TX: Metro Leaning to Overpass, But Without Past Flaws

Feb. 19--Toxic soil that appears likely to scuttle plans for an underpass along an East End rail line isn't the only challenge the transit agency faces in reconsidering the project.

Residents, some wary of Metropolitan Transit Authority plans because of past dealings with the agency, are keeping a watchful eye on the process as Metro moves toward construction of an overpass, which neighborhood leaders had opposed.

"I do not know if we can trust Metro today," said resident Marilu De La Fuente, who has talked to officials on and off for seven years about the planned light rail line, known as the Green Line.

The community is often divided about the line, which will extend service along Harrisburg to the Magnolia Park Transit Center. Many area groups say the rail line is a critical link for the mostly Hispanic East End community, but some features of the project have raised concerns about splitting the area in two.

That back-and-forth between Metro officials and the community -- which ended when the city interceded to push for an underpass in 2010 -- has left many people drained and fearful Metro isn't being open and honest.

Explaining the problem

Metro, which has undergone leadership changes in those years, is working to regain that trust, board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

"We want the community involved and for this to be as open and honest as possible," 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.

Changes in design

Garcia said the best solution is to build an overpass, but redesign it. Previous designs would have forced traffic onto the overpass alongside the train, leaving some businesses close to the freight tracks stranded on dead-end streets.

The new design would keep one lane of traffic in each direction at street level and carry one lane in each direction over the freight tracks, essentially creating a local street and a bypass. Also important to the neighborhood, Metro officials said new design features could shorten the overpass to about 1,700 feet long, compared with 2,200 feet for the original design. That shorter span would enable 66th Street, which crosses near the planned overpass, to remain open.

Garcia said he hopes the Metro board makes a decision to proceed with an overpass or study an underpass option next month.

Copyright 2014 - Houston Chronicle

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