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Houston Breaks Ground for First Light Rail Line

Special Report by Light Rail Progress

At long last, and by overcoming a concerted effort by far-right extremists to stop it, construction of Houston's first light rail transit (LRT) line was launched on Tuesday 13 March 2001.

Houston Chronicle reporter Rad Sallee covered the groundbreaking on that day in a story titled "Gold spikes mark start of rail line – Metro officials, politicians at groundbreaking ceremony".

Referring mainly to the efforts of Road Warrior emeritus US Rep. Tom DeLay to thwart the project, Sallee noted that "After years of often contentious debate, millions of dollars spent on feasibility studies, and legal and legislative wrangling that reached as far as the U.S. Congress, construction started Tuesday on Houston's first light rail line."
Rad Sallee, Houston Chronicle 2001/03/13

After DeLay's authoritarian efforts from Washington failed, rightwing anti-rail forces, led by Houston City Councilman Rob Todd and backed by the far-right San Antonio-based Texas Justice Foundation (TCJ), launched a lawsuit which claimed that the public transit authority was a "private business" and therefore subject to Houston City Charter provisions regulating business use of Houston streets. Sympathetic judges granted injunctions, stopping the project and adding about $3 million to the total cost – but on 9 March 2001, an appeals court overruled and threw out the remaining injunction. The lawsuit must still go to trial.

That's the background to which Sallee alludes when he reports that "... neither an unresolved lawsuit seeking to stop construction on the line nor a back-row heckler seemed to dampen the spirits of local politicians and Metropolitan Transit Authority officials who came to mark the historic event by driving ceremonial gold-colored spikes into a section of silver-painted track."

"Light rail is on its way to Houston, and I am one ecstatic Metro president" exulted transit authority CEO Shirley DeLibero at the groundbreaking, held at the site of the Houston Metro's planned downtown transit center and administration building located at Main Street and St. Joseph Parkway .
Rad Sallee, Houston Chronicle 2001/03/13

As Sallee reported, joining DeLibero at the ceremony was Houston Mayor Lee Brown, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, Metro chairman Robert Miller, and Spring Valley Mayor Louise Richman, who represented the 14 other cities in Metro's service area.

But the reporter felt compelled to rain on Houston Metro's parade with therequisite snide remark:

Opponents of the 7.5-mile line might find the precious-metal motif of the golden spikes appropriate, in view of the line's $300 million projected cost and almost negligible impact on regional traffic congestion or air pollution.

(So, one wonders, when Houston builds a $300 million highway facility, it's a wise and modest investment, and congestion and air pollution decline significantly?)

Sallee continues:

Supporters cite the benefits of light rail as a relatively clean and quiet substitute for buses along the route, a spur to commercial and residential development there, and an amenity linking such activity centers as downtown, Midtown, Hermann Park, the Texas Medical Center and Rice University, and the Reliant Park/Astrodome complex.

DeLibero referred to a larger vision as she told the crowd, "I see it as a cornerstone to a regional system with possible expansion to both airports as well as the rapidly growing suburban corridors."

Noting the quasi-civil war against light rail being pursued by die-hard opponents, Sallee's report relates that "Despite all the optimism, the tortured history of Houston's rail project was not forgotten amid the hoopla. Last year, U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, blocked $65 million in federal funding for the line and even on the morning of Tuesday's festivities, Metro officials were in court to discuss developments in a lawsuit filed by Houston City Councilman Rob Todd, seeking to force a public referendum on the project."

Metro chairman Miller assured the crowd he was "extending the hand of friendship and conciliation" to opponents of the rail line, adding, "There is much more that unites us than divides us." Miller also noted that the current rail project is only a very tiny part (about 7%) of Metro's budgeted spending for transportation, streets, and other improvements.
Rad Sallee, Houston Chronicle 2001/03/13

Responding to a heckler in the audience who shouted, "I want a vote!" Miller said, "Let's agree to disagree on this one issue, and let's move forward and continue to cooperate on other transportation and transit issues without continuing rancor or bitterness."

As Sallee observes, "Metro had intended to schedule a referendum on the rail line until the county attorney ruled that it would be illegal unless bonded debt was issued." And he reports that in a special meeting earlier that day, Metro's board had approved a resolution stipulating that any future rail extensions "will be submitted for voter approval." Such referendums, according to the resolution, must identify the planned route corridors, the mode of transportation, and the approximate cost, debt, and time involved.

in that meeting, the board also authorized Siemens Transportation Systems Inc. to provide rail cars and the line's power system for $118 million, and awarded contracts to three low-bidder companies to lay the tracks and build the stations for about $115 million: Texas Sterling Construction Co. of Houston, $65 million; Bencon Management of Houston, $13 million; and Beers Construction Co. of Atlanta, $36 million.
Rad Sallee, Houston Chronicle 2001/03/13

Houston is thus taking its first steps into a new era (actually, back to the future, since Houston once had valuable electric railway lines, including the nation's fastest interurban between Houston and Galveston). This will make the city the third in Texas to run a modern LRT system, joining Dallas's acclaimed DART system and Ft. Worth's successful privately owned subway-surface line. it's an exciting new venture that LRT supporters in many other cities will be following with great interest.

Rev. 2001/03/16

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