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Harrisburg

How the East End got its rail line

A great overview of how we got here with the Harrisburg and Southeast lines, the genesis of which go back a lot farther than the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum.

The working- and middle-class Mexican-American residents of the East End lacked political power in Houston prior to the 1960s and 1970s and their communities received little in the way of public resources.

Among those limited resources was a lack transit options once the streetcars on Harrisburg Boulevard and Navigation Boulevard, the community’s two main corridors, were removed prior to World War II. The private bus companies that sought to fill the void ran few and infrequent routes to the East End. Connecting to the rest of Houston from the East End – especially for those without a car – was a challenge.

At the same time, the community’s proximity to the Port of Houston and the Ship Channel meant that truck and freight train traffic dominated local streets and crisscrossed the area. Roads crumbled under the weight of semi-trucks, fumes from idling vehicles filled the air, freight trains blocked intersections for hours at a time, and both systems made life for pedestrians stressful.

During the 1960s and 1970s, as one aspect of a broader push for political, social, and economic rights, Mexican-American residents in the East End routinely spoke before the Houston City Council to complain about the adverse toll this heavy traffic took on their neighborhoods. Their predominately white neighbors in Lawndale and Eastwood, two communities within the East End, often joined to express the same grievances.

Instead of listening to community concerns, however, the City of Houston and the Texas Highway Department aimed to broaden the area’s use as an industrial traffic corridor with plans to build the Harrisburg Freeway, an extension of State Highway 225, through the heart of the East End.

This road was not the form of improved transportation that residents had in mind.

The Mexican-American community’s consistent resistance – through independent planning efforts, community protests, and the use of administrative technicalities to stall the project – combined with a state-level budget crunch to halt the road plan by the mid-1970s.

The highway fight in the East End was a major marker of the growing political power of Mexican-American Houstonians. It also demonstrated to local officials that East Enders cared a great deal about the integrity of their community, how they traveled within their neighborhoods, and how they connected to the city at-large.

Community journalist Maggie Landron, writing in the Spanish-language paper Papel Chicano in 1970, argued that many East End residents resisted the highway because they were “fed up choking on our own exhaust fumes; fed up looking at cement ribbons crisscrossing our cities; fed up with homes and people being destroyed to build more and more freeways; and fed up with others determining what is good for us.”

Landron’s words and the highway protest of East Enders reverberated in subsequent mass transit debates, where the city’s Mexican-American population, concentrated heavily in the East End, represented linchpin voting blocs.

I had no idea there had once been a serious proposal to extend SH 225 into downtown. What a disaster that would have been. The story continues through the creation of Metro, the 2003 referendum, and the fight over the overpass on Harrisburg. Check it out.

Meet your Harrisburg overpass

Looks nice enough. Going to be painful getting to the finished product, though.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are set to approve a $30.66 million construction contract on the half-mile overpass next week. The overpass is needed to complete the Green Line rail along Harrisburg to the Magnolia Park Transit Center, near Gus Wortham Golf Course, and to cross the Union Pacific freight rail tracks.

[…]

To mend fences with the community, Metro worked with neighbors to make the overpass look better than just a concrete riser. Plans include special lighting and designs in the concrete that reflect the area’s business and cultural heritage.

“The East End might have the most attractive overpass along the lines when this is built,” Metro board member Burt Ballanfant said.

McCarthy Building, the winning construction company, has 18 months to build the overpass, with incentives to finish sooner and costs if the project is delayed. Roberto Trevino, Metro’s capital programs manager, said some factors outside Metro and McCarthy’s control could affect the schedule. Union Pacific Railroad and local utilities must be consulted, and their issues and actions could affect when the work is finished, Trevino said.

Timing is crucial, and important to area residents, because the overpass work will require closing six blocks of Harrisburg for about four months, from Caylor to 66th Street. Detours are planned between Lockwood and Wayside to route traffic to Navigation during the closings.

See here and here for the background. This would take forever without closing that stretch of Harrisburg, but closing a street like that for any length of time is going to be a bug hardship on the neighborhood. This article doesn’t have any reactions from locals about either the design or the schedule, so it’s hard to say offhand how well received they are. Still, this needs to get done, and depending on when the actual start date for this part of the construction is, it could be done by mid- or late-2016. That should be a relief and a cause for celebration for everyone.

Leaning towards the over

Metro is working on a solution to the Harrisburg Line over/underpass problem.

“We want the community involved and for this to be as open and honest as possible,” [Metro Board Chair Gilbert] Garcia said.

Before Metro makes a decision, Garcia said, he wanted residents to have a better sense of the problem. Leaking gasoline tanks left a large swath of contaminated soil about 10 feet down. As long as it is undisturbed, it does not present a threat, officials said.

Metro would need to dig more than 30 feet into the ground and displace hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of dirt, necessitating significant cleanup, to build an underpass. And an underpass would change groundwater patterns, possibly spreading the contamination to other adjacent properties, environmental analysts said.

To proceed with an underpass, officials might have to spend years cleaning and preparing the land for excavation. So far, they’ve spent $8.6 million on planning and design for the planned underpass.

Garcia said the best solution is to build an overpass, but redesign it.

See here for the background. The idea is to redesign the overpass in a way that still allows for vehicular traffic on Harrisburg at the freight rail tracks, which should mitigate the effect on businesses there, and to make it shorter so the intersection at 66th Street is unaffected. Metro’s task is convincing the area residents, who have good reasons to be skeptical, that what they’re proposing could work. The board could still go with the underpass, though it would cost a lot more money due to the need to clean up the underground toxins, when they vote on a recommendation. I hope this all works out in a way everyone can live with.

City asks Metro for Harrisburg underpass

From the Inbox:

Houston Mayor and METRO Seek Common Ground on East End Line

Resolution of Harrisburg/Hughes Streets Over/Under Question Becomes a Milestone

The city of Houston has concluded there is “strong sentiment” within the East End community for an underpass at Harrisburg/Hughes St. and has requested METRO’s Board of Directors vote in support of a plan to create a grade separated betterment for light rail and vehicular traffic. This “All-Under Option,” according to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, is intended to “promote pedestrian and vehicular safety in the area and encourage community development, and enhance overall mobility in the East End.” The city has committed $20.6 million in financial support for the project.

Although the underpass route is influenced by numerous considerations, the decision of whether or not to support the request will ultimately rest with the METRO Board of Directors. METRO Chairman, Gilbert Garcia, hopes to bring the complex matter up for vote by the directors this Thursday.

“We appreciate Mayor Parker’s efforts to build consensus in this lingering community debate. I congratulate the Mayor, Council members, Ed Gonzalez, James Rodriguez, and Melissa Noriega, as well as community representatives, the Mayor’s staff and METRO’s staff for working together on this issue.” said Garcia.

METRO President & CEO George Greanias said the “all under option” will take longer to build, possibly two years longer, and the extra cost of $20-23 million does not cover a pedestrian tunnel. “Despite the hurdles ahead, this request is a good example of community partnerships. We look forward to working with the city in seeing this project to completion.” said Greanias.

Of the $20.6 million in financial assistance being offered by the city:

  • $10.0 million – CIP funds previously committed to this issue
  • $4.9 million – Postponement of the Fulton Paving and Drainage Project (Dist. H)
  • $3.2 million – Postponement of the Telephone Road Reconstruction (Dist. I)
  • $2.5 million – Harrisburg TIRZ funds

METRO’s original design for the crossing accommodated light-rail only. The city of Houston, after extensive dialog with the community, commissioned a study on the feasibility of constructing an underpass. The betterment will require collaboration with Houston Belt and Terminal (HBT) Railroad, and creation of a new and temporary terminus at Altic.  Offsetting the higher cost, however, is an added value to railroad operations – the new design, according to the city, will ease flooding impairments. In return for METRO’s support, the city of Houston has offered to make funds available in a timely fashion, as well as collaborate to seek more funds and support METRO in negotiations for necessary concessions from HBT. The matter will go before the full METRO Board of Directors, at its regular monthly meeting Thursday, July 28th.

See here and here for some background. This sounds like the better way to go, and I’m glad to see it happen. Swamplot has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

George Greanias, Metro’s president and chief executive officer, said the need for detailed design work means the underpass likely won’t be complete until 2016, two years after the scheduled completion date for the East End, North and Southeast lines. However, trains will run from downtown to the station nearest the underpass by 2014, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

To help pay Metro’s share of the cost, Greanias said the agency would look to Harris County as well as railroads that benefit from the grade separation. The East End line is not federally funded.

[…]

Council member Sue Lovell, chairwoman of the city’s Transportation, Infrastructure and Aviation Committee, said the decision to build the underpass represents the city’s and Metro’s shared response to a community request.

“Metro could have just built the overpass, but they decided to listen to the community,” said Lovell, who initially opposed the underpass. “They presented to the community that it would cost more, and the community overwhelmingly said they wanted to have the underpass.”

Also, she said, a bigger variety of businesses can be built along an underpass than in the shadow of a viaduct.

“The advantages to economic development in the long run for the neighborhoods more than make up what they may sacrifice right now in the CIP,” she said.

Marilu de la Fuente, president of the Harrisburg Heritage Society and a member of the East End Chamber’s rail committee, said the underpass decision showed the community’s power.

“Finally we got everyone involved,” she said. “They started listening to us and they knew we were a force to be reckoned with.”

No question about that. There was a lot of opposition to the overpass in the community, and a lot of grumbling at that time about Metro ignoring the feedback they were getting. This change of direction says as much about Metro as it does about the power and persistence of the residents.

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

From the Inbox:

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

Wednesday, June 15

Union Pacific’s East Belt rail subdivision is one of the busiest in the city, carrying more than 30 freight trains a day through Houston’s East End. For years, the crossing at Harrisburg has created delays and headaches for motorists and trains alike. The City of Houston first targeted this crossing for grade separation in 1953. Harris County recommended an underpass at this location in 2004. The Gulf Coast Rail District identified this crossing as a priority in 2009.

METRO is currently constructing the East End light rail line down Harrisburg. They must either go under or over the freight rail line, which poses a timely opportunity to finally grade separate the road and the freight line as well. The remaining questions are whether to construct an underpass or an overpass, how much it will cost, and who will fund the improvements.

For more than three years, East End business and neighborhood leaders have fought for an underpass. An underpass will be less obtrusive, require less right-of-way, and project less noise than an overpass, minimizing impacts to Harrisburg businesses. It will also will provide a neighborhood-friendly crossing that’s accessible to bicycles and pedestrians. They recognize that the success of METRO’s rail transit investment depends on creating pedestrian-friendly development around stations, and that an overpass is likely to stymie that process. The underpass proposal has widespread support from both businesses and residents in the East End, including:

  • Greater Eastwood Super Neighborhood (SN 64 & 88), Eastwood Civic Association, Houston Country Club Civic Association, Magnolia Pineview Civic Club, East Lawndale Civic Association, and Idylwood Civic Club
  • East End Chamber of Commerce, East End Management District, Harrisburg Merchants Association, and Historic Harrisburg

In 2010, the City of Houston commissioned a study to determine the cost differential between two overpass options and an underpass. The study estimates that an underpass will cost $43.4 million, or $13.4 million more than a vehicle overpass. You can review the draft executive summary (4.7 mb pdf) which explains the options but does not include final cost estimates. The City should release the final Harrisburg Grade Separation report this week. City leaders have identified some of the funds needed for the underpass, but a significant gap remains. There’s potential to defer other City capital projects to make up the difference, and also for Harris County Commissioner Jack Morman and Union Pacific to help close the gap.

Community meeting Wednesday!

On Wednesday night, Mayor Parker, Council Members Gonzalez, Rodriguez, and Noriega, and METRO CEO George Greanias will host a community meeting about the grade separation. You’re invited hear an update on the state of funding for the project, and have the opportunity to express whether other projects in the City’s capital improvement program (CIP) for the area should be deferred to help the underpass move forward.

What: Harrisburg grade separation update meeting
When: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Where: Ripley House, 4410 Navigation Blvd, Houston, 77011 (map)

I realize money is tight, but in the grand scheme of things $13 million isn’t that much, especially considering the benefit those extra dollars will yield. Everyone with a stake in this – the city, Harris County, Metro, the Gulf Coast Rail District, and so on – should do whatever it takes to get this right. Those of you who live in the area, please do your part and show up to tell them so. Thanks to the CTC for the heads up.

Eastwood art deco facade saved

The art deco facade on the Sterling Laundry & Cleaning Co. on Harrisburg in Eastwood, which had been marked for demolition as part of the construction of the Harrisburg line, has been saved. From the inbox:

Vice Mayor Pro Tem Sue Lovell, District H Council Member Ed Gonzalez, and At-Large Position 3 Council Member Melissa Noriega are pleased to announce that a historic structure in Houston’s East End-the Sterling Laundry & Cleaning Co. façade at 4819 Harrisburg Blvd.-has been saved. This was accomplished through an effort between the Council Members, METRO, and leaders of the surrounding neighborhood. The façade will be saved and then relocated to Eastwood Park, where it will remain a part of the streetscape on Harrisburg, as it has been since 1935.

As chair of the City of Houston historic preservation committee, Vice Mayor Pro Tem Lovell thanks all the partners who have participated in saving this historic structure. “These are the kinds of partnerships that are needed to save our history as the city continues to grow and develop.”

Details will follow as to the timing of the façade removal and relocation.

All things considered, that was probably the best outcome possible. Swamplot has some snarky fun with the idea, but if the neighborhood is okay with it, who am I to argue?

Metro and its art deco demolition debacle

I saw this Swamplot report yesterday and I thought “Why, Metro, why? Why are you pissing off your supporters so?”

This timely building at 4819 Harrisburg in Eastwood, built in 1935 for the Sterling Laundry & Cleaning Co., showed up in yesterday’s Daily Demolition Report. The architect was Sol R. Slaughter, who also designed a home on the bayou in Idylwood the same year.

The building faces Metro’s new East End Corridor light-rail line. Rice University project manager Spencer Howard writes in with a few details, but isn’t exactly sure what’s going on:

The building was renovated as an artist live/work/gallery just a few years ago.

METRO pledged to save the facade of the building with the clock on it, across from Eastwood Park. They preferred to have someone else buy it and move it, but if that didn’t happen, they were going to move it back on the property and reattach it behind the new setback. Yesterday they sent out the demolition list for next Monday and it was on it. The neighborhood has alerted their gov’t reps.

This building is in the same style as the Alabama Bookstop and River Oaks Theater, in case it’s not clear. I can say on good authority that their government reps have heard the neighborhood’s cries. I am told that one of the permits Metro needed to do this demolition has had a temporary hold placed on it, and that they will need to explain just what the heck they think they’re doing, and why they didn’t bother to tell anyone why and how they went from “move the facade” to “tear the building down”, before anything else can happen. In the meantime, perhaps they can give some serious thought to how they can quit acting like idiots.

Some action on the rail construction front

Finally.

After two years of negotiations with two firms, the Metropolitan Transit Authority may be close to reaching a deal with a contractor to build and operate its next four light rail lines.

“We’re in final negotiations,” said George Smalley, a Metro spokesman. “In a negotiation, though, you never know until it’s really over.”

The pending breakthrough with Parsons Transportation Group comes three years before Metro has said all five of its additional rail lines will be complete. The fifth rail line, the University line, remains in preliminary stages of development; another agreement will have to reached on that line.

Despite the tight time frame for the new lines, Metro officials say they are sticking to the 2012 target date.

[…]

Metro leaders remain confident that the five lines, which total 30 miles, can be completed on schedule.

“We’re still set on that path,” Smalley said, “but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.”

I’m glad he’s confident, but honestly, I don’t see how it’s possible. Maybe we can get the North, Southeast, and Harrisburg lines done by then, assuming overpass issue doesn’t turn into a lawsuit. Even if we assume that there’s no further litigation coming for the Universities line – not a bet I’d be willing to make – who knows how long it will be before they hammer out an agreement for that line, which will be the longest and most care-intensive line to build. And the Uptown line is a non-starter until we’re sure the U-line is going forward. Frankly, I’ll be happy if all five lines are done by 2014.

But hey, whatever the case, I’m just thrilled to see this next step get taken. It’s way past time for it to happen. Now if we can start talking about where we go from here as well, I’ll be ecstatic.

Over/under

Some East End residents are still unhappy about the way the Harrisburg light rail line is shaping up.

East End residents overwhelmingly supported the rail line in a 2003 referendum, thinking it would boost the redevelopment already taking place. Back then, however, Metro’s plans did not include a mammoth, six-block-long overpass to cross existing Union Pacific freight rail tracks at Hughes or a rail car maintenance facility near Harrisburg.

Neighborhood residents still support the rail line, but some residents and civic leaders worry the planned overpass will split the neighborhood and inhibit future redevelopment. They also don’t like the extra industry that will be added to the area by the four-block-long rail maintenance facility.

Since Metro announced the plan last summer, residents have grown increasingly resentful and complain that the transit agency is not considering their concerns.

The tension was evident two weeks ago when some community residents and leaders implored City Council and Mayor Bill White to “stop this preposterous overpass.”

For what it’s worth, the issue first came to light in March, at which time the plan was to simply stop the line before the freight tracks. A month later, an agreement was reached to bypass the freight rail tracks one way or another.

Metro’s board voted on the Harrisburg line in June 2006 after more than 70 community meetings, agency spokesman George Smalley said.

Many argue that the overpass would shut off a portion of the boulevard and increase noise throughout the neighborhood.

The proposed overpass, planned to span from Cowling to 66th, would rise 26 feet above a rail line, tall enough to allow a double-stacked rail car to pass below. It would accommodate light rail trains, two traffic lanes and sidewalks.

“It’s going to be just massive,” said Robert Gallegos, president of the Houston Country Club Place Civic Club. “It would be a blight for generations to come that live in the East End.”

Some have called on Metro to build an underpass instead, saying it would be cheaper and less disruptive to the neighborhood.

They cite a 2004 Harris County report that estimated the cost of an underpass at $16 million.

Smalley dismissed the report as dated and said it did not take into account the cost of the actual rail line.

Metro has estimated the cost of an overpass at $45 million. Going under the freight rail line instead would drive the cost anywhere from $67 million to $81 million, Metro estimates.

“It’s long past time for planning and process,” Smalley said. “It’s time to build a better future.”

Councilman James Rodriguez, who represents the East End, agrees with Metro that an overpass is the only feasible option.

“My goal is to get a rail line built on time and allow it to serve my constituents,” he said.

In a letter to his constituents, Rodriguez said that continued debate jeopardized funds promised for the line.

“We run the risk of losing the line all together if we do not move forward and begin discussing the design of an overpass,” he wrote.

That overpass does sound massive. I can definitely understand the concern. I’m not sure that an underpass, if intended for the light rail line and the vehicular traffic, would be any less disruptive, however, since it would probably need to be about as long. I suppose the ideal solution would be to build an underpass for the freight rail line, but I’m guessing that’s out of the question. Not sure what else there is to say, other than Metro needs to engage the community in the design of this thing. Groundbreaking for this line was in June. It’s time to get moving.