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Sims Bayou

Harris County reaches bike trail deal with CenterPoint

Nice.

CenterPoint rights of way

Biking between bayous in Harris County is closer to reality, now that local leaders and the monopoly that manages local power lines have inked a deal.

Harris County officials Tuesday approved an agreement between the county and CenterPoint Energy outlining the use of utility easements as hike and bike trails.

“Part of what we are doing is expanding the view of transportation in the county,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

Utility easements crisscross the Houston region, with many being ideal north-south connections to the existing trail systems along area bayous. Local cyclists said that is what makes them popular as possible new trails.

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County officials are working on a comprehensive transportation plan, scheduled for release in February, Hidalgo said. With the CenterPoint agreement in place, part of that plan will include outlining the first easements where the county can make critical connections to area bayous.

“We have a lot of promise here,” the judge said, noting she is hopeful that with better trails to beautified bayous Harris County could become “the Venice of our area” by building on efforts by others, including the Houston Parks Board and local management districts.

Harris County’s arrangement with CenterPoint follows a similar agreement with Houston six years ago. Houston’s agreement became a template for changes in state law to make deals easier after the city and utility plodded through various legal issues. Hidalgo said the county also faced slow-going despite a streamlined process, as lawyers haggled over insurance specifics.

As a result of those various delays, opening some of the new trails in Houston and beyond along utility corridors remains a work-in-progress. Some in western Houston, notably the Westchase district and near Sims Bayou, are open and efforts continue to build more via local management districts or the nonprofit Houston Parks Board.

See here and here for some background, and here for a more recent update. The right-of-way that goes from Memorial Park down to Beltway 8, just inside 610 for the northern half of it, passes through some well-populated areas, and should be a huge boon for the residents nearby. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t realized that the county wasn’t already on board with this – as noted, the city of Houston struck this agreement with CenterPoint way back in 2014 – but I’m glad they’re on board now. Anything we can do to bring this to completion is worthwhile.

Happy (bike) trails to you

Trails connecting to trails. It’s a beautiful thing.

With roughly four miles of new trail in the neighborhood along Sims Bayou and a electric transmission route, officials in southern Houston’s Five Corners District as well as park advocates said they expect a lot more running.

“It really is a milestone and I think it is going to open up all kinds of possibilities for us to complete the system and demonstrate that people will use these corridors,” said Beth White, CEO of Houston Parks Board, the nonprofit spearheading the Bayou Greenways 2020 effort.

The trail runs north of Sims Bayou for about 1.5 miles, parallel to Hiram Clarke Road to West Airport. The path, open to walkers, runners and bicyclists, runs along a CenterPoint Energy utility easement. A host of destinations, including three schools, and hundreds of single family homes are within 1,500 feet of the trail, the first in the city to run along a utility easement.

Perhaps more critically than what is along the route, is the connection it provides to the trail system along Sims Bayou, recently spruced up and expanded with nearly 2.6-mile segment featuring vibrant murals. The new portion runs from Heatherbrook Drive to Buffalo Speedway. Though unconnected to the rest of the trail system, the two southwest Houston segments offer some relief from on-road riding, and greatly expand the number of people who can easily and safely travel to Townwood Park near Orem and Buffalo Speedway without a car.

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Getting even this short segment of utility easement trail open, however, has been a long journey. City and CenterPoint officials celebrated an agreement in 2014 that untied some of the thorny issues related to public use of the utility right of way. The deal even became the template for state legislation passed in 2017 allowing counties and municipalities to partner with companies for combined use trails along power line routes.

“In a built-up city you have to take advantage of every corridor that you can,” White said.

Then slight delays set in for the first trail, from working out the final language of cooperative agreements to planning and design approvals. By 2017, the connection still was just a blueprint.

The slow-going hasn’t dampened expectations for more connections, more miles of bayou and utility easement trails, providing more people easy access to trails, White said. The parks board remains on pace for its 2020 goal of 150 miles of trail along seven Houston bayous, she said.

I hadn’t realized it from the story, but looking at the map made me realize this is a connection to the Sim Bayou trail, using the utility easement so it’s still off the street. The original bill that allowed for bike trails on CenterPoint rights of way was passed in 2013, and the great thing about it is that these easements generally run north-south, while the bayous go more or less east-west. That would allow for a real connected network and a whole lot more of the region that could be safely biked off-road. I hope we hear about a lot more of these getting finished up soon.

The cars in the bayous

Boy, does this sound like a great opening to a crime novel.

Houston’s bayous, dotted by marshy banks and filled with bass and catfish, weave through the city, providing an appealing landscape for joggers and cyclists. But beneath the murky, brown waters is something not as pleasant: a makeshift dumping ground of cars, trucks and vans.

Tim Miller, director of Texas Equusearch, said his volunteer crews have evidence that 127 vehicles are submerged in the bayous. Miller said there are potential environmental and safety hazards of having cars corroding the city’s waterways.

“Houston is known as the Bayou City. I know millions of dollars are spent on the banks of the bayous to make it beautiful,” said Miller, who founded the nonprofit search and rescue organization in 2000. “But we’ve got a big problem with what’s underneath the water.”

Texas Equusearch crews found the vehicles while assisting the Houston Police Department with a search for 82-year-old Lillian High in October 2011. Her body was found inside a rented Dodge Avenger that had plunged into the pond a few miles from her Houston home.

During that search Miller said the organization’s sonar equipment discovered vehicles in Sims, Braes and Buffalo bayous.

In recent months, Miller said many bodies have been discovered in vehicles in Texas and around the country, compelling him to go public with the information. He cited two cases from April, one in which police in South Dakota found the bodies of two teens who disappeared 42 years ago. Later that month, police found skeletal remains inside a truck recovered from a North Texas lake of a woman missing for 35 years.

“Families would call me whose loved ones were still missing, and they’d see these kinds of stories and ask me if there is any chance that their (family members) could be under there, since their loved ones hadn’t been found,” he said. “It was just like, you know what, we’ve got to do something, we just have to.”

HPD says the know all about the cars and they dispute the claim that there could be bodies in one or more of them. I have no opinion about that, but I do think from an environmental point of view that we ought to do what we can to get these cars out of there. They can’t be doing any good down there. Let’s figure out how much it might cost, then see if we can come up with an action plan. Swamplot has more.