And freight rail wins, for now.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority may cut six blocks off its planned East End light rail line, leaving passengers short of the Magnolia Transit Center and much of the developing commercial area around Harrisburg and Wayside.
Metro board chairman David Wolff said Thursday that the roadblock is the former Houston Belt & Terminal Railway tracks, now owned by Union Pacific Railroad. The crossing, on Harrisburg between 65th and Oldham, is familiar to motorists and pedestrians delayed by freight trains.
Wolff said Metro had considered crossing the double tracks at street level.
“But it doesn’t seem the railroad is too enthusiastic about that.”
Metro spokeswoman Sandra Salazar later said UP would not agree to share its right of way with Metro trains.
Metro has been planning the line almost since voters approved it in a 2003 referendum. Asked why the issue is surfacing now, Salazar said Metro initially hoped to obtain permission from the railroad for a street-level crossing.
In 2003, when Metro changed its plans from light rail to Bus Rapid Transit, thinking that was necessary to qualify for federal funding, the issue was moot because the buses would cross the tracks with other street traffic.
“The issue became critical again in 2007 when we changed back to light rail,” Salazar said.
A prepared statement from Metro said the agency is “committed to taking the line to the Magnolia Transit Center, even if it may have to be at a later phase. Our long-range plan (to go to Gulfgate and beyond) makes it necessary to resolve this sooner rather than later.”
Wolff said he hoped the city of Houston would build an overpass at the tracks. That may enable Metro to extend the line to the transit center within two to four years after its scheduled completion in 2012. Until then, he said, Metro would bridge the gap with a bus shuttle.
Frank Michel, spokesman for Mayor Bill White, said the city and Metro have not discussed an overpass yet, nor is funding for such a project in the city’s current five-year capital improvement plan. “But shortly, we are going to start a major mobility study and we could consider a grade separation at that point,” Michel said.
Grade separation makes sense here with or without taking the light rail line into account. There’s a lot of freight tracks in the East End, and parts of that neighborhood can be completely cut off when the trains are running. Building an overpass that can handle a light rail train as well will be more expensive, but that cost can be shared by the city and Metro, and it will have a big impact. I hope this happens, and I hope it happens quickly.
UPDATE: Christof has more.