May 23--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.
Board members, with Christof Spieler absent, voted unanimously to move forward with a plan for an overpass to take the light rail line past the freight tracks. The overpass might include one lane in each direction for automobiles. Vehicular and pedestrian traffic would remain at-grade with the freight tracks, owned by Houston Belt and Terminal, an affiliate of Union Pacific Railroad.
The board's refusal to delay angered critics of the overpass plan. Many have a tattered relationship with Metro from earlier fights to avoid an overpass, which they argue would be an unsightly dividing line in the community.
"I am very disappointed with the Metro board," Houston City Councilman Robert Gallegos said. "The arrogance to know they overlooked the public officials and make that decision, it's very disappointing."
Councilman Ed Gonzalez, state Rep. Carol Alvarado and state Sen. Sylvia Garcia -- both Houston Democrats -- joined Gallegos in asking for the delay, along with residents who argue that an underpass would be less intrusive.
Gallegos said he would speak with city officials, then decide what the next step for overpass opponents should be.
"We want to make sure we protect our community," he said.
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.
Crossing the freight tracks will add two rail stations and about mile of service to the Green Line. The western portion of the line is on pace to start service later this year, Metro officials said.
Metro officials said a larger-than-expected amount of contaminated soil forced them to renege on a 2011 agreement with the city to build an underpass. In return, the city had agreed to double its investment in the project to $20 million.
The contamination is contained, provided the ground below a depth of a few feet is undisturbed. Digging an underpass would cost between $8.3 million and $16.2 million in environmental cleanup -- not including construction -- and take five to 10 years before work could start, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.
Other residents and business owners along Harrisburg said their fight against the overpass wasn't finished, though they were not sure exactly what their next move would be.
Many said they remain skeptical of Metro's claims, believing the agency has inflated the cost and time involved in cleaning the site.
Despite the rancor, Metro officials said they hope opponents are active in making the overpass aesthetically as pleasing as possible, noting landscaping and art could make the bridge fit more smoothly into the residential and commercial area.
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