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overpass

Here comes the fully extended Green Line

Hallelujah.

Oh what a rocky ride it’s been.

Political opposition. A Buy America violation. Construction delays. Contaminated soil that sank an underpass. Overweight and badly-manufactured railcars. More construction delays.

When trains finally start rolling along the new Green Line into neighborhoods east of downtown on Wednesday, the last leg in Metro’s controversial multi-billion dollar project to establish light rail in Houston will be open for business.

But the occasion, coming just days before the Super Bowl, also marks the end, for now, of any light rail expansion in the city.

What the future now holds for Houston’s rail dreams, however, is hard to predict – and that may me the only opinion pro-rail advocates and longtime train critics share.

Officials, namely leaders at Metropolitan Transit Authority, acknowledge the completion of the agency’s $2.2 billion rail expansion is both exciting and a relief because of the detours, setbacks and struggles to complete the last line and the effect it had on East End businesses and residents.

[…]

The final piece of the line, a $30 million overpass at Harrisburg, was competed late last year, ending detours and roughly seven years of construction on the $587 million project, the bulk of which opened in May 2015. The last mile remained closed until the overpass could be completed and Metro could conduct testing required before ferrying passengers along the route.

Service for all riders starts Wednesday, and is free until Jan. 22 along the Green Line.

There’s a long litany in the story on the problems that occurred during the project. There were a lot, and some of them were bad, but let’s keep two things in mind: One, every major infrastructure project has problems, and two, many of the issues with this project originated with the David Wolff/Frank Wilson Metro administration, which were then left for subsequent boards and CEOs to clean up. It’s all water under the overpass now, and the final completion of this line will do a lot of good, so let’s focus on that.

The end of the line for the Green Line and the most recent rail expansion, however, will not bring an end to talk of rail in Houston. Though there is no funding identified, officials are already dusting off plans for commuter rail to Missouri City along U.S. 90A and looking at what possibilities appear practical to complete other train lines voters approved more than 13 years ago.

First, however, Patman said Metro and others need to develop a regional transportation plan to gauge needed projects and where there is political support for transit investments.

“We have to know where we are going for me to tell you how we’ll get there,” Patman said.

Once the plan is in place, officials could go back to the voters to seek funding, or explore alternatives such as public-private partnerships. Metro has already approved seeking proposals to determine what private partnerships are available.

Any step in the direction of rail, however, has always been politically charged in Houston. The 2003 referendum remains controversial, particularly in relation to a line planned along Richmond. That project remains bitterly opposed by some landowners and businesses, as well as Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston.

We’ve discussed the possibility of a Metro referendum this November. There will always be opposition to a referendum that includes financing for rail, but that opposition will be a lot greater if the Universities Line is a part of it than if it is not. Of course, a rail system that doesn’t include a connection between downtown and the Uptown Line doesn’t make any sense, so one way or the other this needs to be reckoned with. But first we need a plan and a plan to pay for it, then we can decide whether to vote on it this year or not. I’ll be keeping a close eye on that. Write On Metro and KUHF have more.

Harrisburg overpass nearing completion

Hallelujah.

HoustonMetro

Six months ago, Harrisburg Boulevard looked almost exactly as it has for more than five years, dotted by construction equipment. East of downtown Houston, the thoroughfare was more exposed dirt than street, and showed little sign of the rail overpass transit officials promised eastside residents.

With no span in sight, residents – not to mention many Metro officials – were over it. For months, board members had called the overpass “a nightmare” and “the project that won’t die.”

“We had nothing,” said Glenn Peters, who Metropolitan Transit Authority brought in about that time to get the project literally off the ground. “Now look at it.”

Months late and many frustrating meetings later, crews have made significant progress on a rail and automobile overpass critical to finishing Metro’s Green Line along Harrisburg spanning a set of Union Pacific Railroad tracks. Cars can choose between crossing the freight tracks at grade on a new roadway, or using the overpass.

[…]

Though much work remains on the $31 million project, completion gets closer with every milestone reached. Provided crews hold to current schedules, Metro could begin testing trains and the track in October and start carrying passengers to the Magnolia Park Transit Center by late December or early January. If the line is ready for passengers, it would be in time for Super Bowl LI, which officials said was a priority.

For now, transit officials are just basking in how far they’ve come.

“It was a wonderful sight to stand out and watch the first cars go over that bridge,” said Peters, who Metro brought in as a consultant to coordinate the project.

Peters, a veteran of construction projects dating to his days as a soldier building a bridge in Vietnam, has extensive local construction experience, overseeing projects at the county and state level.

See here for the last update. Getting everything finished in time for the Super Bowl is the main goal at this point, and all signs point to it getting done. I figure there will be some champagne flowing at the Lee Brown building once this is all done.

Harrisburg overpass update

Progress.

HoustonMetro

Right now the East End light rail line stops a few blocks short of the Magnolia Transit Center on Harrisburg. Metro was going to build an underpass at the Hughes Street railroad crossing, but cancelled those plans because of worries over contaminated soil. The agency is now putting the finishing touches on a new overpass that will carry both cars and trains.

Metro CEO Tom Lambert says they hope to let vehicles start crossing it on July 12.

“You’re beginning to see the concrete pour for the bridge deck,” says Lambert. “They’re almost finished with that.”

As for running trains on the overpass, Lambert says they’ll probably start testing in September.

“There’s a safety certification process that we have to work through,” adds Lambert. “It just takes longer to do that. The track you’re seeing is already being laid. So it’s really the power systems, the power of the train, then testing the train, certifying the process.”

Metro hopes it can start service on the overpass starting in December.

That’s on the same schedule as the last update, so that’s good. It’s been a long journey, to say the least. The good news is that when the light rail line is finally extended to the transit center, there will be a new bus line waiting to take them farther east.

On Sunday, METRO launched a new bus route – the 38 Manchester-Lawndale – which will run seven days a week. The new route will help commuters go to the Magnolia Park Transit Center from as far as the Manchester Docks.

When the Green Line extension to the Magnolia Park Transit Center is completed, riders on the 38 will be able to transfer for free onto METRORail and continue their trip to downtown. Buses will run every 60 minutes.

This new route is part of a pilot program that includes 39 stops and connects to the 20 Canal/Memorial, 28 OST-Wayside, 50 Broadway and 76 Evergreen. By next January, it is scheduled to connect to the Green Line at Magnolia Park Transit Center.

METRO Chair Carrin Patman called the new route a great example of METRO’s partnership with its communities. “Members of the Manchester community met with METRO staff and provided excellent suggestions,” she said. “We are excited to now be able to implement those ideas with the new 38.”

As I recall, there was a similar route before the bus system redesign, and this new one was added in response to community demand. It’s not a high-frequency route, obviously, but it’s there for coverage.

Harrisburg line overpass delayed again

Ugh. Just, ugh.

A rail overpass vital to completion of the East End light rail line that has divided neighbors and eroded public confidence will be delayed another four months, Metro officials confirmed Monday.

“It has been the project from hell from the beginning,” Metropolitan Transit Authority board member Cindy Siegel said. “It needs to get done.”

The ongoing construction will pose a hardship for Harrisburg-area residents and businesses.

Beyond those effects, Metro officials worry about the continued impacts of major projects encountering obstacles that prompt apologies from the transit agency.”I am tired of this agency being beat up for not doing what we say we will do,” board member Diann Lewter said.

The overpass was expected to open to traffic in mid-May, but the revised schedule approved Monday moves back completion by four months, to Sept. 12.

This means Metro and others responsible for completing the Green Line will need to hustle to have trains ferrying passengers on its last mile, east of the overpass, by Super Bowl Sunday.

In the interim, Metro and its contractor, McCarthy Building Companies, have agreed to reopen by June 12 the traffic lanes not using the bridge, re-establishing some vehicle traffic in the area. The construction effects have infuriated business owners along Harrisburg.

See here, here, and here for the background. The construction schedule was aggressive, but that was in part because a stretch of Harrisburg was closed to allow for speedier progress. Problems were already being acknowledged in November, and though there was some hope at that time that things could get back to the proposed timeline, it didn’t happen. After all the delays in getting the initial part of the Green and Purple lines open, it sure would have been nice to hit the mark on this one. And heaven help us if we have not-really-finished-yet light rail construction for another Super Bowl. Light a candle and say a prayer for this one, y’all.

New rail lines officially open

At long last.

Two new light rail lines might have been the ones debuting Saturday, but for many riders it was the East End, Third Ward and MacGregor Park neighborhoods themselves that were on display.

After years of construction and months of testing, riders began boarding Green Line trains headed from downtown east along Harrisburg and Purple Line trains toward the University of Houston and Palm Center Transit Center on Saturday morning.

The dual openings mark the end of a sometimes controversial six years for Metropolitan Transit Authority, which first approached voters and won approval for the lines in 2003, with the hopes of opening them in 2012. Numerous delays and setbacks pushed opening day farther away from those original plans, as anticipation grew in the neighborhoods.

With the lines open and shuttling thousands of people around, the communities turned out for various celebrations, where Metro and residents celebrated the end of construction and the beginning of what is predicted to be a major change in how people get around, especially those more dependent on transit for daily trips.

[…]

Local officials hope the area, which hasn’t enjoyed the redevelopment of some areas of Houston during the recent boom times, is helped by the addition of the Purple Line. Already there are some signs of investment in apartments and townhomes, notably around the University of Houston and Third Ward.

“It is kind of nice to see the redevelopment,” Stan Leong said. “It is changing their whole neighborhood, and that is kind of interesting.”

The same hopes are pinned on the Green Line, running along Harrisburg in Houston’s east side, elected officials said.

“This is a $1 billion investment in your community,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston, told a crowd along Harrisburg, flanked by Mayor Annise Parker and city and Metro officials.

Along with the Greater East End Management District, Metro redeveloped Harrisburg to make the rail line the center of a bustling retail corridor, with signature intersections and sidewalks dotted with brick designs.

See here for the background. There is still construction ongoing, as the Harrisburg overpass gets built and that line eventually gets extended by a couple more stops. One of the effects of the Culberson accord will likely be to build another station on the Southeast line as well. But the trains are running, and that’s the big deal. It was nice to read a story about these lines that didn’t include a quote from some hoary rail critic. Now the onus is on to perform and get riders. I look forward to seeing what those numbers look like. Texas Leftist has more.

Overpass groundbreaking

Progress.

After years of conflict among community members and leaders, construction of Metro’s new Harrisburg overpass is officially underway in Houston’s East End.

“It’s not just a bridge; it’s going to be a landmark in the city,” Metropolitan Transit Authority board member Diann Lewter said at a groundbreaking ceremony Saturday.

[…]

City Council member Robert Gallegos withheld $10 million from the project’s budget for a month in 2014 to investigate Metro’s claims about an underpass. He eventually agreed to a compromise that included extensive community involvement in the design and development; an overpass that would accommodate trains, motorists and pedestrians; and maintaining street access to surrounding businesses.

Both sides of the overpass will be adorned with references to the history of the East End and the bridge columns lit with blue LED lighting. A garden wall will follow the lower side of the bridge, a fitting tribute to Metro’s “Green Line.”

“We really let the community choose; we came up with different design renderings, and ultimately this is where (they) landed,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “We wanted to do something special so that when you come in, you really feel like you’re entering a wonderful community, rather than just driving (through).”

The $26 million, half-mile overpass is expected to be completed in 18 months, but Metro and community leaders both are hoping to shorten that.

“We want to go at warp speed. The community has been supportive long enough,” Garcia said. “We want to complete this thing so the businesses can go back to do what they need to do.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Everyone seems to be happy with the way this is going, and that’s all you could want at this point. We’re also getting close to the official opening of the Southeast and Harrisburg-up-to-the-overpass lines, both of which should happen sometime next month, though it’s not exactly clear when. I’ve been seeing trains go by regularly on the western end of those lines in downtown. I’m eager to see them go by with passengers on them.

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.

Council approves funds for Harrisburg Line overpass

Progress!

The City Council is set to decide Wednesday whether to give Metro $10 million to accommodate traffic as well as trains on a controversial overpass the transit agency plans to build along its Green Line light rail route.

The council delayed action on the matter for 30 days last month at Mayor Annise Parker’s suggestion when Councilman Robert Gallegos raised concerns. Gallegos and some other neighborhood leaders long have lobbied against an overpass and sought more time to confirm Metro’s claims that worse-than-expected soil contamination would prevent a previously planned underpass where freight tracks cross the path of the Green Line along Harrisburg.

After months of delay when the environmental concerns were discovered, the extra 30 days caused consternation for some neighborhood leaders, and for Metro officials.

Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia fired off a letter saying the council’s delay had forced him “to reverse course and to proceed with a plain rail-only overpass.” This week, however, Garcia said those thoughts were premature.

“Looking back in time, we all could have communicated better. And I really think any miscommunication is really a result of everybody trying to do the right thing,” he said. “We’re going to look back and I think we’re all going to be very proud of this project, so I think some of the angst today will be a distant memory when the line is successful and businesses are thriving.”

And indeed, Council approved the funding on Wednesday. The best news is that this overpass will include vehicular traffic as well, and the current design specs appear to be more palatable to East End residents. Current estimates for construction are 32 months, which would put the opening in 2017, but Metro Chair Garcia is optimistic they can beat that. The Harrisburg Line up to the future overpass will be completed by the end of this year, just barely. It will be very nice when that is all done.

A lesser overpass

I’m not very happy with this.

A City Council delay in contributing funds for a contentious East End overpass will likely lead Metro back to build a span only for its light rail line and not drivers, and without some of the attributes transit officials and some nearby residents said they wanted.

[…]

The delay in receiving $10 million from the city could have a detrimental effect on whatever is built, as Metro presses ahead. Final agreement between the city and Metro regarding the money Houston committed to an underpass or overpass missed a Monday deadline set by Metro, sparking another spat between transit and city officials.

At the same time Wednesday that City Council members were delaying their commitment, Metro’s board was approving a design contract for the overpass. Transit officials are also planning the first public meeting about the overpass design on Tuesday.

The goal was to develop an overpass with traffic lanes, and add features like murals and amenities to make the overpass more palatable, not just a concrete overpass for the light rail line. All of that is now moot, as the city delays and Metro moves ahead, Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

[…]

When Metro moved forward, the decision angered Houston Councilman Robert Gallegos, who asked last week for a delay in handing $10 million over to Metro for the project.

That delay stretched from one week to two because of the upcoming July 4 holiday, and then to 30 days at the suggestion of Mayor Annise Parker, who said she was just hearing about some of Gallegos’ concerns.

Gallegos said he wants to research the level of contamination, whether it should be cleaned up and what can be designed that will protect the community.

“It is not about pushing for an underpass at this point,” Gallegos’ chief of staff, Danial Santamaria, said. “It is concern about the contaminants.”

Metro officially approved the overpass plan in late May. I understand why they want to move forward already, but it’s not clear to me why a relatively small amount of money like that $10 million should have such a large effect on the final design. Surely there must be some way that sum can be covered even if the city backs out of the original agreement, which was made with the understanding that Metro would build an underpass. Given that the underpass option is off the table at this point, I feel strongly that every effort should be made to make the overpass as palatable to the East End residents as possible. Let’s not mess this up over a small sum of money.

Metro opts for the overpass

At this point I can hardly blame them.

Houston transit officials proceeded Thursday with a controversial overpass plan for an East End light rail line, but angry city officials and residents vowed to continue fighting for an underpass.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members rejected a request by residents and the city and state officials who represent them for a 30-day delay in deciding whether to build an overpass or underpass along Harrisburg, at freight tracks near Hughes Street. Board members cited the need to move quickly to complete the line.

The decision came after four months of discussion, which residents wanted to extend so they could further research Metro’s claims about the environmental risks of an underpass. Speakers at Thursday’s board meeting, ranging from engineers to lawyers, questioned some of Metro’s findings without citing specifics.

Metro officials said continued dialogue was unlikely to change their minds.

“We can play this game, but at some point you have to step up and build something,” said board member Cindy Siegel, a former Bellaire mayor.

[…]

Depending on details such as whether vehicle lanes are included in the overpass, Metro would spend between $27 million and $43 million to join light rail segments under construction on the Green Line, between the central business district and the Magnolia Park Transit Center. The overpass could be built in less than three years, according to Metro estimates.

Noting the additional year and up to $20 million in added costs to build an underpass, not including environmental costs, some area residents said they supported the overpass plan.

“We cannot endure any more delays,” said Jessica Hulsey, of the Super Neighborhood 63 Council, which encompasses the Second Ward.

Metro’s press release for this is here. See here, here, here, and here for the background. I have always thought that an underpass was the ideal solution, but at this point given the cost and the time frame, it’s quite reasonable for Metro to say we’re going to do an overpass and we’re going to do our best to make it okay. Various elected officials that represent the area asked Metro not to go forward at this time, so it’s certainly possible they can come under some pressure, but I don’t know what they can do to really affect it at this point. The fact that not everyone is against the decision to proceed also suggests Metro is on reasonably solid ground. The underpass would have been best, but at this point it just wasn’t going to happen. I sympathize with the holdouts, and I wish them luck in making the best of the hand they’ve been dealt.

Metro still aiming for an overpass

I’ll be glad when this is settled.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said they must consider the need to extend the line east of Hughes Road, the potentially costly and time-consuming underpass construction, and the potential environment fallout after a discovery that contaminated soil was more extensive than previously believed.

“We think it is our responsibility to complete the project because it has been going on for some time,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

Garcia said he favors a plan to take the tracks over the freight line, but did not want to assume the board would agree. Board members who have publicly stated a preference have supported an overpass, saying an underpass is impractical.

[…]

Residents said if Metro officials know there’s a problem – one that’s common on the East End, where industries and businesses polluted the land – they should clean it up.

“Let’s not leave it for another generation,” said Don Ready, who lives and works in the area around Hughes and Harrisburg.

Some residents and business owners said the issue has been studied enough and it’s time to begin construction, probably of an overpass.

“I have a letter signed by 14 business owners who want the overpass because they need to get it done as soon as possible,” said Mark Rodriguez, who owns a business along Harrisburg and is active with the Oaklawn Fullerton Civic Association.

Metro officials said their overpass design would address some of the original concerns. It could include elevating 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.

Garcia said if an overpass is chosen, Metro would work with the community to make the crossing “as unobtrusive as possible.”

An overpass would be cheaper than an underpass, but Metro might have less money to work with. City officials planned to contribute $20 million, but $10 million of that was tied to the crossing being an underpass, said Andy Icken, chief development officer for Mayor Annise Parker.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’m sympathetic to the East End residents who have to feel like they’ve been fighting this fight forever, and I’m sympathetic to the Metro board that is still trying to extricate itself from the messes left behind by their predecessors. Metro, which has other issues it needs to resolve as it finishes construction on the Harrisburg line, would surely like to just make a decision and move forward. I’d feel better about that if I had a clearer idea of just what the costs are at this point. Will it really be less expensive to do the overpass if the city pays $10 million less towards its construction? Is it responsible to leave the buried toxins underground? Might there be some alternate sources of funding to aid the cleanup? Could the new-and-improved overpass design that Metro says they have be acceptable to East End residents? These and other questions remain to be answered.

East Enders want the underpass

We’re talking about the long-debated Harrisburg rail line extension, for which three residents of the East End took to the Chron op-ed pages to make their case for their preferred solution.

East End residents worked for years with Metro to work out a solution for the light rail to cross the “east belt” heavy-rail trunk line near Hughes Street. Two and a half years ago an underpass was deemed the best option to cross the railroad tracks because it would preserve the urban character of Harrisburg Boulevard, the commercial and cultural spine of the East End.

Metro now says an overpass is the only option. Metro tells us they have found an underground plume or accumulation of gasoline in shallow groundwater that might pose a liability if it moves under adjacent properties due to the construction of the underpass. There is no danger. It is strictly an issue of liability, based on perception alone.

[…]

The contaminated plume in question occurs only in the eastern half of the underpass excavation zone, and at most is only 2 feet thick. Contaminated soil thus makes up only about 10 percent of the total volume of the area to be excavated. This amount is not a deal-breaker for the excavation. Procedures are in place to deal with this kind of contamination during construction, and Metro was fully prepared to deal with this until it started worrying about the lateral underground migration of the plume.

These kinds of contaminated water bodies occur all over Houston. So much so that the city, in conjunction with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has a procedure that allows contaminated zones of groundwater that pose no human risk to be left in place with limited or no liability on the part of landowners who had nothing to do with the original contamination. This is exactly the situation of the Harrisburg Boulevard plume.

There are relatively few viable businesses today along the underpass construction zone on Harrisburg, which is exactly how it will stay if an overpass is built there. Let’s not make decisions based on the used-car lots and pawn shops that are there today. Let’s make those decisions based on what is coming if we do the right thing. This is a generational decision.

See here and here for the background. It seems to me that the real issue here, going back to the bad old days of David Wolff and Frank Wilson, is that it costs more to build an underpass than an overpass, and Metro – which is paying for the Harrisburg line with strictly local funds – has been reluctant to spend the extra money. I can understand that, but at some point you have to recognize reality and try to accommodate a community that has been strongly pro-rail and strongly anti-overpass. Before the discovery of these underground plumes, the New Metro agreed to build an underpass with some financial help from the city. If the price of the underpass is now higher because of this discovery, Metro and the city owe it to the East End residents to try to figure out a way to absorb this extra cost, or to find some other source of funds to help cover it. Surely there must be some way to do this.

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.

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.

Railroad crossings

There are a lot of freight rail lines in the East End. Some big changes will be coming to them.

Railroad-Crossing

A series of underpasses and street closings east of downtown represents the latest effort to seal off railroad corridors and take vehicle traffic over or under the tracks, while closing off other roads.

“If you look at the plan we have … you’ll see every place we closed a road is by a grade separation,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District.

Eliminating crossings by separating roads and rail lines with overpasses or underpasses is the best solution, but also the most expensive, officials said.

“Anywhere a grade separation is done, you take away the conflict,” Crocker said.

Where officials can’t eliminate the conflict, they are working to make drivers more aware of the trains, or to cut off access.

Five grade separations and five road closings are planned along nine miles of double railroad track, known as the West Belt, that extends from northside neighborhoods to southeast of the Third Ward. Most of the projects are east of downtown.

At an estimated cost of $107.7 million, the closings and underpasses will create a roughly five-mile quiet zone where trains won’t blow their horns when they approach an at-grade crossing. That means fewer whistles for the 15,000 nearby residents, officials said.

Funding for the project will come from federal, state, local and railroad sources, Crocker said, and potentially involves applying for a competitive U.S. Department of Transportation grant.

There have been a number of collisions, resulting in 27 injuries and one death, at rail crossings in Harris County since 2010. In addition to the changes at these crossings, there will be billboards put up to remind people that trains take a long time to stop, so you really ought to think twice about crossing a rail line if there’s any question about your ability to make it safely. You wouldn’t think that would be something people would need to be reminded about, but it is. One hopes this will help.

Keep Houston Houston argues that street closures are a bad idea.

Basically, closing a crossing is like parking a freight train in front of the gates 24/7. This is true if there’s no alternative for miles, and it’s equally true if there’s an overpass or underpass a block a way.

Consider, for instance, the pending loss of Sherman Street. Right now there’s a bike trail that starts in downtown and ends one block away. But using Sherman you can keep going east, all the way to the Ship Channel, on a quiet, low-traffic, residential street.

What happens if you close Sherman? Sure, it’s only a two block detour over to Harrisburg. But Harrisburg is a big, noisy street, with through traffic and light rail trains. This can only discourage cycling. And how ’bout if you’re on foot? That two block detour represents about six or seven minutes of walking time. It costs about as much time as a one-mile detour in a car. And slowly, bit by bit, neighborhoods are cut off from each other.

It’s already happened in the First Ward. There used to be a nice quiet cut-through, Silver Street, that would take you from anywhere in the First all the way across Washington and down to Memorial. It was a great way to avoid the jam-up on Sawyer Street, or the racetrack on Houston Avenue, where HPD cruisers regularly hit 50-60mph on the way to and from headquarters. But now, it’s gone. Google shows the transformation. In Streetview, a nice straight shot. In 45-degree view, dead.

All of this is enabled by laughable “cost benefit analyses” that weigh the “benefit” of crossing closures in terms of the accident reduction without considering any “cost” other than $50,000 for the barricades, signing and striping to close the thing. Lost time due to cars taking a longer route isn’t considered. Lost connectivity for peds and bikes isn’t considered. Lost ridership and productivity on transit routes forced to detour is not considered.

If this same methodology was used on all transportation projects, the Interstate highway system would have a 10mph speed limit.

It’s a good point. Silver Street is in the Washington Quiet Zone, and KHH is right that there aren’t any good alternatives for non-car traffic now that it’s closed. I think the effect is less pronounced west of Studemont, but that doesn’t help anyone who used to bike on Silver. No question, under/overpasses are the best option, if you can pay for them. I sympathize with the folks in the East End, who have dealt with freight rail traffic for a long time. I hope this is what they wanted.

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.