Kyle Shelton | @KyleKShelton | May 26, 2015
METRO’s Green Line began service this weekend in Houston’s East End. But if the community hadn’t demanded better service 40 years ago, it might not have the transit line it now enjoys.
For much of the past century, East End communities have confronted serious mobility barriers, despite their proximity to downtown. This is especially true in the historically Mexican-American neighborhoods of the Second Ward, Magnolia Park, Harrisburg, and Manchester, which sit close to the Houston Ship Channel and house many of the city’s current and former industrial and manufacturing facilities.
The working- and middle-class Mexican-American residents of the East End lacked political power in Houston prior to the 1960s and 1970s and their communities received little in the way of public resources.
Among those limited resources was a lack transit options once the streetcars on Harrisburg Boulevard and Navigation Boulevard, the community’s two main corridors, were removed prior to World War II. The private bus companies that sought to fill the void ran few and infrequent routes to the East End. Connecting to the rest of Houston from the East End – especially for those without a car – was a challenge.
At the same time, the community’s proximity to the Port of Houston and the Ship Channel meant that truck and freight train traffic dominated local streets and crisscrossed the area. Roads crumbled under the weight of semi-trucks, fumes from idling vehicles filled the air, freight trains blocked intersections for hours at a time, and both systems made life for pedestrians stressful.
Fighting a highway
During the 1960s and 1970s, as one aspect of a broader push for political, social, and economic rights, Mexican-American residents in the East End routinely spoke before the Houston City Council to complain about the adverse toll this heavy traffic took on their neighborhoods. Their predominately white neighbors in Lawndale and Eastwood, two communities within the East End, often joined to express the same grievances.
Instead of listening to community concerns, however, the City of Houston and the Texas Highway Department aimed to broaden the area’s use as an industrial traffic corridor with plans to build the Harrisburg Freeway, an extension of State Highway 225, through the heart of the East End.
This road was not the form of improved transportation that residents had in mind.
The Mexican-American community’s consistent resistance – through independent planning efforts, community protests, and the use of administrative technicalities to stall the project – combined with a state-level budget crunch to halt the road plan by the mid-1970s.
The highway fight in the East End was a major marker of the growing political power of Mexican-American Houstonians. It also demonstrated to local officials that East Enders cared a great deal about the integrity of their community, how they traveled within their neighborhoods, and how they connected to the city at-large.
Community journalist Maggie Landron, writing in the Spanish-language paper Papel Chicano in 1970, argued that many East End residents resisted the highway because they were “fed up choking on our own exhaust fumes; fed up looking at cement ribbons crisscrossing our cities; fed up with homes and people being destroyed to build more and more freeways; and fed up with others determining what is good for us.”
Landron’s words and the highway protest of East Enders reverberated in subsequent mass transit debates, where the city’s Mexican-American population, concentrated heavily in the East End, represented linchpin voting blocs.
When city officials first floated the idea of creating a public rapid transit authority in 1973, East Enders argued that initial plans neglected their communities. Further, the majority of the city’s Mexican-American and African-American residents doubted city promises that service to minority communities would be on-par with that to white areas. Given the city’s track record with earlier promises of parity, their doubts had merit.
City officials mostly ignored those concerns. Because the proposed agency, which would collect an emissions tax from each county driver to fund a mass transit system, had the backing of the city’s business community, officials felt confident that the initiative would succeed. But the vote dispelled the long-held notion in Houston politics that what business said went. African-American, Mexican-American, and white suburban voters overwhelmingly rejected the transit authority proposal, as they believed they’d derive little benefit from the plans.
City leaders learned their lesson. During their next attempt, they paid more attention to all three constituencies. From the first days of the 1978 campaign to create METRO, city leaders cultivated the approval of the East End’s Mexican-American voting bloc. Local entrepreneur and community leader Ninfa Laurenzo – a Houston legend who established a famous Tex-Mex restaurant in the area – was named to the authority’s interim board and worked diligently to convince voters of the project’s merits.
A new approach
METRO committed to serving minority neighborhoods, promised to employ minority Houstonians within the agency, and set aside a percentage of construction and maintenance contracts for minority-owned businesses. The transit authority also set an important precedent by holding exhaustive public feedback and informational sessions ahead of the vote.
The push paid off. This time, the city’s Mexican-Americans joined the majority of other voters to support the agency’s creation. Since METRO’s inception, East Enders have continued to push the agency to fulfill its promise to bring effective transit to the community.
Nowhere has this pressure – or its limitations – been more obvious than during the debate around the building of the Green Line, which opened this weekend in the heart of the East End.
METRO and city officials incorporated citizen input into Green Line plans more than they did with any previous project in the community. Despite those efforts, the process still hit snags.
In 2003, METRO officials unveiled METRO Solutions 2025, a long-range transit improvement plan for the region. At its core was an extended light-rail system that would augment the original Main Street Light Rail line, set to open in 2004. In order to implement the plan, METRO needed to win voter approval.
The now-open Green Line appeared on the initial plans, but East End residents, especially those who lived east of where the line would end at the Magnolia Park Transit Center, argued that the line offered to little to their part of the community. They threatened to vote against the referendum if the East End line was not extended to Gulfgate Mall and to Hobby Airport. This pressure resulted in the lengthening of the proposed line in the Solutions referendum.
Several political and financial controversies embroiled METRO between the approval of the plan in 2003 and the beginning of construction on the Green Line in 2008. The issues resulted in the original Solutions plan being significantly cut. The Green Line’s route returned to the original version that terminated at the Magnolia Transit Center. While this change created frustration among East End residents, the fact that any line existed when others were eliminated altogether quieted most critics.
Keeping residents engaged
Despite the system-wide setbacks, METRO worked diligently to keep East End residents engaged once construction began. Two of the agency’s most effective initiatives were the convening of a Citizens Advisory Board to facilitate communication with the communities and the approval of a business assistance fund to help merchants located along the light rail lines during construction. The assistance fund was one of the first of its kind in the nation and was created in response to merchant worries about loss of revenue. With the help of such programs, the agency and community succeeded in smoothly carrying out most of the planning and construction of the line.
These measures couldn’t prevent a conflict from emerging around the question of whether to build an overpass or underpass across the Union Pacific railroad track between Altic Street and the Magnolia Park Transit Center, however.
METRO and the city initially proposed building an overpass. East End community members, led by their representatives on the Citizen Advisory Board pushed for an underpass instead. East End residents argued that an overpass would create an unsightly division in the neighborhood, block commerce and local traffic, and prove difficult for elderly or disable pedestrians to cross. After years of discussion, METRO and the city acceded to citizen demands and agreed to build an underpass.
However, when planning for the underpass began, engineers discovered a large plume of pollution – seepage from the old oil tanks of defunct service stations – in the ground around the construction site. The pollution’s proximity to the proposed underpass made it impossible to build for fearing of spreading the pollution. In July 2014, METRO announced that they would construct the overpass, over community objections.
The choice reignited the earlier conflict and undoubtedly undermined much of METRO’s earlier work with the community. The agency has reengaged with the community in order to shape the overpass, but tension over the choice remains.
A long-term commitment
The six-year overpass/underpass debate reflects how committed East Enders are to influencing decisions about the development of their neighborhoods and echoes the communities’ historic efforts to demand better mobility. However, it also captures the difficulty that public agencies face in their attempts to adequately address all the concerns an involved community raises.
While the line that opened this weekend is incomplete – the overpass is scheduled to be completed by May 2016 – the process to reach this point has been one of the most thorough in METRO’s history. The agency, like many government entities, has come a long way in its engagement with the public during its nearly 40 years of operation. And public pressure, like that applied in the East End, has played a huge role in this maturation.
Despite the advanced engineering and sleek design renderings, transit and transportation projects are inherently messy. They are as much products of social and political debate as they are the result of traffic modeling or financials realities.
How we balance these factors in our decision-making has shifted considerably in the past 40 years as citizens like those in the East End have participated more directly in the process. Opening civic choices to public input leads to conflict, debate, and NIMBYism. It can add years and millions of dollars in costs to projects. But it also reflects what’s best about our modern democracy: the right of all citizens to have their voices heard and their votes counted.
When you take your first Green Line ride, remember that while the ride is smooth and headways are short, the process to get wheels on the tracks was far from easy. Houston is better for the struggle.