Rail fight brewing in east Houston

January 22, 2009 5:16:42 PM PST
Some east Houston residents are in a battle with METRO over plans to expand the light rail into east Houston. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Their problem is not with the light rail itself, but how it will cross a railroad track in their neighborhood. Home and business owners on the east end overwhelmingly want light rail in their neighborhood, but along Harrisburg, there is a problem.

METRO and the city want to build a bridge for the rail to cross over an existing commercial line, but neighbors want to see something else.

Commercial trains criss-cross Harrisburg daily, and from Manuel Pena's used car lot, he barely notices. But a bridge is set to be built over the current tracks has Pena worried.

"I would like the light rail here. If it goes underneath, that would be spectacular," he said. "That would benefit the neighborhood."

Like many business owners along Harrisburg, Pena supports rail, but doesn't want a bridge. Instead, he would like METRO and the city to build a tunnel to carry traffic below the existing commercial tracks. The East End Chamber of Commerce is also pushing for the idea.

"Our children's children will have to live with this overpass that's being designed," said Sylvia Medina with the East End Chamber. "It's massive. It'll be intrusive. It will impact our business."

METRO says it studied that possibility, but it's too pricey.

"We took those into consideration and we did some early conceptual work, and as we assumed, it is quite expensive, almost double the cost if you try to do an underpass as opposed to an overpass," said Karen Marshall with METRO.

Council member James Rodriguez agrees.

"We'd love to see an underpath, but right now, I just don't think we have the money to do so," he said. "We're looking at an $80 million project for an underpath, and I just don't know where we would get that money."

So for now the bridge plan continues on with neighbors like Pena hoping there's still a chance for a tunnel.

"It's frustrating, but what can we do, but just be patient and wait," said Pena.

The city of Houston has committed up to $10 million for the bridge, which could cost up to $40 million to build. METRO's east end rail line is expected to be finished by 2012.

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