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Is it all over for the Harrisburg Line underpass?

Despite earlier agreement between Metro, residents, and the city to build an underpass for the far end of the Harrisburg line, it’s not looking too good for that option right now.

Residents of Houston’s East End supported a 2003 transit referendum that included a light rail line through their neighborhood, but they balked six years later when they learned of plans for a large overpass – a “hideous monstrosity,” in the words of one community leader – that would cross freight rail tracks along Harrisburg.

Two years of often contentious negotiations ensued as Metropolitan Transit Authority officials responded to concerns that the overpass would split the neighborhood and inhibit redevelopment. With the city of Houston as peacemaker and financial partner, Metro shelved its overpass plan in 2011 and agreed to build an underpass, winning the wary support of residents.

But now, as work on the so-called Green Line nears completion, the discovery of a vast area of gasoline-polluted soil appears to have scuttled the underpass plan, reopening a wound that Metro, the city and the neighborhood thought had been healed. The city’s $20 million stake in the project is in question, and transit officials are seeking community support for a plan likely to send the light rail trains over the Union Pacific tracks rather than under them.

The crossing is critical to extending the Green Line east of Hughes Road, planned to link downtown with the Magnolia Park Transit Center. The Green Line, which Metro is building with no federal assistance, is one of two Metro rail lines scheduled to open this fall.

“The most important thing is to complete the project,” said Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia. “We are committed, and have told people we are committed, to go to the Magnolia Park Transit Center.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Apparently, the issue with the contamination has been known for a long time, but it’s only now that we’re hearing about its possible effect on the light rail construction. That’s unfortunate, given the way the folks in the area had to fight against the previous Metro regime against the overpass solution. It was only after the current Board was appointed by Mayor Parker, under then-CEO George Greanias, that Metro agreed to do an underpass, with some financial help from the city. At least this time Metro is thinking about how to mitigate the effects of an overpass.

Neighbors feared the overpass would be a “hideous monstrosity,” [Marilu De La Fuente, president of the Harrisburg Heritage Society] said, that would split the mostly Hispanic community in two, forcing some residents to take circuitous routes around a massive concrete divider.

Metro is working on plans that might soften the impact of an overpass.

Metro might be able to end the overpass before 66th Street, leaving that street open and giving the community a chance to petition for a traffic light at 66th and Harrisburg, officials said. And one design option would send the light rail tracks and two lanes of traffic over the freight line, while keeping a lane in each direction for street-level traffic and sidewalk access.

I hope they can work it out in a way that mollifies the residents. It’s awfully late in the game to be making this kind of change. Campos has more.

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3 Comments

  1. Eastender says:

    I don’t get the whole objection to the overpass, they did one on north Main and it isn’t so terrible. Besides, the only things along that stretch of Harrisburg, besides empty parking lots, is a Popeye’s and a Value Village. What are they trying to preserve with an underpass that is also more prone to flooding? Maybe I am missing something.

    In any event, the underpass seemed to be important to many in the immediate area, so I am sure some will demand answers.

    I will also add to the list of things I don’t understand, if it was known for decades that there is contaminated soil there, why wasn’t this discussed in the beginning? Somebody needs to answer for that. And what do they do now? They have the rails built on the other side of the “dead zone” where they were supposedly doing the underpass. Will that detached section remain detached for years to come while they squabble over this? Will they do some kind of remediation and still do an underpass? How much MORE will it cost now to do an underpass to save the ambiance of the Popeye’s & Value Village? Wasn’t it 20 mil or something extra to do the underpass before this latest revelation?

    I know some are passionate about the underpass, but IMHO spending even more for the underpass is a waste of money. There are too many other pressing infrastructure needs throughout the east end to waste money on something so frivolous.

  2. Ralfff says:

    I don’t have a Chronicle subscription. Does it say anything about Superfund eligibility or accountability for the contamination? Get the polluter to pay for removal of soil and this could be a win-win.

  3. Ralfff – I have not seen any mention of that in either story. It’s a great idea, but we have no indication what the likelihood of that would be, or the timeline if it is possible. If it would take years to get the funds, it wouldn’t do Metro much good.

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