Hoping for federal funds, Metro trying to move quickly on bus rapid transit on Richmond

Transit officials, sensing the timing may be right to tap federal funds for major projects, are moving quickly on portions of a planned bus rapid transit line viewed by some as the backbone of Houston’s future movement.

The segment of the planned University Line between Hillcroft Transit Center in Gulfton and the Wheeler Transit Center in Midtown is one of the most highly sought but historically controversial routes in the Metropolitan Transit Authority system.

Envisioned as bus rapid transit that uses some dedicated lanes to stop at key stations, delivering service similar to rail without the expense or design complexity, the project was included in the long-range Metro plan voters approved in November 2019. With a new federal government in place, proposing massive investment in transit, Metro officials said speeding up at least central portions of the line makes sense.

“Getting it in line for potential federal funding is critical,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said. “The sooner we do it, the better.”

Accelerating the project means beginning discussions with the Federal Transit Administration around September, pending Metro board approval next month. From there, planners would spend about two years designing the project and holding public meetings to gauge community preferences.

That timeline would allow for the project to gain federal approvals — and perhaps money from Washington — by September 2023. Construction would take months or potentially years, depending on what exactly Metro builds.

“There is some risk to go with it,” Metro Deputy CEO Tom Jasien said of the acceleration. “We are going to have to work our way through this project development process very quickly.”

The reward, however, is federal clearance for a long-sought link, along with funding for it.

“It is our best chance to get in line for the federal funding we keep hearing that is likely to come,” Jasien said.

Congress is debating a large-scale infrastructure bill that is likely to include transit funding opportunities. Lawmakers could sketch out billions in planned projects by summer. Local officials already have said a planned extension of the Purple Line light rail to Hobby Airport is a potential recipient of future federal funds. In submissions to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, local representatives identified 11 other priority transportation projects, including various bus and sidewalk improvements along Westheimer, Scott and Fondren, a new bridge on Clay Road and expansion of Texas 36 in Fort Bend County.

Having projects in the planning stages for construction three-to-five years away is warranted, Metro officials said, noting the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan means transit planners will need to juggle numerous projects simultaneously so all of them are poised to proceed to design or construction when money is available.

Those aims align with indications from federal officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has said projects that add transit options are needed to revive America’s cities.

Speaking Friday in Atlanta at a transit station, Buttigieg said there is a “pretty clear roadmap for where the needs are, we just have to be able to plow the resources in, and also support planning to take shovel-worthy projects that aren’t shovel-ready yet and get them through the pipeline.”

“This is about looking back in the 2040s on what we did in the early 2020s and say, ‘OK, this is how we set up America for the future, one community at a time,” he said.

If fully built, the University Line is poised to be among the longest single bus rapid transit lines in the nation, operating along more than 25 miles from the Tidwell Transit Center north of Loop 610 near Interstate 69, south to the Texas Southern University and University of Houston area, then west to the Westchase area.

Tentatively, officials have broken building the route into five segments:

  Westchase Park and Ride to the Houston Community College West Loop campus

  West Loop campus to the Wheeler Transit Center

  Wheeler to the Eastwood Transit Center

  Eastwood to the Denver Harbor Transit Center

  Denver Harbor to the Tidwell Transit Center