TX: Light-rail Work a Burden on Businesses; Owners Along 3 Lines Say Even Metro's Aid May Not Save Shops

Before Metro light-rail construction started on Fulton Street last year, Trevino & Sons Funeral Home conducted about five burial services each week.

"Now we're down to about two or three a month," said Felix Trevino, who has owned the business at 3911 Fulton for 45 years.

On top of a troubling recession, the Metropolitan Transit Authority's construction of three light-rail lines - with the inevitable detours, dust and noise - has kept customers away from small businesses in the North, Southeast and East End rail corridors, say business owners who have addressed the Metro board in recent months.

For the past 1½ to 2 years, streets along the routes have been torn up as crews have upgraded water and sewer lines and moved utility lines in preparation for laying tracks.

Although work is at different stages on the three lines, each is about 36 percent complete, Metro President and CEO George Greanias told the board Thursday. All three lines are expected to open in 2014, although one section of the East End line might require two more years to complete.

2 studies of effects

During or soon after construction of Houston's first light-rail line, which opened in 2004 on Main Street, six businesses closed, according to a 2006 report by the nonprofit urban research group Houston Tomorrow. The report said it was unclear if the failures were due solely to light rail.

Houston Tomorrow, which supports Metro's rail program, also studied light-rail construction in Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Portland, Ore., Minneapolis and Salt Lake City and found similar results - businesses that failed were already troubled.

David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, said highway projects are harder on business than light rail because they are bigger.

"Seven miles of light rail isn't the same as 24 miles on both sides of the Katy Freeway," he said, referring to a recent expansion project.

To help business owners along its three new lines, Metro took an unusual step. In December 2009, the board set up a Business Assistance Fund, which compensates affected enterprises up to $25,000.

Funded with $5 million from Metro's sales tax and fare revenue, the fund is a voluntary step which may be unique in the state, Greanias said.

"My view of this is we are very much inventing this program," Greanias said. "We have businesses we are very much supportive of. On the other hand, these are public dollars and we have to be sure that the money and time is spent judiciously and effectively."

'I'm not going to last'

To date, 202 businesses have received a total of about $1.6 million through the program, with an average award of $8,000 to $10,000, Metro said.

Trevino said he received $25,000 in 2009, but it's not enough.

"I'm not going to last another two years waiting for them to finish," he said.

Bob Townley, owner of C and R Auto at 5702 Harrisburg, made the same prediction last month.

"For the last two years, I've lost $75,000 a year," Townley told the board. "If we don't get some help, I'm going to have to close."

Townley got $25,000 in 2009 and said he needs that much each year.

Despite his troubles, Townley supports the rail project.

"Metro has not lied to me," he said. "The fact that (construction) is killing me doesn't change the fact that it's for the greater good."

Greanias and other Metro officials have met with various business owners. The agency is discussing whether to adjust the assistance fund guidelines, but no decision will be made before the November board meeting.

Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia said Metro is sensitive to business owners and is trying to finish the rail lines as quickly as possible.

Sochia Muschia told the board Thursday that her family's Cuz-N-Laws Wholesale restaurant supply business at 3510 Leeland has applied twice for the $25,000 award but doesn't qualify because its preconstruction revenue exceeded the allowed maximum.

60 percent drop

"People at Metro have been very kind, but it doesn't change the fact that it has nearly destroyed us," she said.

Victor Gomez Sr. said a 60 percent drop in his shoe repair business at 5216 Harrisburg forced him to start driving a taxi this summer.

"The bills keep coming," he said.

Alida Rodriguez, who owns Falcon Groceries at Main and Boundary with her husband, retired Houston Police Sgt. George V. Rodriguez, said she'd sell the business but can't find a buyer during the construction.

"I can't even find my panic button," she said.

carol.christian@chron.com

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LIGHT RAIL EXPANSION

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is continuing work on three lines - East End, North and Southeast - of its light rail expansion. The University and Uptown lines remain on the drawing board.

STATUS OF THREE LINES UNDER CONSTRUCTION

Phase 1

Underground utility installation

North Line Ends Spring 2012

Southeast Line In progress

East End Line Ends Spring 2012

Phase 2

Road widening

North Line Ends Summer 2012

Southeast Line Ends Fall 2012

East End Line Ends Summer 2012

Phase 3

Guideway placement

North Line In progress

Southeast Line In progress

East End Line In progress

Phase 4

Stations, landscaping

North Line Opening mid 2014

Southeast Line Opening in 2014

East End Line Opening mid 2014

Source: Metropolitan Transit Authority

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