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Q&A: LIGHT RAIL PLAN / Now, some concerns are addressed

RAD SALLEE Staff

Mon 09/03/2007 Houston Chronicle, Section B, Page 2, 3 STAR Edition

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Some of the more than 80 speakers at a public hearing on the planned University light rail line last week posed questions for Metropolitan Transit Authority vice president John Sedlak and Metro board members Jim Stewart and Burt Ballanfant.

Sedlak replied that because of the hearing format and limited time, Metro would not be able to respond. But he told the audience that their questions and concerns would be addressed in preparing a Final Environmental Impact Statement on the line.

After the meeting, Metro agreed residents deserve answers before that document is released next year. Five questions from various speakers were paraphrased, and Metro officials sent prepared responses:

Q: Sam Akers said the Richmond Avenue median has a storm sewer, water line and gas line under it. He asked what Metro planned to do with these and whether Metro had figured the cost of relocating them in its project cost estimates.

A: Currently, Metro is not planning on relocating any utilities beneath the guideway, except those that are in conflict with the guideway construction requirements.

Where a utility directly conflicts with the guideway, these utilities will be adjusted and/or relocated. An allowance for this work was included in all estimates. No allowance was included in the estimates for relocating utilities unaffected by Metro.

Q: Christof Spieler and Daphne Scarbrough asked why plans do not show a station serving the densely populated and largely Hispanic Gulfton area. Instead, tracks along Westpark are shown running directly from South Rice to the Hillcroft Transit Center.

A: The original thought was that outside Loop 610 and the South Rice station we would operate more of an express service, stopping only at existing facilities which are along the right of way and have parking.

However, because we've heard this concern and understand the rationale, we are currently examining possible locations for a station in the Gulfton area. This possible additional station would be included in the Final EIS.

Q: Three and a half years after MetroRail began running, stoplights along the Red Line still are a problem, with lengthy waits for motorists and pedestrians when no trains or cars are approaching.

Joan Morgenstern and John Douglass expressed concern about similar delays on Richmond at Shepherd, Kirby, Buffalo Speedway, Dunlavy and Mandell, with traffic backing up onto neighborhood streets. How will you prevent that happening on Richmond?

A: The Red Line intersections from Pierce to Montrose go to an all-red phase when the train gets its "go" bar signal. This all-red signal phasing was developed due to the number of drivers that disregarded the "no left turn" signs when the train first began service. Metro, with the city's concurrence, implemented this all-red phasing in March 2004.

Can this be changed? Later this year, Metro is having a traffic engineering firm evaluate all the signal operations on the Red Line to make improvements, so the answer to that question is "maybe." We have to wait on the recommendations. Metro doesn't want to compromise safety.

Traffic signals on Richmond will be different in two significant ways. First, left turns at signalized intersections will be allowed during a protected left turn phase (the left turn signals will be red all other times).

The light rail train can get its "go" signal when straight-through traffic on Richmond has a green signal, which is much less disruptive than all-red phasing.

Second, all approaches to the intersection will have traffic detection, so that the intersection controller can change its operation in response to demand.

Q: Would the train really be blowing for crossings at 4:15 a.m. through residential neighborhoods, as Bill Spitz fears? What are the rules that Metro has to follow for use of the horn and other warning sounds?

A: If the crossing is gated, the trains are required to utilize their whistle for low-speed crossings and horns for high-speed (40 mph or higher) crossings. Other warning devices such as bells are utilized only while entering and exiting a station.

If the route lies in a freight rail "Quiet Zone," the same rules governing freight may apply to Metro as well. Where this has been an issue for the Red Line, Metro made adjustments to whistle hours for a high rise in the Museum District to lessen noise while preserving safety.

Editor's note: The only quiet zone on the proposed route is where its Westpark segment crosses the Union Pacific track near Newcastle, although the city may designate others later.

Q: Weston Mikulich asked why the route had not been put on Westheimer instead of Richmond. It is the densest commercial street in that end of town, starting with the "strip" and continuing through Highland Village and the Galleria. He noted that it also is the street with the worst parking problems and the greatest need for relief from vehicles.

A: Westheimer was suggested during early "scoping" meetings on the project but was eliminated from the short list because it did not fully meet the purpose and need of the project.

While Westheimer may have great potential for riders from Weslayan westward, it does not connect all the activity centers inside the loop (Greenway Plaza, University of St. Thomas, Texas Southern University).

Westheimer is also narrower and has tight curves east of Shepherd. Finally, opportunities to get to the Westpark right of way for future express service become much more complicated if the alignment is on Westheimer.

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