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METRORail Disappointment?

Don't be disappointed: New METRORail route is a growing pain for a city that's behind the times

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METRORail Extension ride
The first new stop on the North Line, set to launch on Dec. 21. Photo by Joel Luks
METRORail Extension ride
Riding the light rail into the city offers panoramic views of the downtown skyline. Photo by Joel Luks
METRORail Extension ride
Judge Dwight E. Jefferson, left, VP for rail expansion David Couch, COO Andrew Skabowski, chief safety officer Tim Kelly, project manager Fred Childs, safety manager Walter Heinrich and chief rail controller Ken Luebeck pose for a photo.
Photo by Joel Luks
METRORail Extension ride
As part of the Arts in Transit program, local artists decorated the stations with works that depict the values of the area's residents. Photo by Joel Luks
METRORail Extension ride
Colorful panels were crafted by local artists Dixie Friend Gay, Arielle Masson, Rey de la Reza and Jesse Sifuentes, among others. Photo by Joel Luks
METRORail Extension ride
The stations aren't located in well-liked entertainment, shopping or cultural landmarks. Photo by Joel Luks
METRORail Extension ride
The North Line's main objective was functionality. Photo by Joel Luks
METRORail Extension ride
The extension is a growing pain for a city that's far behind other densely populated areas. Photo by Joel Luks
METRORail Extension ride
Views of the downtown skyline from the Burnett Transit Center/Casa de Amigos station. Photo by Joel Luks
METRORail Extension ride
METRORail Extension ride
METRORail Extension ride
METRORail Extension ride
METRORail Extension ride
METRORail Extension ride
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METRORail Extension ride
METRORail Extension ride
Joel Luks, head shot, column mug, April 2013

I received my driver's license when I was 16, but didn't drive much until eight years after that.

Public transportation was a way of life in my hometown of Toronto. The network of subways, streetcars and buses was fairly well organized — though not perfect by any means. Whenever I scored a car ride, it felt like a luxury reserved for special occasions. That was some 20 years ago.

Having my own car was a part of growing up, a coming-of-age rite of passage similar to graduating from high school. Once you were revving up your own set of wheels, public transportation was a thing of the past. In fact, I felt so rusty when I purchased my first car that I decided to hire a driving instructor for a few days to remind me of the rules of the road. It was the responsible thing to do.

How things have changed.

The additional stations may be disappointing as they aren't located in well-liked entertainment, shopping or cultural landmarks.

As METRO prepares to launch the North Line, a 5.3-mile track with eight stations that extends the existing 7.5-mile Main Street Red Line from the University of Houston-Downtown to the Northline Transit Center on Fulton, I was invited to hop aboard to experience the ride, its amenities and destinations before the Dec. 21 ribbon-cutting ceremony.

One thing became readily evident: Houstonians who don't depend on public transportation view the rail as a novelty, a somewhat hipster mode of getting around that says, "Hey, look at me, I am a forward-thinking local." For that demographic, the perceived increased safety associated with railcars — in comparison to traditional buses — renders the train more accessible.

For those citizens, the additional stations may be disappointing as they aren't located on popular points of interest. They aren't located in well-liked entertainment, shopping or cultural landmarks. At least not today.

Consider the first stop on the new route (map here). The elevated Burnett Transit Center/Casa de Amigos station at the intersection of North Main and Burnett streets will accommodate a park-and-ride facility, set to open next year, near the Casa de Amigos Health Center. Continuing up North Main and turning right on Boundary Street, you can see a Pizza Patrón, Fulton Washateria, El Rey del Pollo, McDonald's, industrial lots and, ironically, a car wash as the route approaches an elementary school before reaching Moody Park.

Some signs of gentrification are noticeable: An Avenue Community Development Corporation senior housing project, an updated commercial plaza, a home mid-renovation and a couple of contemporary townhome developments.

 The extension is a growing pain for a city that's far behind other densely populated areas.

The final stop, located north of the 610 Loop, past the Culinary Institute LeNotre and in front of Houston Community College, connects to the Northline Transit Center, from which bus lines travel east on Crosstimbers to Highway 59 and west on West Little York toward T.C. Jester and Antoine.

Nothing about that is particularly exciting, except perhaps the colorful panels by local artists Dixie Friend Gay, Arielle Masson, Rey de la Reza and Jesse Sifuentes, among others, that add beauty to the non-futuristic design of the stations, an initiative that's part of the Arts In Transit program.

But the North Line's main objective was functionality. For those for whom public transportation is an everyday necessity, the extension opens up possibilities for easier access to existing stops along downtown, Midtown, the Museum District, the Medical Center, Hermann Park and the Reliant complex. The extension is a growing pain for a city that's far behind other densely populated areas.

It's hard to say what the effects of the North Line will have on its surrounding environs. For homeowners, they may enjoy an increase in property values. For renters, a surge in living costs may see them displaced to less expensive areas, an unavoidable outcome of gentrification.

As for me, the North Line won't heighten my chances of riding the light rail. Perhaps with the expected 2014 opening of the East End Line to EaDo and the Southeast Line that passes through the University of Houston I may be convinced. What surely is attractive is the future University and Uptown lines that will clear passage west to The Galleria and north to Memorial Park.

Then, I may change my ways.

Or it may take another generation for Houstonians, as a whole, to rely less on our own cars and fully embrace the merits of public transportation.

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