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Transportation

Can Houston Learn to Love Light Rail?

In a city where nine in ten drive to work, the answer could reshape the future.
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Flickr user royluck

HOUSTON—Once every two weeks or so, in the six months after Houston's first light rail line opened in 2004, a car crashed into the dazzling fountain that flanks the tracks downtown. In the first year of operation, the light rail was involved in 67 collisions. Folks took to calling it the Wham-Bam-Tram. Some drivers never learned to coexist with the newcomer at all, opting instead for parallel side streets. With its lush lawns, large floor plans and sprawling footprint, Houston is a famously spacious city. But the roads never seem wide enough.

Ten years later, the city is in the midst of a second burst of light rail expansion. Five additional miles of track opened in December; two new lines are set to follow later this year. At the center of Greater Houston, a metro area the size of Massachusetts, two-dozen miles of track may not seem like much. (Even some supporters of the project refer to it as the "toy train.") Yet in America's fourth largest city, light rail remains a political and cultural flashpoint far out of proportion to its modest size.