Feb. 10--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."
Residents and city officials said more discussions are needed to ensure that the crossing isn't burdensome to the neighborhood.
"It is a tough balance and you might not get everything just right," said City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, who represents the area west of the proposed railroad track separation.
Metro's board could consider the issue this month in a special meeting, Garcia said. An overpass is probably the only viable option, Metro officials said.
Metro hasn't determined how building an overpass with local street access -- the preferred proposal, Garcia said -- would affect the cost, available funding or construction schedule.
'Needs to be cleaned'
Residents, somewhat skeptical of Metro because of past discussions, said they were willing to listen but not convinced there was nothing Metro can do to avoid an overpass. Simply changing course without arranging for someone to clean the site isn't acceptable, some said.
"It needs to be cleaned out," said Marilu De La Fuente, president of the Harrisburg Heritage Society. "Even if we agree we go over, and they build an overpass a lot of people don't want and then they don't do anything to clean it up, people are not going to be happy with that."
One issue in the discussions will be whether the city fulfills its $20 million commitment to the project, Gonzalez said. When the money was offered, it was specifically for an underpass, to make the crossing palatable to the community.
A more extensive issue
The obstacle forcing Metro to reconsider its plans is a huge amount of contaminated soil underneath the railroad tracks, Harrisburg and adjacent properties. The ground was fouled by leaking fuel tanks and other industrial sources.
City, state and transit officials have known about the toxic dirt for two decades, and a Texas law requires anyone digging in the area to mitigate for the polluted soil. If left untouched, the soil isn't a problem, state environmental documents show.
"It may continue to migrate, but it is not a public health issue," said Shannon Rives, an environmental consultant on the light rail project.
The 1994 data Metro used early in its planning identified an oval-shaped contamination area about 500 feet long and 250 feet wide, mostly north of Harrisburg and west of Hughes. Digging into the soil, Metro was prepared to do some mitigation.
New soil samples found the contamination was much more extensive -- a teardrop-shaped area about 1,000 feet long. As crews took core samples, they turned up chemicals 200 feet or more outside the initial polluted area.
Some samples indicated the presence of benzene, a cancer-causing material, at 1,400 times the allowable levels for safe discharge into the local water supply. MTBE, a byproduct of gasoline that federal officials say is potentially cancerous, is present in some spots at 1,000 times the allowed limit.
Digging is liability
Digging would require years of mitigation and soil treatment, Rives said.
Not only would digging disturb the contamination, Rives said, the design of the underpass would redirect groundwater in the area, spreading the toxic chemicals into dirt along Harrisburg and onto property owned by nearby businesses and residents.
"What you end up with is a liability issue for Metro, which collects taxes from the public," said Patrick Ezzell, director of economic development and infrastructure for the Greater East End Management District. "It all becomes a very big deal. Public entities cannot take that kind of risk."
Also at stake is goodwill in the community. Neighbors banded together and opposed a 2010 plan for an overpass at the crossing, citing concerns about aesthetics and street access.
"It is very frustrating for us because we have been working on this for years," De La Fuente said.
Neighbors feared the overpass would be a "hideous monstrosity," De La Fuente 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.
Goal to win residents
Ezzell said street-level access is crucial to maintaining businesses along Harrisburg.
"If you are one of those folks within six or eight blocks of the adjacent property, you want that crossing," he said.
Although Ezzell said some residents at a recent meeting seemed mollified by possible changes to the overpass design, winning over the community is far from certain.
"You have to understand the credibility of Metro has not been good with us," De La Fuente said, noting years of often contentious battles.
Recently, De La Fuente went to look at the overpass Metro built along the new North Line extension near Roosevelt Elementary School.
"It's horrendous," she said. "Big. If I lived over there I would have fought that. ... It is not even nice-looking. I would hate to be one of those residents."
Copyright 2014 - Houston Chronicle