, is the most ambitious yet with an estimated price tag of roughly $7.5 billion, including expected state and federal funding. The 20-year vision includes 20 miles of light rail extensions, including to Hobby Airport, 75 miles of new bus rapid transit along five lines, an expanded regional express network, targeted service enhancements and systemwide improvements. And it promises big impacts, including roughly doubling ridership and expanding access, including increasing the share of low-income households within a half-mile of frequent transit by 281 percent.

 "It drastically changes access for a whole bunch of folks," Clint Harbert, vice president of system and capital planning, told the board at the December 11 workshop.

The agency will seek further public input and also anticipates putting forward a $3 billion bond during the November 2019 election. Though the election would grant the agency the authority to borrow that amount, the board anticipates borrowing incrementally, as it has done in the past.

"We're hoping to be able to do a plan this robust because Houston really needs it," said Carrin Patman, Metro board chairwoman at the December workshop.

The plan will likely continue to evolve following further public meetings and input.

"It's still a draft plan, still subject to change," said Patman. "The various corridors could change, the modes could change but this is what we have based on really very extensive input from the community."

The latest plan represents the agency's most optimistic vision thus far, expanding and improving on many of the elements present in the agency's Plan A. "It takes them further out and it does more with those dollars," said Harbert.

Source: Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Source: Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Though Patman cautioned the modes are still subject to change, Plan A Plus includes light rail extensions to Hobby Airport for what Harbert calls "one-seat rides" as well as extended Red Line rail up to Shepherd and Green and Purple Line extensions. The five bus rapid transit lines included in the proposal would cover stretches of I-45 North, working with the state's department of transportation, connect Inner Katy to downtown Houston, run from West Chase to Uptown before heading north to Tidwell "connecting a community with high-transit dependency," according to Harbert, extend into Gulfton and run along Gessner. That last route, said Harbert, would mean "folks wouldn't have to come downtown to transfer."

The focus on bus rapid transit (BRT) signals an important shift for the agency. As Houston Chronicle writer Dug Begley noted, "Officials believe BRT, as it is called, delivers the same benefits as rail, but at less cost with more flexibility, giving Metro the ability to alter service to meet demand. For riders, it would be a rail-like experience and different from buses that operate on set timelines."

The plan also envisions a regional express network that invests in two-way operations, concentrated improvements in the bus network's core, including "better passenger amenities, signal treatments, pavement treatments" and more, according to Harbert, and systemwide improvements that enhance accessibility.

"I like A Plus a whole lot better than A. B, let's forget about B," said board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

The proposed plan won praise outside the board workshop as well. Former board member and transit expert Christof Spieler said in a tweet, "The rail and BRT lines generally do a great job of connecting employment centers, serving densely populated areas, and linking to frequent bus & 2-way regional express bus." And transit advocacy organization LINK Houston tweeted that, with Plan A Plus, the agency had "upped its game."