By Houston Chronicle
A long-discussed, fiercely disputed light rail line between the University of Houston and the Uptown area remains shelved for lack of funding, but the project gained an important ally Tuesday in Washington.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, whose district shifted earlier this year to include portions of the area where the planned University Line would run along Richmond Avenue, said door-to-door canvassing by his staffers as well as phone and online responses demonstrate his constituents support the line.
In remarks Tuesday on the House floor, Poe said 604 respondents to a Facebook solicitation supported the rail line, compared to 340 opposed to it.
"We're not saying it is scientific, but it does help let me know what people are thinking," Poe said. "I believe the area I represent wants light rail."
Poe's district includes Richmond from Main Street to Shepherd Drive. The alignment west of Shepherd lies within the district of Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, one of the rail line's most formidable and implacable foes.
Culberson said the line is unaffordable and Metro has told him as much. Further, he said the line voters approved did not include a long segment down Richmond. The 2003 ballot information described the line running along the Westpark corridor.
"If Metro ever gets to the point where they can afford it and they follow the will of the voters, I think then we can talk about this," Culberson said.
16 stations planned
As currently designed, the University Line would stretch from the main UH campus to the Hillcroft Transit Center near the U.S. 59/Westpark Tollway split. The line would run mostly along Alabama Street, Richmond Avenue and Westpark Drive. Construction west of Main Street, where the city's only light rail line operates, would be the first phase.
Sixteen stations are planned along the 10-mile line, which according to earlier estimates will cost $1.3 billion.
Though some early plans received a favorable environmental review by the Federal Transit Administration, Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said the agency's priorities are focused now on opening the three lines under construction and developing bus rapid transit along Post Oak Boulevard.
"We have our hands full," Garcia said, noting that Metro isn't seeking federal funds for the University Line at this time.
Garcia said Poe's encouragement left the door open to securing federal funds, although it might be years before Metro gets to the point of asking for them.
Supporters of the University Line welcomed Poe's support.
"This is an opening and movement to getting something built," said David Crossley, director of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit that advocates for light rail expansion.
Crossley called Poe's support a "wise and important contribution to this very long debate."
That debate hasn't always been supportive of rail, especially along Richmond.
Donna Smith, who lives near Richmond, told Houston planning commissioners on July 19 that plans to designate the street a "transit corridor" to restrict further building close to the street would destroy the area's character. "Our neighborhood is walkable today," she said.
A strong supporter
Other local property owners supported the transit corridor designation. Lawrence Katz, who owns a business along Richmond, told planning commissioners the benefit of rail would outweigh losing some businesses, which will be compensated for the loss.
"I feel badly for small businesses that might go out of business," Katz said. "But we are a major city and we deserve a major transit system."
Those opposed to rail along the route have a strong supporter in Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
According to a recent study by Culberson's office, 81 percent of property owners along Richmond oppose the rail plan, while 17 percent favor it. Two percent were unsure.
Culberson in June inserted a provision into the appropriations bill for transportation, housing and urban development barring the Federal Transit Administration from granting money to any rail project along Richmond west of Shepherd, or along Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond.
He also inserted language in the House version asking for a federal audit of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
"Why are we continuing to have this conversation?" Culberson asked. "Our nation is living on borrowed money and we keep talking about spending more money we don't have."
Poe said he respects Culberson's position, but wants to find a solution so Houston doesn't lose its chance at rail service that many residents want.
"The money is going to come to Houston," Poe said, referring to potential transit grants. "If Houston rejects the money, then it will go somewhere else … Those cities hope we reject it."
Poe said his focus is seeing Houston leaders come to agreement and not allow its transit money to "end up in New York City."
"If Houston can put people on the moon we can figure out where to put eight miles of light rail," Poe said.