HOUSTON (AP) - While Houston's expansion of its light rail system won't displace personal vehicles as the primary way residents get around this sprawling metropolis, officials say it's an important component in their efforts to offer more transportation choices in the city.
The new 5.3-mile extension of the system's current line made its debut on Saturday. It joins the 7.5-mile starter line, which began operating in 2004 and has a daily ridership of about 40,000 passengers. Two other lines are under construction and will be operational sometime next year.
The new light rail line cost $756 million to build, with about 60 percent of the funding coming from the federal government. It runs from downtown and goes through the city's Northside neighborhood, a mixture of older homes, businesses and an industrial/warehouse area.
The starter light rail line runs from downtown and goes south past Reliant Stadium, home of the NFL's Houston Texans.
The grand opening of the new light rail line was marked with a celebration that featured musical performances and activities for kids. Rides on the new light rail line, which cost $1.25, were free on Saturday.
Gilbert Garcia, chairman of the board for Metro, the city's public transportation agency, said he believes Houston residents, like those in many U.S. cities, remain attached to their cars because they don't have enough transportation choices.
'I think now that there are transit choices and people get accustomed to using light rail ... I think they are going to see how easy it is, how efficient and reliable it is,' he said. 'So I think we're really at ... a nice wonderful turning point for the city.'
Metro's new light rail lines are being funded in part by $900 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Officials say the nearly 10 year delay in expanding the light rail system was due in part to political wrangling over federal funding.
U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, one of the first people to ride the new light rail line on Saturday said the city's transportation needs won't be met only by expanding the light rail system. More toll roads as well as expanding the area's freeway system and investing in commuter rail lines that go into the suburbs will all be needed, he said.
'But we're Texans and Houstonians. We are still going to have our cars. But (light rail) gives us another option,' Green said.
Gilbert Urbano, who rode the new line on Saturday with his daughter, said he thinks light rail will be good for Houston as it brings in revenue and helps develop areas of the city. But he added it also has some drawbacks, including contributing to the closing of some smaller, family owned business that didn't survive the construction process because of reduced traffic.
Urbano, 37, a butcher, said he relies on public transportation as he doesn't have a car. But he isn't sure if others who do have vehicles will take advantage of light rail.
'It will depend on where the person is going,' he said. 'If a person is so used to having their vehicle, they would rather take their vehicle than public transportation. I don't frown upon public transportation but there are some people that do.'