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underpass

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.