(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) As Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority prepares to receive millions of dollars in federal funds for new light rail construction, officials say they're pleased with the progress of three new lines. Those lines will take riders into downtown from the north, east, and southeast sections of the city.
The construction is bringing headaches for local residents and businesses, but Metro officials say they're hoping to keep those problems to a minimum as they build a major component of their mobility plan.
On a recent tour that took reporters on a bumpy van ride down a north side commercial strip, Metro Senior Vice-President David Couch pointed out a busy construction site where crews are preparing to put down rails for the Red Line. It's an extension of the only line currently in operation, which passes through the Medical Center, the Museum District, and downtown. It's one of three projects now underway to expand Houston's light rail.
"What we will have by 2014, is we will have 14 miles of new rail in town. It will be the work that we're getting done on the six-mile southeast line, five miles on the north line, three miles on the east end, and then the existing seven-and-a-half mile starter system."
The work is happening in three phases. First there's the utility work. Then come street and sidewalks improvements. In the final phase crews lay down the tracks.
"We take one particular stretch, do the work on one side, switch to the other side, and maintain access as thoroughly as we possibly can."
Couch says they're doing the work in segments to avoid problems businesses and residents experienced along Main Street, a busy thoroughfare that experienced numerous shutdowns during the construction of the original line 10 years ago.
"If you look at what happens when we get the roadway completed, and we're working only on the tracks in the center, that's minimal effect because we're basically in the configuration that the light rail will be."
But Couch says despite the new construction schedule he knows businesses are inconvenienced. Parking lot access is often difficult as customers have to deal with construction equipment and barricades. Crews have to put up temporary signs and drivers have to navigate over large metal plates used as driveways. Also some customers may avoid the area altogether.
"We have a unique program that we have in place, that is a unique opportunity that has not been done anyplace else that provides assistance as a result of utility interruptions, or a general decrease in revenue, of up to 25-thousand dollars for any individual business."
Some of the rail work is funded with local bond issues and sales taxes earmarked for Metro. The agency will also sign an agreement later this month securing $900 million in federal funds. It's the first time federal money has come to Houston for rail construction.
Metro says the new trains are set to run in early 2014.