TX: Metro Proceeds With Rail-Only Overpass in East End

July 01--A City Council delay in contributing funds for a contentious East End overpass will likely prompt Metro to build a span that will accommodate only its light rail line, not motorists.

The funding glitch also means the overpass probably will lack some of the attributes desired by transit officials and some nearby residents.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is moving quickly to build the overpass -- the last piece of its $587 million Green Line light rail route along Harrisburg between downtown and the Magnolia Park Transit Center, scheduled to open later this year. Officials are trying to make up time lost when the project -- which Metro at one point agreed to build as an underpass -- became mired in delays, indecision and environmental challenges.

City officials, meanwhile, are still grappling with Metro's decision to build an overpass, asking for more time and more study even as transit officials are focused on forging ahead after environmental reviews scuttled plans for an underpass.

The delay in receiving $10 million from the city could have a detrimental effect on the project as Metro presses ahead. The city and Metro missed a Monday deadline set by the transit agency to complete an agreement regarding the money Houston committed to the rail crossing, prompting another spat between transit and city officials.

As City Council members on Wednesday voted to delay their commitment, Metro's board approved a design contract for the overpass. Transit officials have scheduled the first public meeting about the design for Tuesday.

The goal was to develop an overpass with traffic lanes and to add murals and other amenities. All of that is unlikely now as the city delays and Metro moves ahead, Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

Contamination concern

Plans for an underpass were scuttled when groundwater contamination at the site was determined to be more extensive than previously believed. Metro feared building an underpass would cause the contamination to spread, opening the agency to liability for damaging nearby properties.

Metro board members in May opted to proceed with an overpass over the objections of some community members and elected officials, who wanted more time to consider Metro's plan. Many of those residents and officials opposed an earlier overpass design.

Metro's vote to move forward angered City Councilman Robert Gallegos, who asked last week for a delay in handing $10 million over to Metro for the project.

That delay stretched from one week to two because of the upcoming July 4 holiday, and then to 30 days at the suggestion of Mayor Annise Parker, who said she was just hearing about some of Gallegos' concerns.

Gallegos said he wants to research the level of contamination, whether it should be cleaned up and what can be designed that will protect the community.

'Not about underpass'

"It is not about pushing for an underpass at this point," Gallegos' deputy chief of staff, Daniel Santamaria, said. "It is concern about the contaminants."

Garcia said the delay in funding means the overpass will probably just include the rail line, and potentially result in an overpass less popular with the community.

"With much regret, I must report that we will still meet Tuesday, but I have been forced by this action to reverse course and to proceed with a plain rail-only overpass," Garcia wrote in a Friday letter to people involved in the overpass discussion.

Residents and business owners remain divided on the best course of action.

Copyright 2014 - Houston Chronicle

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