What to do with an old rail corridor in the Heights

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Residents in the Heights are concerned that a toll road is coming soon to an old rail line, according to this Houston Press story:

For years, residents in the Houston Heights have been pushing to build a bike trail along an abandoned rail line, connecting their historic neighborhood with the heart of downtown. Last week, many of them learned that Harris County bureaucrats have been discussing plans of their own for the route: a toll road.

Excerpts from a letter to this effect, written by Mike Strech, director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority, were pinging around the Internet last week, inspiring confessions of fear and outrage from bicyclists and soccer moms.


Harris County Commissioners Court oversees the toll road authority. In August, commissioners voted unanimously to authorize the authority to begin negotiations to purchase the rail corridor.

Yet County Judge Robert Eckels, who is closely involved in transportation planning, says that siting a toll road along the rail bed would be very unlikely. “I’m not going to say it’s impossible,” he says. “Somebody could come along in 20 years and do it, but it’s not on my plans. I cannot foresee the need for a toll road.”

He says the commissioners are seeking the property, which soon will go up for sale, to keep it open for future public use. The toll road authority was the agency of choice to acquire it, he adds, because it has sufficient funds on hand to pay for the land.

Even so, that assurance has done little to quell neighborhood fears. A toll road could serve as a traffic-bristling concrete barrier, bisecting historic Heights Boulevard and assorted enclaves of one of Houston’s oldest and most established communities.


In the plans, TxDOT has required the city to place the trail along the edge of the corridor, to leave space for other uses. One possibility would be the spur near Shepherd Drive outlined in the toll study. Metro also has considered running light rail down the corridor and then cutting south along Yale Street to link up with a possible Washington Avenue line.

Who can blame the residents for not wanting a toll road bisecting their neighborhood? And all of us have enough experience with government to know that when government says don’t worry, then it is time to worry.

The Chronicle has an editorial on this subject today (the only place I saw the Chronicle previously mention this story was last week in the regional This Week section for the Heights area) where the editors bemoan the possible plan to build a toll road. The editors would like the space to be turned into a hike and bike trail, which sounds swell, except for that bolded part above from the Press story, about Metro wanting to use the old rail corridor for a light rail line. The editors don’t mention the idea and since the Chronicle is extremely pro-light rail, I’ll be curious to see which side the editors take on the issue.

Also, the Chronicle‘s This Week story never mentions Metro’s interest in the rail corridor, while the Press story mentions it twice. Interesting omission on the part of the Chronicle, or maybe it was a problem of not-so-thorough reporting.

Here is the Chronicle editorial in full (since that paper doesn’t archive editorials):

Freight trains once rumbled along the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad line through otherwise sedentary Heights neighborhoods just northwest of downtown, rattling picturesque Victorian homes and sending lonesome wails into the night. Now the tracks are gone, and the typical sounds along the route are the chatter of an occasional pair of hikers, the barks of walked dogs, and the shrieks of blue jays in overhanging oaks. Although the vacant gravel pathway is unimproved, it’s already, by default, becoming a recreational resource for the adjoining neighborhoods.

That’s why the action of Harris County Commissioners Court last summer to allow the county toll road authority to negotiate with the state to purchase the rail line right of way as a possible toll route is belatedly stirring community protests. The Heights is already bounded on the south and north by the concrete rivers of Interstate 10 and the North 610 Loop. Yet it is still one of the few inner-city areas where one can sit on a quiet night in a backyard or on a front porch without hearing the muffled hum of freeway traffic. Just when longtime residents had almost forgotten those pre-dawn, insomnia inducing locomotive horns, another and more disruptive threat is on the horizon.

The idea of building a toll road spur just north of the burgeoning residential and entertainment zone along White Oak appalls area residents and shopkeepers. Heights resident Mike Branda told the Chronicle’s Tom Manning that such a project “would isolate and destroy the blocks near that toll road and turn it into a no man’s land. … The interstate system has already chopped off part of the Heights and this would splinter it.”

The purpose of a new toll road would be to provide suburban commuters quicker access in and out of downtown by adding lanes to Highway 290 that could then divert traffic through a spur in the Heights. Does it really make sense to damage the quality of life in inner-city areas where residents have chosen to raise their families so someone who lives in the suburbs can shave a few minutes off their drive-time? What is the purpose of the city’s new mass transit strategy if not to reduce the volume of cars coming into the city?

This is the toll road version of folk singer Joni Mitchell’s famous lyric: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

District H Councilman Adrian Garcia says such a toll road would “wreak havoc” in the area. He also believes citizen groups should have been consulted before the county approved negotiations to take over the rail line.

Harris County Toll Road Authority spokeswoman Patricia Friese claims the hubbub over the possible use of the former rail line as a toll road is “premature.” Yet she also admits that if her agency gets the property, it would likely build the road. “The worst-case scenario,” comments Friese, “is that you’ll have a toll road instead of a rail line.”

That ignores the reality that the rail line is long gone. The city shouldn’t sit back and allow a worst-case scenario to unfold in the Heights.

The administration of Mayor Bill White is working hard to create green space and a major park downtown. In the same spirit, it should get the city into the bidding for the rail line. Why not create a best-case scenario and build a much-needed hike-and-bike trail that enhances rather than blights a historic neighborhood.

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Anne Linehan is a co-founder of blogHOUSTON.