For Whom the Hell Tolls

Heights residents fear the toll road authority's new land acquisition plans

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.

Posting to the newsgroup "heightskids," one Woodland Heights woman summed it up this way: "OHMYGOSH!"

Branda says a toll road would devastate his Heights neighborhood.
Patrick Reagan
Branda says a toll road would devastate his Heights neighborhood.

"If the agency were to pursue that, I think they would have a huge battle on their hands," says Barry Reese, a former director of the Houston Bicycle Advisory Committee. "It would destroy the quality of life in that area."

According to the agency's letter, the toll road would run east along the former MKT railroad right-of-way from the West Loop. The route parallels the backyards and front porches of scores of turn-of-the-century bungalows on Seventh Street before it crosses White Oak Bayou to connect with the University of Houston Downtown.

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.

Michael Branda, who lives at Seventh Street and Cortlandt in the Heights, learned of the letter from an attorney. "If they put in a four-lane tollway, it would destroy the neighborhood, not to mention the value of our home and our livelihood," he says. "Unless I became deaf, I guess I'd have to move."

Arrangements with an engineering firm to perform a "toll facility study" along the right-of-way were approved by the county in August. According to a rough map included in the county's agreement with the Dannenbaum Engineering Corporation, the route under study follows the rail corridor east as far as Shepherd Drive and then turns southeast to connect with the Katy Freeway.

According to the toll road authority letter, the eastern portion of the rail corridor, which continues through the center of the Heights, also would make a prime toll road. It says, "…this property would be ideal for the extension of the Old Hempstead Managed Lanes (US 290) project," which will run toll lanes from Grand Parkway as far as the West Loop. Such a route conveniently would allow these commuters to bypass the Loop and I-10 for a straight shot into downtown.

The corridor served the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad through most of the 20th century, enabling the flow of Texas oil and Midwestern grain between Omaha and Galveston. Union Pacific bought the line in 1989 and sold the Houston portion to the Texas Department of Transportation in 1996.

Over the objections of many residents, TxDOT early this year began converting a six-mile stretch of the MKT west of the Loop into additional lanes for a $2.2 billion widening of the Katy Freeway.

The portion of the line that slices though neighborhoods east of the Loop wasn't affected by the project, and remains some of the most valuable transportation real estate in the city. The Metropolitan Transit Authority has expressed interest in the line for a light rail route. But the most detailed plans for the property involve converting it into a bike trail, which would connect with other proposed trails near downtown.

Despite years of planning, the bike project has been far from a certainty. In 1999, the city obtained federal funding for most of the $4.5 million trail, and TxDOT gave its preliminary approval. But the department nearly scrapped the project in 2001 because of the city's lack of action, says Houston Pedestrian-Bicycle Advisory Committee member Jim Mackey. City budget cuts froze the plans in 2003, he says, though they have been moving forward again under Mayor Bill White.

Other urban areas long ago converted abandoned MKT routes into popular trails. In the late 1990s, the state of Missouri completed a 225-mile Katy Trail from Clinton to St. Charles. Dallas built its 2.25-mile Katy Trail into downtown in 2000 and is currently extending it.

In October, Houston submitted a mostly completed MKT trail plan to TxDOT. If the agency approves it, the city could seek bids to build the pathway late next year.

But Teri Kaplan, who handles bicycle matters for TxDOT, says she can't comment on the likely fate of the rail corridor. "I can't speak to whether or not TxDOT has any [other] intentions for that right-of-way at this point in time," she says.

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.

Given the city's interest in the corridor, a bid for the land from the toll road authority might serve only to boost the price. "I have had no discussions with the city on the bike trail," Eckels says, "and they can go negotiate with TxDOT, too."

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