About a year and a half ago, as a sidebar to an article we wrote on the perils of urban cycling here in Houston, we cast our battle-tested, road-weary eyes longingly toward the possibility of CenterPoint Energy surrendering their scores of miles of utility easements for use as hike/bike trails. (Click here for a map.)
Then as now, liability was the big sticking point. When cyclists started taking their inevitable tumbles, CenterPoint did not want to be set upon by hordes of wanna-be Jim Adlers, nor serve as an anvil for every two-bit Texas Hammer in town.
That could change very soon, according to local attorney Tom McCasland. He says two identical bills (SB 1793 and HB 3802) are working their way through each chamber of the Texas Legislature that would give CenterPoint protection from personal injury lawsuits and give Houstonians a gargantuan boost to the Bikeways program.
McCasland, who says he is spending about 80 percent of his time these days advocating for this cause pro bono, says the benefits of such a plan would be threefold:
The first is economic. Up to now, the Bikeways trails have been cobbled together piecemeal in a time-consuming, expensive process of land-gathering and permission-obtaining. Property owners are sometimes hard to track down and/or persuade. Numerous agencies have to sign off on every little addition. By contrast, this would free up potential pathways all over Houston, wherever high-tension wires are strung, in one fell swoop with minimal red tape and expense. "The only costs would be construction and maintenance of the trails and insurance," McCasland says.
The second benefit would come with the increased health of a more-frequently exercising populace and the safety and well-being of that same citizenry. Getting cyclists and pedestrians off the roads and into their own turf would likely increase the number of people willing to ride here and also protect them from the careless and occasionally downright malicious depredations of our mechanized fellow Houstonians.
The third is geographical. Much of Houston's existing Bikeways program follows the bayous as they meander more or less east or west. North-south conduits are rare. Add in the CenterPoint easements, and suddenly you've got a giant citywide waffle iron. McCaslan points out that five of the easements run north-south, including one that would run from deep south Stella Link through West U and Bellaire, the Galleria area, Memorial Park, the Washington Corridor/Heights area and points north. Some of the potential easement trails could connect as many as five existing or proposed east-west bike paths.
"These trails would make it very possible to go almost anywhere in the city along bike paths most of the way, and then you could get off and take backways as you got closer to where you were going," says McCasland.
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On the campaign's Facebook page, McCasland is showing off letters of support from neighborhood associations, politicians, the Houston Parks Board and Bike Houston. McCasland says that real estate developers and utility districts have also signed on to the campaign.
About the only opponents McCasland says his campaign has faced are trial attorneys, who would apparently hate to see an expanded Bikeways program that was pretty much free of their peculiar form of taxation. McCasland says it doesn't sit well with them that should this legislation become law, any accidents that took place on these trails would be viewed as having taken place in a city park. It's very hard for lawyers to win big cash awards suing parks as opposed to private landowners, he says.
Not to bash all trial attorneys in all circumstances. They are occasionally, indeed often unintentionally, on the side of the angels, as long as those angels have fat sacks of cash under their wings. Not this time.
McCasland says that anyone who dreams of Houston having the nation's best hike-and-bike trails should call or write their elected representatives in support of HB 3802 and SB 1793 and like the legislation's Facebook page.