Ghost Riders: Easy Come, Easy No

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Bruce Blackwell, a retiree now living in Friendswood, misses his old neighborhood in suburban Chicago, not least because of the Prairie Path. Blackwell estimates that the monster bike path — built on the old Interurban Electric railroad track, power line easements, the banks of the Fox River, and the old Illinois-Michigan Canal — runs about 100 miles. "From my house in Warrenville, I could take it almost all the way into downtown Chicago," he says. "You could go so far and not have to see a single automobile. There was a real, real good quality of life in my neighborhood. I was not happy moving away, but life goes on."

Blackwell saw that there are plenty of abandoned railroad tracks and power line easements in the Houston area, too. He goes to Kemah often, and says he would enjoy biking the 11 miles, but fears he wouldn't survive the trip. "I'm not gonna ride down NASA Road 1 with all the space cadets from NASA rolling down the street thinking about stuff like, 'Let's see, what's the half-life of Carbon-14?,'" he says. "So you know, I thought why the hell don't we have our own Prairie Path here? There's abandoned railroad tracks from Seabrook to Galveston there along 146. There are power line easements everywhere, so why not?"

The answer, at least as far as the power line easements go, is CenterPoint Energy. Citing liability issues, its corporate policy bans the use of its easements for "recreational purposes," including bike paths, not to mention soccer and lacrosse leagues, both of which have eyed Houston easements covetously in recent years. (CenterPoint does allow bike paths to cross its easements, but nothing more than that.) In response to an inquiry from the Houston Press, the company issued the following statement through a spokeswoman: "In order to consider changing the current company policy, CNP would require very clear assurance in the form of new legislation that CNP will not be exposed to liability for personal injury or property damages by making its property available for public recreational use."

CenterPoint might just be prodded in that direction. This June, according to City of Houston Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator Dan Raine, Governor Rick Perry signed a bill into law granting power companies immunity from liability. Since that is evidently not yet assurance enough, BikeHouston's Woody Speer thinks a few more carrots — say the awarding of green tax credits to CenterPoint for the environmental value of increasing bicycle transport — may be in order.

"It's a good idea, but it's one of those things that will probably take about five years to get done," Speer says.

Encouraged by Speer and others in BikeHouston, Blackwell drafted a letter to CenterPoint under BikeHouston's letterhead urging the power company to reconsider. Blackwell sang the praises of the Prairie Path and pointed out Greater Houston's potential as an ideal site for a similar bikeway. He sent the letter to several BikeHouston members, who offered corrections and suggestions, and seemed on his way to becoming the rabble-rouser Speer hoped could invest the time to enact the change.

And then Blackwell decided to shelve the letter. He came to the conclusion that sending it wasn't worth the effort. "I spent my career with Amoco, and in my experience with big companies, I came to realize that most of them don't allow these kinds of things because they just aren't aware that it would be a good thing and in their interest," he says.

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