Still a lot of work to be done before any actual construction can begin.
Metro officials on Wednesday approved a path for the 25.3 mile University Corridor in a rare split vote that keeps the region’s largest bus rapid transit project on track for a 2028 opening, but also deepened concerns among some who said the public is not completely behind the planned route.
Wednesday’s vote, setting its preferred route for the line, allows Metropolitan Transit Authority planners and consultants for the agency to continue design of the busways along many local streets, and work with the Federal Transit Administration on necessary approvals. Under the current schedule, construction could begin as early as late next year, though riders will not hop aboard the large buses operating in their own lanes for another three or four years.
“This is an important step, but not the last step,” Metro board Chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran said.
Approval of the route came with division, uncharacteristic for the Metro board. Five members — Ramabhadran, Roberto Trevino, Diann Lewter, Bob Fry and Lex Frieden — approved the route, the minimum number needed to pass. Members Terri Morales, an East End resident; Troi Taylor and Don Elder voted against approval, citing the need for more public feedback.
“I feel we need more time for community involvement,” Morales said.
Recent concerns about the route, however, have centered on a roughly one-mile stretch of Lockwood through the East End, south of Buffalo Bayou, where residents have said the project caught them off-guard and initial plans for an overpass would have sliced a gash through the mostly residential, tree-lined neighborhood.
Following pushback, mostly from the Eastwood Civic Association, Metro scrapped plans for an overpass and promised residents in the East End that it would build a bus-only underpass with a bike and pedestrian path beneath the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. Separating the buses from the tracks is crucial to avoid lengthy delays, transit officials said.
The underpass, which would include flood gates Metro can control, would not solve ongoing problems in the East End over stopped freight trains for other vehicles but would allow pedestrians to avoid having to cross the tracks.
It is not the first time Metro has promised an underpass, and the last such pledge led to hard feelings in the community as the agency finalized construction of the Green Line light rail along Harrisburg. That underpass proved too expensive and too complicated, so Metro reneged on the promise and opted for an overpass near Hughes Street, which remains a major divide in the East End.
“We had nothing but trouble the entire time and that is because of how the project was laid out,” Lewter said.
Asked earlier this week if Metro could keep its word this time, transit agency CEO Tom Lambert said it could because the conditions are different.
“There is no concern going forward,” Lambert said, admitting the Harrisburg promise was premature and environmental reviews that should have been completed were not prior to that commitment.
In this case, no environmental or utility issues are expected because the area is mostly homes and the rail line.
Avoiding an overpass was the top priority of Eastwood residents, but not the only concern, civic association president Danielle Laperriere said. As a result, the association voted Tuesday night to neither support nor oppose the revised plan.
“Opinions are too strongly divided,” she said.
After opposition to the project built in the community, many also questioned Metro’s decision to run the line along Lockwood at all. Given development in the area, many suggested Jensen, which by Metro’s own scoring is slightly behind Lockwood in terms of viability, should warrant consideration.
“It is not anti-Metro,” said Stephen Quezada, who lives along Lockwood and is chairman of the East End Management District board of directors. “I truly believe there is an opportunity to get this right.”
See here for the background. The route itself was never really in question, it was more about addressing the concerns of the neighborhoods before committing to it. If Metro can fulfill its promise about building an underpass this time, that probably clears up most of them. While approving the route was a necessary step to get more federal funds, there could still be some modifications before construction begins. I am hopeful that the remaining issues can be worked out and that construction can begin more or less on schedule.