The East End Line is split in two. One section stretches along Harrisburg Boulevard from Downtown and stops at Altic Street; the other picks up at 66th Street and ends at the Magnolia Transit Center. Between them is a gap of six blocks — with two sets of freight railroad tracks cutting across the middle — that have frustrated residents and business owners since at least 2008 and have delayed the line’s completion.
Some have wanted Metro to build the line over the tracks, some under. Last week, board members voted to go over. The unanimous vote came after two hours of exhausting testimony from some of those East Enders and other disinterested (so they claimed) parties, along with four statements pleading for another month of debate from city council members Ed Gonzalez and Robert Gallegos, state representative Carol Alvarado, and Senator Sylvia Garcia — all of which Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia presided over as a kind of King Solomon with a stopwatch. During her three minutes, one Eastwood resident, a former Metro employee who’s in favor of the underpass, urged Garcia: “Do not desecrate our neighborhoods.” And then a business owner who runs a used car dealership on Harrisburg pleaded with him: “We want it to go over [just] to get it done with.” Another business owner added: “You’re killing us.”
Originally, when the light rail was first planned for Harrisburg Boulevard, Metro’s Frank Wilson wanted to cross the tracks at grade. Union Pacific, which sends its trains here through to the Port of Houston and already has to slow the trains down, wasn’t having any of that. A light-rail-only overpass plan — which, for reference, is what Metro built for the North Line extension at the Burnett Transit Center/Case de Amigos station — was floated around until a community advisory board comprising civic groups and Gallegos and Gonzalez raised a fuss. Concerned about pedestrian safety, accessibility, economic development, scale, and aesthetics, Gallegos and Gonzales, with the blessing of their constituents, entered into an agreement with Metro and the City of Houston to divert funds from other community improvement projects to ensure that an underpass would be built.
In 2011, Metro board members approved a plan to build that underpass; Mayor Parker said that the city, through revenue from a newly formed TIRZ, would chip in $10 million more to help. After spending $8.6 million on a design that would allow the light rail, cars, and pedestrians all to go under, Metro discovered that soil contamination at the site was much worse than they believed. The contamination, a “plume” of benzene and MTBE, both known carcinogens, is likely the result of a leaky underground tank from a gas station in the ’40s. As the board deliberated, a fear was expressed that the contamination might spread were the soil disturbed by the heavy digging an underpass would require. A second fear, of legal liability, soon followed. Garcia argues that this new information makes an underpass “undesirable and impractical.”
Metro tells us they have found an underground plume or accumulation of gasoline in shallow groundwater that might pose a liability if it moves under adjacent properties due to the construction of the underpass. There is no danger. It is strictly an issue of liability, based on perception alone. . . . The contaminated plume in question occurs only in the eastern half of the underpass excavation zone, and at most is only 2 feet thick. Contaminated soil thus makes up only about 10 percent of the total volume of the area to be excavated. This amount is not a deal-breaker for the excavation.
Metro says it’s bad. Parker says it isn’t. Last week, Bernard Murphy, a transportation engineer, argued that the contamination is “no big deal.” Alan Atkinson, an East End real estate developer, argued that it is. The problem, it seems, is that we don’t really know whether it is or isn’t. What we do know, now, is that Metro isn’t willing to risk finding out. That, plus the added cost of an underpass, swayed the board members to favor the cheaper, faster option.
The overwhelming sentiment, Garcia says, is that the line needs to be finished. “We want to get out of the way,” he told me. Still, he’s sensitive to aesthetics: “We don’t want a big thing going over. It could look like a freeway, it could look intrusive, it could be very loud,” he says. “And if you go over, you’re not going to have access to all the businesses. Metro doesn’t want that; if you don’t have street driving, then you would have to exit early or circle all the way around. [Obviously,] the business community didn’t want an overpass that would bypass the businesses.”
The plan Garcia and his board are considering would have two traffic lanes and pedestrian crossing at grade, with two lanes, sidewalks, and the light rail going over. That is estimated to cost as much as $43 million. An underpass, in comparison, could have cost as much as $68 million, Metro estimates, and would have required 42 months — almost four more years — of work.
I’m interested in all this for a few reasons. I grew up in a small railroad town in northeastern Indiana. (The town is named, in fact, for the former president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.) A set of tracks split our rural town in two. On one side was the school, churches, ball diamonds, pool. On the other was the golf course, drive-in theater, an ice cream shop. For years, the only way across was at grade. As the trains groaned and scraped to switch tracks several times a day for 15, 20, 30 minutes at a time, you’d be stuck. There was no way around it. Kids would arrive late to school, parents late to work; school buses and emergency vehicles would be held up. It went on like that for years. In the late ’90s, Mayor Herb Kleeman rallied taxpayers to support an underpass. It remains the largest infrastructural project the town has undertaken in my lifetime. There was even a ribbon-cutting ceremony. I don’t know and wouldn’t say that the underpass “united” the community, but it made a lot of people’s lives easier, and it didn’t disrupt the scale of our town. An overpass would have dwarfed the two- and three-story buildings on our little main street, and it would have been one of the tallest structures, save our water tower, around.
There’s no question that it’s cheaper, easier, and faster to go over. Plus, a million dollars is nothing to sneeze at, Garcia explained during the board meeting. Even $1 million would pay for two new buses. Or 80 new pavilions to provide shade and seats at stops. Garcia avowed that this overpass would be “special,” to use his word. “We want to work with some of the [Houston] Arts Alliance people and create some murals or art work and avoid the ‘concrete look,’” he told me. Christof Spieler, a board member who was originally in favor of the underpass but ended up writing a letter of support for the overpass, imagines landscaping and art integrated into the design. (Parker told me, though, that he’s asked Garcia for years to show him a single example of a “special” underpass. Garcia hasn’t.)
Is the cheapest, easiest, and fastest thing the best thing? Or the right thing? It’s a difficult arithmetic, for sure. But I can’t help feeling that the East End got the short end of the stick on this one; it’s as though that neighborhood has been tabbed to suffer from miscalculations and mistakes that were made in other neighborhoods. (That flopped Central Station design competition comes to mind.) Tory Gattis wrote that it might make even more sense for Metro to wait now, to cap the East End Line at Altic Street until the money is there to perform soil remediation, clean up the site, and build the underpass. Of course, you’d lose — for the next few years, anyway — the crucial hub that is the Magnolia Transit Center, but you’d gain a win for the environment and the possibility that that neighborhood remain not only scaled to people but also appealing to business owners.
Maybe Garcia has a slideshow of “special” light rail overpasses he’ll reveal in the next month or so. (A Google search isn’t particularly encouraging.) What I’d hate to see is anything like the overpass on Navigation Boulevard just two blocks north. That area is more industrial than Harrisburg, of course. But the overpass is still nasty. It’s dead space. Its underbelly isn’t good for much but storing some back-up concrete bumpers and pie tins of cat food for strays. Though it does keep the weeds, crooked bollards, and trash nice and cool. Let’s hope that this isn’t what Garcia and the Metro board have in mind: