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Transcript of Today's Web Chat with John Sedlak
 

Web chat logoToday at noon, John Sedlak, METRO's executive vice president (our No. 2 guy), hosted a Web chat on the new services we are offering. We received great questions from you - thanks for chatting with us, everyone. See you again next month on Transit Talk!

Here's the transcript. 

 

 

 (12:00:48 PM) John Sedlak:

Welcome to the August Web chat. I'm John Sedlak, executive vice president here at METRO. Look forward to your questions regarding Signature Bus and regionalism.

 (12:03:23 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Any comments from Mr. Sedlak regarding the feasibility of a SH6 Energy Corridor QL route and when approximately it could be launched (which decade?) would be appreciated. Especially if BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil Chemicals, PDVSA, PGS, etc. are willing to pony up some spare change from their ample profits in the current $100+ per barrel oil economy? Energy Corridor General Manager Clark Martinson is trying to get the 4LW underwritten by the major oil company employers in his district.


A : The Energy Corridor has had a lot of growth in the recent past. And we continue to look at this area for ways in which we can interact with the business community in providing transportation and transit services.

 

 The use of a Quickline route in this area most likely would have to await the introduction of local service and this certainly would be assisted by private sector support. At this time, we do not have any firm dates for that introduction of service but would look forward to direct discussions with the business community in the Energy Corridor.

 

 

 (12:04:56 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : OK, how about 482 Westheimer QL, 456 Airline QL, 404 Beechnut QL, 485 Antoine QL, 464 Gessner QL?


A : Westheimer route has been identified as a potential Quickline for future Quickline service, as well as Gessner. The other routes, as well as these, will need to await the public's response to our first service which will go into place on Bellaire Blvd.

 

 (12:06:37 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : The new METRO's proposal for commuting rail to Fort Bend County is quite different from the original H-GAC's proposal. The difference is the use of the share of use on the rail line on US-90. Please comment.


A : METRO is not considering a shared use of the existing freight rail corridor within 90-A. This is a very heavily used freight rail line and a shared usage of track would not be possible.

 

 

 

 

 

(12:08:37 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Since I can't make it, Here's my question, "Would the real-time bus arrival information from NextBus Inc. (http://www.nextbus.com/)?"


A : One of the key features of the Signature Bus service to be introduced on Bellaire Blvd. would be next-bus arrival information to be displayed on signs at the Signature Bus stops locations. This information will be real time provided by a GPS system tied into the sign system and its software. The company that supplies this equipment to METRO is Init.

 

 

 

(12:11:12 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : When is the 482 Westheimer QL going to launch?


A : Before advancing additional Signature Bus lines beyond those currently under development - that is, Bellaire Blvd, the Palm Center route from the TMC running east to the Palm Center area and the Tidwell Quickline route, which would run from Tidwell Transit Center to the Northline Transit Center - we need to gauge the public's acceptance of this new service.

 

 

 (12:15:05 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Can you elaborate on the planned Signature Bus lines and when they might be put in service?


A : Signature Bus lines, also called Quickline, is our newest form of transit service first to be implemented on Bellaire Blvd. to serve the Texas Medical Center from the west side of Houston. This new service will use new hybrid-electric buses, on-board security cameras, more comfortable seating, a quieter interior and a significant amount of passenger information to be provided at the stop locations along the route.

 

 This first service will operate during peak hours in the morning and afternoon at 15-minute intervals. The Bellaire route is approximately nine miles in length and will have only eight stops. This will allow buses to make the trip from the west side of Houston to the TMC with significant time savings. Signature Service, also known as Quickline, is identified by banners, roadway symbols and new transit shelters.

(12:15:24 PM) Moderator1 whisper (12:15:24 PM) wakester:

 (12:04:56 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : OK, how about 482 Westheimer QL, 456 Airline QL, 404 Beechnut QL, 485 Antione QL, 464 Guessner QL?


A : Westheimer route has been identified as a potential Quickline for future Quickline service, as well as Gessner. The other routes, as well as these, will need to await the public's response to our first service which will go into place on Bellaire Blvd.

 

 

 

 (12:17:12 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Mr. Sedlak, at $30.00 per trip, the real people who need the service cannot afford to ride it - the workers that work at the airport. Why cannot it be lowered to around 5 bucks?


A : The new Airport Direct service will be a premium service operating every 30 minutes with service to IAH Bush with a 30-minute trip time. METRO also will continue to operate the 102 IAH route which provides service to employment sites on the airport property, as well as service to Terminal C. The cost of that service is $1.

 

 (12:19:21 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Why has Metro become so conservative when it comes the expansion of bus service? Metro has gone all in on light rail, but new bus service is sporadic and often delayed when it is announced. We only have one signature line when there's demand of at least three. When will this trend turn around, if ever?


A : Although much attention is focused on METRO's light-rail expansion, METRO is not ignoring its major portion of transit service, which is its bus network. New routes in the form of Park & Ride service have been put in place within the past year and with the introduction of the new Quickline service on Bellaire Blvd. we will be upgrading the local network.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(12:22:42 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : What is the start date for Bellaire QL service? Can we expect to see more press coverage and photos for those of us who don't want to drive down Bellaire to see the new stops and buses?


A : METRO had intended to start a Quickline service on Bellaire Blvd. this week. Construction installation of shelters, equipment and on-going street construction have delayed this start-up of service. We will post information on a new start date as all program elements are completed and taken through start-up testing. We will work with the media to provide announcements on a start date and the locations of stops along the Bellaire route.

 

 

 

(12:25:47 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Also, the 402 - QL Belliare schedule needs to be revised as it has two issues. One, it only has eight stops, but it has the same running time, if not a tad slower than that of the Impossible Dream (the 2 - Bellaire Sunday Schedule) which stops at nearly every posted bus stop. Another issue is that it takes four minutes to get from the Sharpstown to Fondren, but only three minutes from Fondren to Gessner? The route was poorly scheduled, and you can shave at least ten minutes off the running time. Someone should look into that.


A : The 402 Quickline stop locations were identified to connect with other METRO bus routes. The limited number of stops along the route is to improve travel time & reliability. The 402 Quickline buses are also equipped with control devices that will interact with the traffic signal system to allow the buses to have priority movement along the Bellaire route. All of this again is designed to improve trip times and reliability.

 

 

 

(12:27:40 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Why not put the real time bus arrival info on the website & phone for all buses? This will save money then start roll out electronic signs to bus stops at all major intersections.


A : Use of real-time bus arrival information on the 402 Quickline may be a prelude to future use throughout METRO's system and also on our Web site. This demonstration of this technology will be reviewed with the public to gauge its acceptance.

 

 

(12:28:22 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Will passengers be able to load baggage underneath the new airport direct buses?


A : Yes. The Airport Direct buses will have luggage storage space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(12:29:56 PM) John Sedlak:

Q :  I wonder if I can get Mr. Sedlak to disclose which  new buses have been assigned to these new routes.


A : For the Quickline service, new hybrid-electric 40-ft buses supplied by New Flyer Corp. will be utilized. For the Airport Direct service, new hybrid-electric 45-ft coaches will be utilized.

 

.

 

(12:32:31 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : How will you measure the success?


A : For the 402 Quickline, we will survey passengers periodically to gain their opinion of the service and will monitor ridership as a measure of success. This new route will also provide a faster trip to the Texas Medical Center complex, one of the fastest growing employment locations in the Houston region.

 

The next component of Signature Service will be installed on Holcombe Blvd. and OST, again serving the Texas Medical Center from the Southeast Transit Center.

 

(12:34:23 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Some years ago, METRO introduced the Bellaire Flyer Service. It failed and was discontinued. What makes you think this new Signature Bus Quickline will succeed?


A : The Signature Service will use a distinctive bus painted silver with the Quickline insignia applied to it. It will be recognized as a special type of service by not only the bus equipment being utilized but the stops and high level of passenger information being provided. We believe this is a major change from the approach that was used with the Bellaire Flyer Service.

 

(12:37:00 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : The bus lines for 221 are growing each day. During the mornings, our bus lines reach past the security station and around the corner towards Kingsland.

 

The trip home is worse. Even though I get on the bus at the second stop (just in front of the Hyatt), it's difficult to get a seat. I've begun walking two more blocks to get to the first scheduled stop ... which means I walk seven blocks to catch a bus in the evenings.

 

 Even then, I've had to stand four separate times in two consecutive weeks on the trip home. I have a picture taken of our bus line this morning that I would love to e-mail you ... if you have an e-mail address. Many thanks! Diane


A : Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your using METRO service and all of the others that are utilizing mass transit as an alternative. METRO continues to monitor its routes and ridership levels and make periodic adjustments to accommodate overloaded conditions. We'd love to see your picture. Go to our blog - and click on "contact us" to e-mail your picture.

 

 

 

Q : Mr. Sedlak , Does METRO have more buses to be put on the very crowded Park and Ride Lots now?

 

(12:39:15 PM) John Sedlak:

A : METRO has recently added additional buses to the most crowded Park & Ride routes. In the coming year, additional new Park & Ride buses will be received and put into service.

 

 (12:40:09 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Will passengers be able to transfer free to $3.50 routes like the 246 from the airport direct service when using the q card?


A : No. The Airport Direct is a premium service to demonstrate connecting downtown to our major airport with an alternative form of public transportation.

 

 

 

 

 

 (12:43:10 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : How can METRO manage to keep bus fares so low even with the skyrocketing fuel costs these days...the airlines are really hurting!


A : METRO has been purchasing fuel at lower than market rates to be able to provide the best service we can at a reasonable cost. Fuel is one of our largest budget items, and this year alone, will cost METRO an additional $23 million. Hope fuel prices will come down in the future.

 

 (12:45:00 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Is there long-term parking available for the downtown express bus to IAH? Will Hobby be considered for future express bus service (at a hopefully cheaper price than $15)?


A : The Airport Direct service will depart from the downtown passenger plaza directly across Travis Street from the Downtown Transit Center. We do not have long-term parking space at this site. There are no plans for a service to Hobby at this time, but we will continue to look at this type of service, depending on the public response to the new Airport Direct route.

 

 

 (12:46:34 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : I think a QL to the Palm Center from TMC TC is useless at this point without the rail link completed (the proposed SE Line). A better test of the QL concept would be along Westheimer from either Wheeler or Downtown TC to connect to a rail line and then make limited stops from there to West Oaks. The 81/82 service is dismal right now with frequently late buses and rampant bus bunching. Also, increasing the frequency of the 81/82 buses would be recommended. Westheimer is one of our premier streets and I definitely think it could support buses running every five to seven minutes.


A : Thank you for your comment regarding service along Westheimer. This particular route is under consideration for a future Quickline service. No dates have been established at this time for such a service.

 

(12:48:06 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Will METRO consider ordering more articulated buses to put on overcrowded park and ride routes since they can carry more passengers and have a faster unloading time?


A : METRO's new buses for use on Park & Ride routes are the 45-ft over-the-road, hybrid-electric coaches. These coaches have been determined to be the most effective for the Park & Ride service that we operate.

 

 

 (12:50:04 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : How can METRO justify the $15 fare for the 500 route when this service was provided at the old express rate by the short lived 112 - Bus/IAH Direct a few years ago? This new route stops running at 8pm from Downtown and 8:40 from the Airport, for a $30 round trip the span of service should last at least until 10 or 11pm. You should also consider branch service to the Greenway/Galleria/Uptown area as $15 for a trip to IAH from Downtown on a city bus is pretty steep no matter how you slice it.


A : The Airport Direct service is a demonstration of the new premium route to Bush IAH Airport. Depending upon public response to this service, hours of operation could be adjusted.

 

 (12:53:47 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Mr. Sedlak, I visited Washington D.C. recently and I was impressed at the level of service, and the wide array of riders using their system. Students, seniors, poor, rich - it just seems that everyone benefits from their service. Do you think we'll see that type of acceptance and support for transit in Houston any time soon?


A : METRO is working hard to expand its transit system throughout Harris County with multiple modes. Washington, D.C. metro system that you cite has been under development since the early 60s and has a wide coverage of rapid rail, commuter rail and local and express bus components. METRO's current plans to expand the light-rail system, the consideration of commuter rail in the southwest part of our region and northwest parts of our region, as well as expansion of Park & Ride and local service, will ultimately provide a multi-modal integrated transit system necessary to accommodate the rapid growth within this region.

 

 (12:57:13 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Will service to the 288 south area south of the beltway to the medical center start any time soon?


A : METRO has been examining ways in which we can provide service to a broader region. METRO has entered into an agreement with Harris County to provide service to Baytown and has under consideration, service to Pasadena. The consideration of Park & Ride service along the state Highway 288 corridor to the TMC has been identified as a high priority for future service. Although proposals have been made to the government jurisdictions outside METRO's service area, we have at this point in time, not been able to finalize an agreement for service. We are hopeful this can be done within this coming year.

 

 

(12:58:37 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : Speaking of Tidwell TC....why is it there? And so big?


A : The Tidwell Transit Center serves an area of our community that needs improved public transit services. All of our transit centers are collection points for various routes to provide transfer capability at a covered, well-lit facility.

 

(12:59:58 PM) John Sedlak:

Q : What is a reasonable time-frame we might expect to see additional Quickline service put in place? Within the next year? 2 years? 5 years?


A : We expect to add Quickline service east of the Texas Medical Center to the Southeast Transit Center in early 2009 and from the Tidwell Transit Center to the Northline Transit Center in late 2009.

 

 (1:01:23 PM) John Sedlak:

Time's up. Thanks for the great questions and comments regarding METRO's Quickline Signature Service, its new Airport Direct service and new regional services under consideration. I've enjoyed the Web chat. Look forward to future occasions to do this again.

 

Web Chat at Noon Today
 

Web chat logoToday, John Sedlak, executive vice president and our No. 2 guy, will host our August Web chat.

The topic is new METRO services and regional transportation.  

Here's your chance to ask your questions of one of METRO's top experts - from noon to 1 p.m. If you can't stay during your entire lunch hour, post a question now and pre-submit it - or drop in, ask a question and then grab a bite or run your errands.

We'll post the transcript later today after the chat.

Boy Scouts Thank METRO for Use of P&R
 

METRO's Joe Garcia receives an award from the Kingwood Boy Scouts Troops 8, 27, 839Every year, many of us buy boxes of thin mints, shortbread and peanut butter cookies to help support the Girl Scouts.

While the Girl Scouts sell cookies to raise funds, the Boy Scouts of Kingwood sell mulch to raise money.

But to do that, the troops need space to bag, distribute and sell the huge mounds of mulch. Last April, METRO allowed Troops 8, 27 and 839 to use the Kingwood Park & Ride to organize and sell mulch.

"These guys didn't ask for a lot," said Joe Garcia, METRO's community outreach representative. "They asked for one weekend."

Garcia made sure the Boy Scouts got the space they required for their fundraiser - and said they left the area the way they found it - clean and ready for business on Monday.

"It is a huge, huge effort for the Scouts in Kingwood. It supports three troops and basically provides the funds for about 160 BoyScouts to operate throughout the year - their campouts and activities. We sold 18,000 bags of pine bark mulch at the Kingwood Park & Ride lot," said Gary Mouser, Boy Scout Assistant Scout Master. "You guys letting us use that lot for that weekend is huge - that's a very, very big deal to us, and a very, very big deal to the Kingwood Boy Scouts."

In return, the Boy Scouts from the three Kingwood troops presented Garcia and METRO an award as a token of their appreciation. The photo here from left to right shows Gary Mouser, Joe Garcia of METRO, Boy Scouts Alex Mouser, and Ryan McMillan.

"It was great to help support these Boy Scouts. These young men proved to be helping the community and improved their skills at the same time," said Garcia.   

 

 

 

Katy Freeway HOV Lane to Close on Labor Day
 

Detour signsAttention carpoolers, vanpoolers and motorcyclists: You will no longer be able to use the HOV lane on the Katy Freeway, starting Monday, Sept. 1.

That's when the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDot) will close the existing Katy Freeway High Occupancy Lane (HOV) to complete final construction of the freeway.

METRO buses will be allowed to operate in a closed lane through the construction area. But carpools and vanpools will not be allowed there for safety reasons.

The Katy Freeway Managed Lanes are the first system in the state - and one of the the first in the nation to be integrated into an interstate. Once the Katy Freeway reconstruction is completed, it will have at least four main lanes, two managed lanes and three frontage road lanes in each direction, plus ramps and auxiliary lanes. Toll booth at Katy Freeway

Managed lanes are a tool to ease traffic congestion during peak hours. They're designed to offer a free-flow of traffic at 45 miles per hour or above, 24 hours a day. Unlike HOV lanes, available only to vehicles with the required number of passengers, managed lanes are open to all vehicles for a toll. The toll varies based on the number of passengers in your vehicle and the volume of traffic on the freeway.

A toll road is open to all vehicles with the toll determined by the number of axels on the vehicle. In contrast, a managed lane is open to all vehicles but requires a toll for use by single drivers.

 For the Katy Freeway Managed Lanes, The Harris County Toll Road Authority is expected to operate the lanes for the first six months for carpools and vanpools only.  - high-occupancy vehicles with two or more people - and single drivers will not be allowed. After six months, the plan calls for single drivers to use these lanes for a toll.

The Katy Freeway Managed Lanes is a joint project of multiple agencies. The Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) will operate, maintain and enforce the managed lanes. TxDOT will operate and maintain the general purpose and frontage lanes. Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) will do long-term planning. And finally, METRO will operate its buses in these managed lanes.

The money collected from the dynamic pricing - tolls that vary throughout the day, based on the level of traffic congestion - goes back into this region to manage and maintain this roadway.

 

Secretary of Transportation Blog Cites METRO as Model
 

 

Sec. of Transp. Mary Peters at METRO news conference sits on Harley-Davidson.METRO and its plan to build five light-rail lines have been showcased as a model for other cities to follow on the official blog of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters visited Houston, part of her five-city tour promoting the Bush administration's transit reform plan.

The proposed plan would streamline red tape and make it easier and faster for local cities to build transit systems. It now takes about 13 years to get federal approval and funding.

Peters' official blog, Fast Lane, points in its latest post to Houston and METRO as a prototype for other communities.  

"In Houston, Mayor Bill White and the head of the local transit agency, Frank Wilson, showed me their ambitious plans to build a new light-rail line into the northern end of this great city. They want to partner with the private sector to raise capital to build the line, and construct a new transportation hub to link light rail with the city's planned commuter rail line and existing freeway network.

"When finished, the new line and hub should cut traffic, clean the air and strengthen the city's economy. And this project can be built with a large share of private sector dollars," wrote Peters.

Peters said local business leaders and officials got it when she explained how this reform proposal would help make this project happen.

"We could have a future where good projects like this get funded without lengthy reviews," wrote Peters. "We could have a future where planners can talk about transit plans in terms of months and days, instead of years and decades."

Read more about the reform proposal here.

After her brief appearance in Houston, Peters flew to St. Louis where she discussed the frustrating traffic bottleneck on I-70.

The photo here, taken Tuesday after the news conference, shows Peters on a METRO police motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson. An experienced biker, Peters owns two.

Next Web Chat Focuses on Signature Buses
 

Web chat logoOur next Web chat is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 26, from noon to 1 p.m.

The topic: Signature Bus service and regionalism.

Next week, we're launching a new service that will kick existing service up a notch. The 402 Quickline Bellaire will feature fewer stops - only eight in either direction. We'll also have new bus stops that display real-time bus arrival times.  

The Quickline buses will be state-of-the-art hybrid buses with interior camera security, improved climate control system and carpeting to reduce noise pollution.

Find out everything you want to know about our new Quickline Signature Service. Or, if you have any questions about transportation in this region - log on our Web site next week. The chat will be hosted by John Sedlak, our No. 2 guy at METRO, the executive vice president.

Sedlak has served as assistant general manager of planning and development, and as vice president of planning, engineering and construction where he helped develop the Red Line. John Sedlak, METRO's executive vice president

Before joining METRO in 1983, Sedlak worked at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority where he helped plan, design, construct and start the Atlanta Rapid Rail System.

Sedlak, a registered architect, graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor of Architecture and a Master of Science degree in architecture and urban planning.

So join the conversation next Tuesday - you'll get to ask questions of one of our top experts. If you can't stay the whole hour, log in, ask a question and then grab lunch. Or post your question here on this blog, and we'll try to get answers for you during the chat.

See you next Tuesday.

Transportation Secretary Touts Transit Reform; Easier for Houston to Get Transit Funds
 

Mary Peters, DOT secretary, and Frank Wilson, METRO President & CEORight now, it takes longer to get federal approval for local transit projects than it does to put a man on the moon.

But if the Bush administration's reform proprosal passes, Houston, along with other cities, will be able to navigate a streamlined process to design and build new transit and highway projects.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters made those remarks at a METRO news conference today at the University of Houston-Downtown campus, on North Main St. and Rothwell. The photo here shows Peters talking to Frank J. Wilson, METRO's president & CEO, before the news conference started.    

"Houston will no longer have to slice and dice every dollar. Indeed, it will have a level playing field....Does the project justify the investment of federal tax dollars? Local officials will be free to make investments based on their needs," said Peters, adding that economic merit, not political influence will determine if federal grants flow to local projects.

"Money won't get squandered on projects that do very little to improve transit," continued Peters. "That's bad news for those who build bridges to nowhere."

Peters said under the reform proposal, which is expected to go before Congress in September 2009, it will be easier and faster to get federal funding than the current 13 years it takes to design and build new highway and transit projects.

The proposal would create a Metropolitan Innovation Fund that rewards cities that practice transit investments, dynamic pricing of highways and new traffic technologies, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Web site.

The plan also calls for cutting more than 100 federal transportation programs, replacing them with eight comprehensive, intermodal programs that will focus investments and eliminate the red tape forced on local officials.

Peters spoke earlier this morning to the Greater Houston Partnership's transit committees and city and state transit officials, promoting the reform plan. Houston was one of five cities across the nation she was touring to promote the Bush administration's transit reform plan. Read her blog here where she promises to write about her Houston visit on Wednesday. She is being accompanied by Acting Undersecretary Tyler Duvall, Federal Transit Administrator Jim Simpson and Deputy Highway Administrator James Ray.  

Wilson, METRO's president & CEO, said at the news conference that the new model Peters is advocating is a powerful tool that will help METRO build five light-rail lines by 2012.

"This model is characterized by a creative, practical, commercial set of solutions that properly integrate private financing, risk management and performance guarantees. This model is known as a public-private partnership, and it will be a success. And it will be a success because it aligns the interests and objectives of all of our partners," said Wilson.

Wilson said that by next year, bulldozers will be working on the Intermodal Terminal, just north of Naylor and North Streets.

"This site we're on is the future epicenter of a rail center that connects not only local and commuter buses but all the light-rail lines that we intend to build, as well as commuter lines from the suburbs," said Wilson. "In all, about 140,000 customers every single day will pass through this majestic gateway to Houston."

After the news conference, Peters showed she knows first-hand about all modes of transit. She hopped astride a Harley-Davidson, METRO police motorcycle, assigned to METRO Officer Robert Harrington.

Harrington said Peters owns two Harleys - and she proved her biker skills by starting the motorcycle and revving the engine. "She knows how to start it," said Harrington. "There are certain things you have to do, and she knows how to do it."

 

 

 

Honoring a True Hero

 

Drawing of awardBy all accounts, Roger Stone of Clear Lake was a true hero. 

A safety officer aboard a 38-foot sailboat that capsized after water rushed inside its hull, Stone pushed two Texas A & M students to safety in June - and in the process, lost his own life.

This heroic act was emblematic of the way Stone lived his life - always going above and beyond the call of duty. And so last week, METRO and its recently named STAR Vanpool program honored Stone with a newly created award: The Roger Stone Outstanding STAR Vanpool Leadership Award.

Stone was the go-to guy at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), the one who volunteered to post vanpool schedules on UTMB's intranet, coordinate meetings with vanpoolers and always advocate for vanpooling. At other companies, assigned staff took on these duties. Stone did it because he believed in commuting - and he wanted to help. For the past 12 years, Stone was a primary van driver at UTMB.

"As a result, the UTMB vanpools ran at or near capacity with rare instances of vanpools terminating," said Jerome Gray, a news anchor at KPRC-TV and master of ceremonies at last week's Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) awards luncheon.

Typically at this annual luncheon, H-GAC honors companies involved in vanpooling. This year - and in future ones - METRO wanted to recognize an outstanding individual.

"This is the first time that METRO or STAR has been involved in any kind of award. Roger inspired us to do this," said John Nunez, METRO's regional vanpool project manager. "He was very instrumental in our doing a lot of things over at UTMB."

Added David McMaster, METRO's director of customer service, "We felt like Roger exemplified the best of what vanpoolers often are. So we wanted to give him an award posthumously and create an award in his honor. Really the success of vanpools falls on the backs of individuals."

If you'd like to get involved in a vanpool, click here.

Bus Drivers Get Inside Scoop with New Flat-screen TVs
 

Wide-screen TV monitorWhen your job means you sit behind a wheel and navigate Houston traffic for most of the day, it's often hard to find out what's really going on at the office.

Now METRO has come up with a new way to communicate with our some 2,000 bus operators and mechanics. Next week, we will be launching programming on 42-inch, flat-screen display monitors in all our bus operating facilities, service centers and the rail operating center.

This technology allows us to put videos, corporate TV, slides and digital images on these screens - all in an effort to improve our communication with the troops. Content can range from still images to full-motion video.

Called digital signage - or digital media players - the system will enable us to keep our bus drivers and mechanics informed with traffic reports, weather, or national security advisories. We'll be able to broadcast board meetings live and air repeat broadcasts other times.

We will also play in-house videos that the rest of METRO can access on their computers on our intranet, but up to now, has been difficult for our operations staff to view. These are five-minute video blogs about matters of interest to employees.

Our external TV talk show, METRO Matters, will also air - a mini-TV talk show that has featured our president & CEO, our police dogs and the latest on what's happening with the five light-rail lines we're building.

We'll be able to customize messages to different facilities, so information that may be relevant at Kashmere could be pushed out to that facility, while other  announcements could be displayed at Fallbrook.

We also have a flat-screen screen up now in our RideStore at 1900 Main and in a break room for employees at 1900 Main.

Our goal is to create better informed bus operators - and we're hoping that a more informed operator will in turn, be able to improve service to you, our customer.

 

Westheimer Route to Be Renamed

 

Exterior of hybrid busStarting Sunday, Aug. 24, the 82 Westheimer bus route will get a new name and new number.

The Sharpstown branch will be renumbered and renamed 81 Westheimer-Sharpstown-Hillcroft Transit Center.

The West Oaks Branch will be renamed 82 Westheimer-West Oaks Mall.

We'll also be shifting some Sharpstown trips to West Oaks to match the needs of our riders. The 82 route to West Oaks remains the same.

If you are riding between downtown and Westheimer/Hillcroft, you may take either the 81 or 82 bus.

Click here to see all our upcoming service changes, effective Sunday, Aug. 24.
 

METRO President & CEO Urges Asian Community to Get On Board

 

In the next four years, METRO expects to spend more than $2 billion to build five light-rail lines - and METRO wants Asian American companies to grab a piece of that business. Logo of Asian Chamber of Commerce

That was the message today by METRO President & CEO Frank J. Wilson at a lunchtime speech to the Asian Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Southwest Houston Chamber of Commerce.

"If you've never ridden the train in your life, or if you don't even like the train, look at this from self-interest and greed," said Wilson. "This program is as real as it gets. It's the time for you to start focusing on how to get involved, not just as users."

Frank Wilson, METRO President & CEOWilson pointed out to the 119 attendees at the Westin Hotel that $80 million have already been spent this year on professional service contracts with Asian firms - firms that are represented well in architecture, engineering and professional services. In fact, 8 percent of our contracts are held by Asian orAsian American businesses.

But Wilson said that should not be a ceiling, and Asian companies should not be satisfied with $6.4 million METRO contracts already awarded to Asian firms. (Photo is file photo and not taken at the lunch).

"I'm inviting you to pay attention to what we're doing," said Wilson. He said that 10,000 jobs would be created by METRO's light-rail building program known as METRO Solutions - and those jobs will have a secondary impact on the economy.

"There may be more opportunities than you think, depending on your business," said Wilson. "While the Asian firms represent 8 percent of our market, why not 10 percent, 15 percent, 25 percent? METRO doesn't have a cap on what should go to Asian firms or any other firms, for that matter."

Wilson pointed out milestones - or gold medals - that METRO has already achieved toward building these light-rail lines:

 

  • Records of Decision by the Federal Transit Agency for the North and Southeast Corridors- important decisions that allow METRO to apply for federal funds.
  • A consent agreement with the City of Houston to use its right-of-way to build the five light-rail lines.
  • Launching of East End construction in July.
  • A schedule that expects to break ground on construction in September for the North and Southeast Corridors.
  • January 2009 construction start date for the Uptown Line.

In addition, Wilson said METRO is launching two new services late this month: Quickline Signature bus service, a forerunner of light rail that features fewer stops, hybrid buses and real-time bus arrival information; and Airport Direct, a shuttle service that offers direct service from downtown to Terminal C at IAH every 30 minutes, for $30 roundtrip.

Gordon Quan, chairman of the Asian Chamber of Commerce and managing partner specializing in immigration law at Quan, Burdette & Perez, said it's often a challenge for small companies to conduct business with a large government agency.

"Often, businesses are hesitant. They think, ‘I'm just a little guy.' The Asian community has a great deal of talent I believe METRO can use," said Quan. "Frank telling of the plans for METRO's future encourages people to look at METRO as a potential client and a source for business."

Wilson assured the business men and women at the luncheon that METRO wants to do business with them. "The gate is open. The project is there. You can earn your own gold medal," he said.

 

 

Share Your Solution to Clean Air
 

Olympic ringsDespite Beijing's best efforts, air pollution became the center issue last week on the eve of the Olympics, when a grey haze cut visibility down to a mile.

While Chinese officials struggle with cleaning up the air for athletes, half a world away, Houston-area officials are encouraging individuals to do their part to clean our air.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council, a voluntary association of governments in the 13-county Gulf Coast region, has launched a contest that asks people to come up with a solution to cleaning the region's air.

The pledge drive is part of Commute Solutions Month in which commuters are urged to save more than time and money - but become part of the solution. For every pledge made, the East Harris County Manufacturers Association will donate $1 for the first 1,000 pledges. The money will be used for education and awareness programs on clean air and commute solutions.

 Mysolutionis.com offers some solutions from which to choose, including carpooling, teleworking, mass transit, alternative work schedules, biking and walking, maintaining your vehicle and school pools. You can choose one of those options, or there's space to write some other solution you have in mind.

Check out METRO's vanpool program that uses its extensive database to match you with riders who live in your neighborhood and work where you do. Qualified riders receive $35 a month as an incentive.

Click here to read what local celebrities are touting as their solutions. There's even a solution from a robot. Click here to view the animation.

H-GAC points out that carpooling can save up to $6,500 per year on gas and other expenses, including about 20 percent on insurance premiums if a vehicle is driven only for personal use.

Click here to make a pledge. In addition to feeling good about being part of the solution, you'll get a coupon for free Jamba Juice and a chance to buy discounted Houston Dynamo tickets. Both Jamba Juice and the Dynamos are sponsors. You'll also get a chance to win a Houston Dynamo prize package and a $1,000 gas card, courtesy of the East Harris County Manufacturers Association.

What's your solution? Share it on this blog, too.

Commute Calculator Compares Driving Costs to Taking Bus
 

Commuters boarding METRO busIf $4-a-gallon gasoline hasn't convinced you to try riding a bus to work yet, check out our Commute Calculator which debuted in May on our Web site.

To find out how much it's costing you every month to drive to work, plug in the number of days you commute, your parking costs, and the miles driven roundtrip per day. If you're not sure how many miles you drive daily, go to MapQuest to get your mileage.

To calculate your cost to ride METRO, check whether or not you would use a Park & Ride lot to park your car and the miles from there to your house. Check whether you'd be charged a regular fare or a discounted fare for seniors, students, children or persons with disabilities.

I tested the calculator with my information. Be sure to double the "miles to destination" from MapQuest when you enter "miles driven roundtrip per day." I initially entered the miles driven one way before I realized my mistake.

The calculator showed that it costs $101.42 every month to drive to work, driving in five days a week. And at a regular fare, it would cost me $10 a month, with a total estimated savings of $92.41 a month.

That's quite a savings, especially when I'm paying $65 every week to fill up my tank. The savings are even more substantial because our Web site calculates  fuel costs based on the 2008 edition of AAA's Your Driving Costs, and that in turn, uses late 2007 numbers.  Click here to see current fuel costs, and if you're good at math, do your own calculations to see more accurate savings.

 Fox 26  news recently selected our Commuter Calculator as its Web Site of the Day. Even with gas prices dipping slightly below $4 a gallon, it would still be worthwhile to ride METRO.

New Decal Identifies Hybrid Buses

 

Logo of hybrid bus decalStarting near the end of August, you'll see a fresh new decal on our buses on the passenger side.

It will indicate whether you're about to board a hybrid-electric bus. The decal was created by our graphic designer Brian Rogers. 

Since March 2007, we have had local hybrids driving on Houston streets, and later next month, we'll have our new MCI commuter coach buses on the road. These will be assigned to both our Airport Direct service and our Park & Ride lots.

Our local hybrids sport a hump on top, which houses the battery pack. The coach hybrids - the D4500 CT model - hold the battery pack underneath in the belly where the luggage bay is located. You'll know you're on one when you see the decal.

These coach MCIs feature the latest low-emission, clean-engine technology from Cummins, as well as the Allison electric-drive propulsion system. Click here to read more on how hybrid-electric engines work.

The 52 hybrid-electric suburban commuter coaches we're adding to our fleet by this fall is part of METRO's continuing initiative to go green.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chicago's Century-old Rail System Creates Snarls in Suburbs

 

Sometimes fixing a centuries-old problem is harder than building something new in a city unaccustomed to mass transit.

Consider the case of Chicago.

Since the mid-1800s, the nation's railroad hub has been the Windy City with six of the seven biggest railroads in North America owning tracks that cross in Chicago, reports National Public Radio. They carry about 2 billion tons of America's freight - everything from lumber to food to cars.

All this rail traffic has created rail congestion in Chicago - a problem transit experts are calling "rail meltdown" and "chaos in the supply chain."

Although it can take two days for a freight train to travel from the California to Chicago, two more days are often required to get through the city. Many times trains will sit for hours - or all weekend long - in neighborhoods, just before crossings, waiting for space in a rail yard.

Suburbanites say this freight train traffic divides towns, hampers emergency vehicles trying to cross tracks, pollutes the air with diesel fuel, and freezes traffic.

One option to reroute traffic has generated heated community opposition. Canadian National suggested bypassing Chicago by buying the Eliot, Joliet, &Eastern Railway from U.S.Steel and then run its trains outside of Chicago.

In the meantime, companies that can't efficiently ship their goods by freight train are turning to trucks, which eat up more fuel and clog the nation's highways.

The result? "It cost everybody who buys something," says JimLaBelle, transportation guru for Chicago Metropolis 2020, a regional advocacy group, adding that it creates "a hidden tax, a hidden surcharge, that's part of the cost of goods that is embedded in the price of things we pay for."

Click here to read more on this issue.  

Less Driving: Unintended Consequences
 

Close-up of gas station pumpSpiraling gas prices have driven Americans away from their automobiles.

Fewer of us were driving for the past seven consecutive months. The third largest monthly decline occurred in May when Americans drove 3.7 percent less  in total miles than a year ago.

While less driving reduces road congestion and cuts down on one's carbon footprint, there's a flip side that isn't so good. Less driving means less gas consumption - and that means shrinking gas taxes - the money that fuels the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for highways and mass transit.  Already the fund faces a $3.1 billion gap next year.

NPR's Morning Edition interviewed U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who says the long-term solution is not higher gas taxes, but a new technology-based system that would track where and when drivers drive, and whether they drive alone. Drivers would then receive a monthly transportation bill based on their transportation use. Transit users would also be billed.

The Bush administration, along with other analysts, also think the money in the Highway Trust Fund should be spent differently. Right now, about 80 percent goes to highway use and 20 percent to public transit. That system was designed decades ago when highways were the primary focus, but many experts say that old formula only encourages gas consumption, traffic jams and global warming.

Today, officials are saying more money needs to be dispensed towards mass transit projects.

Click here to listen to the NPR story.

Cars of the Future Power Up, Not Fill Up
 

Three-wheeled Aptera carThe car you could be driving some day may be one you plug in and power up instead of filling up - especially with the rising cost of gas.

Last week, at Plug-In 2008, a three-day conference in San Jose featuring the latest in electric vehicles, entrepreneurs were displaying everything from off-road vehicles (Bad Boy Buggies) to three-wheeled cars.

The three-wheeled Aptera was conceived by engineer and CEO Steve Fambro as a way to have a fuel-efficient, three-wheeled vehicle that would be allowed in the car-pool lane. Read more in USA Today.

This futuristic-looking car runs on electricity, and has a skin of epoxy resin. Its range is 190 miles between charges and will retail for about $30,000. Already, 400 potential buyers have deposited $500 to reserve a car, now being developed near San Diego.

The three-wheel design - two in front and one in back - means the vehicle will be classified as a motorcycle in California, allowing it to be driven in the carpool lane.

It weighs about 1,500 pounds, one of the lightest cars on the road, thereby increasing its range. Aptera hopes to use off-the-shelf lithium phosphate batteries.

Click here to watch a video about other electric vehicles at the Plug-In 2008 Car Conference in San Jose.

Would you buy an electric vehicle - or an electric hybrid?

 

 

 

METRO Matters: Diversity Counts
 

METRO Matters TV show logoOur fifth episode of METRO Matters airs on Saturday and features a woman who's done more than crack the glass ceiling.

Helen Cavazos, METRO's vice president of human resources and diversity, has recently been awarded the "Breaking the Glass Ceiling Award" by the Texas Diversity Council.

She talks about why it's important for METRO to be diverse while hiring the best people for the job.

Air times on Comcast's Channel 17 are:

Sat. 7-26-08 @ 8:30 p.m.

Mon. 7-28-08 @ 7:00 p.m.

Wed. 7-30-08 @ 8:30 p.m.

Fri. 8-1-08 @  6:00 p.m.

Sat. 8-2-08 @ 6:30 p.m.

Mon. 8-4-08 @ 10:30 p.m.

Wed. 8-6-08 @ 9:30 p.m.

Tues.  8-12-08 @ 6:30 p.m.

Thurs. 8-14-08 @ 7:30 p.m.

Sat. 8-16-08 @ 6:30 p.m.

Sat. 8-23-08 @ 8:30 p.m.

Click below for a preview.

http://www.ridemetro.org/AboutUs/MTTV/MetroMatters.aspx

 

More Answers to Web Chat Questions

 

Last Thursday, Bryan Pennington, METRO's senior vice president of construction and engineering, hosted Transit Talk, our monthly, lunchtime Web chat. Some of you pre-submitted questions, but we received so many live questions that we ran out of time to answer those.  

Today we'll address four questions - and in future posts, we'll answer more of your Web chat  questions.

This series was posed by Peter Wang, advisor to the board of directors at Bike Houston. The answers were compiled come from Scott Grogan, senior director, rail maintenance; Russ Frank, associate vice president, and Jim Gast,  project director.

 Wang wrote:

"The Houston bicycling community would like to find out more information on METRO's intent concerning allowing more bike access to the soon-to-be-greatly-expanded light-rail system. President & CEO Frank Wilson promised us some comprehensive communication of this nature.

"Even so, we are encouraged by what we hear from METRO in bits and pieces:

a.  Bike access hours after 7 p.m. weekdays have been made available

 b. METRO promise to put bike racks at light rail stops where space is available.

"These two responses, however, beg more questions:

Q. We still very much need early morning access hours on the Red Line. How about approximately 4:30 a.m. - 6:00 a.m.? That allows the early birds to get to work by 6 a.m., then depart work and complete the ride home before the 3 p.m. "witching hour". How about nudging the 3 p.m. witching hour closer to 4 p.m.?

A: We don't have a capacity issue - or overcrowding -  from 4:30 a.m. 6 a.m. - so your suggestion is certainly a possibility. We do have capacity during those hours. The latest statistics indicate that from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m., southbound, we had 700 boardings and northbound, close to 750. Allowing bikes during those early-morning hours is something we can definitely look into and further analyze.

However, in the afternoon peak times, we won't be able to change that "witching hour" to 4 p.m. because of the surge in passengers that starts around 3:30 p.m. Recent stats show that going northbound, we had 1,600 boardings and that grew to 1,700 by 4:30 p.m. Going southbound, we had 1,700 boardings from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. That grew to 2200 boardings by 5:30 p.m.

We simply have too many people to allow bikes past 3 p.m.

Q:  What is METRO's plan for working with the city and private property owners to provide bike racks near the stations where there is no room available at the station?

A: When the rail projects are complete and running, METRO will only control the rail facilities. Unfortunately, if there is no room on the station platforms, METRO cannot control what happens beyond that. Everything else on the city's right-of-way will be owned and controlled by the city. Private property owners, of course, can do what they want with their land. There's no plan to identify or to acquire any additional property solely for bike racks at stations.

Q:  We don't believe that the other four rail lines will be as busy as the Red Line, which is the backbone of the rail system located in the densest part of the urban core of Houston. How about allowing bikes on those lines on something more resembling an around-the-clock basis, at least initially, and then pare the hours back if there are problems?

A: That is something we can look into and do an in-depth analysis on.

Q:  We believe that part of the problem with bike accommodation has to do with the current train cabin configuration. First of all, there are no hangers (hooks) for vertically hanging bikes. This has to be changed with the new cars. Other cities have this equipment. Yes, to put in hangers you remove seats... but, the space can still be used by strap-hanging passengers if no bike is being hung. Also, you walk on board the train, and *BAM* you run into a pole immediately! Then you have a weird split-level floor, which I've never seen before in any other city, which makes it impossible to move a bicycle, stroller, or wheelchair around. Why does the cabin have to be like this?

A: This particular train is a 70 percent low-floor vehicle. That is why you have to step up to the higher floor. It's part of the design and cannot be changed. That step-up resides over the power trucks, which require a higher level of clearance for the car body. You'll find this same train design in San Diego, Charlotte, Portland, and Hampton Roads, Va., which has nine of these. Phoenix, which starts train service in December, has two steps to get to the high-floor area.

The issue is our existing fleet and capacity. We have too many people on our cars. Could we remove chairs and hang straps for bikes? Absolutely. But would that solve the problem of capacity? No.

 

 

 

Another Milestone for METRO

 

METRO recently reached another important milestone in building its five light-rail lines.

The Federal TransitAdministration (FTA) granted final approval of the Southeast Corridor Supplemental Final Environmental Statement (SFEIS) through a document called a Record of Decision (ROD).

Click here for the mitigation and monitoring plan. Read comments made to the SFEIS here. Read the amended memorandum of agreement here. Finally, click here to read about the modified Southeast Corridor storage facility.

The FTA said its decision was partly based on the fact that the project would be a permanent investment and "this new transit system has the potential to positively influence economic development in the Southeast Corridorconsistent with community plans."

This is METRO's second milestone attained this month. Earlier in July, the FTA granted a ROD for the North Corridor's light-rail line. The Record of Decisions for the North Corridor and the Southeast Corridor mean that these two projects satisfy the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and other legal requirements.

Once we have these Records of Decision, METRO can apply for federal funds. In addition to seeking federal funding for these two lines, we plan to apply for federal money for the University Corridorlight-rail line, which is still in the environmental process.