As they move toward a likely decision to build an overpass along an East End light rail line, Metro officials have not overcome strong opposition from residents who say their neighborhoods are too often on the losing side of government decisions.
How to take the rail line past freight railroad tracks near Hughes Road remains a major source of division in the community. Metro officials on May 22 will vote on what is likely to be an overpass plan, pilloried by some residents and preferred by others.
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.
Construction continues west of the Union Pacific railroad tracks on the light rail line, known as the Green Line, which will connect downtown with the Magnolia Park Transit Center near the Gus Wortham Golf Course.
When the Green Line opens later this year, however, it will stop short of the freight tracks near Hughes Road.
That's because since 2011 Metro has gone back and forth on how to cross the tracks, first favoring an overpass bitterly opposed by the residents, then agreeing to build an underpass when the city signed onto the project for an additional $10 million.
The agency reconsidered when core samples taken last year indicated the amount of contaminated soil on the site was far greater than first believed. Fearing additional environmental damage and massive liability, Metro came back with an amended overpass plan that transit officials said would be much more attractive than the prior version.
Many residents remain skeptical.
"We have been fighting for this (overpass) for years," said Marilu De La Fuente, president of the Harrisburg Heritage Society. "Then the proverbial rug gets pulled from our under our feet. ... We are all tired and exhausted."
Groups representing neighborhoods near the contested crossing lined up against the overpass Tuesday at a Metro-organized meeting.
Speakers said they were not convinced by Metro's assertion that an underpass is no longer feasible.
"We're not ready to give up on that," John Jacob, president of the Eastwood Civic Association, said of the underpass.
Some residents said the return to the overpass plan was another example of the residents' wishes being trumped by a public agency's preferences.
Many of the opponents also opposed a plan to turn the Gus Wortham Golf Course into a botanical garden.
Other critics of the overpass plan said Metro is glossing over the contaminated soil — avoiding dealing with the problem by not disturbing the land. Environmental engineers have said the area is safe as long as the ground isn't disturbed a few feet below the surface.
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."
Funds for underpass
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.
Councilman Robert Gallegos, who represents part of the neighborhood around the Hughes crossing, said he believes the latter $10 million is off the table if Metro builds an overpass.
Councilman Ed Gonzalez, who also represents part of the area, said he would keep an open mind, "but this money was allocated for an underpass."
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