METRO Meeting Focuses On Proposed Light Rail Tracks On Wheeler Avenue
Representatives from METRO returned last week to the University of Houston specifically to discuss how light rail would impact the southern portion of the campus.
Two proposed light rail lines, the Southeast and University lines, will respectively connect the campus with downtown and the Galleria area. During a standing-room-only community meeting for faculty, staff and students at the UH Hilton, METRO officials concentrated on the Southeast Corridor's route along Wheeler Avenue.
"UH is excited about being a partner with METRO, and we want to be a good partner," said UH System Regent Carol Robertson Ray. "We just want to come up with a plan that both METRO and UH can appreciate and is good for both the city and university."
According to METRO’s current plan, a city of Houston proposal would widen Wheeler Avenue. The added rail line would run east and west along this expanded street. This particular stretch of tracks would affect access areas to parking lots, the UH Childcare Center, student residence halls, Justin Dart, Jr. Center for Students with DisAbilities and UH Health Center.
Jose Enriquez, project engineer for the Southeast Corridor, presented slides illustrating how the route would affect traffic along Wheeler. He also answered questions from the faculty, staff and students in attendance. Of particular concern to the faculty, staff and students in attendance was the distance of the rail to the UH Childcare Center. The current draft of the plan indicates that the rail will eliminate the center’s existing outdoor playground area and would be 20-30 feet away from the Childcare Center facilities.
"Do you think that’s safe for children?" asked Sherry Howard, director of the UH Childcare Center.
Enriquez responded that he did think it was safe and that the trains would not pose sound or vibration disruptions to the center or the children.
"Their safety is extremely important," he said. "We have a staff dedicated to educating children on the rail, and we have many outreach efforts focused toward children and light rail. We work very hard at that."
Access to parking and campus entrances also presented the campus community with concerns. Rebecca Szwarc, administrative assistant with UH’s Department of Residence Life and Housing, asked how faculty, staff and students who park in lot 9C off Wheeler Avenue would be able to cross the tracks.
Enriquez explained that METRO will install a High-intensity Activated crossWalk (HAWK) pedestrian crossing system that will be included in the construction of the rail line. The HAWK crossing system is used in school zones and other areas with high pedestrian traffic across the country. Pedestrians control the system themselves by pressing a button to activate the flashing stop lights.
Alan Russell, assistant director for the Center for Students with DisAbilities (CSD), expressed concern that entrance 6C (leading to the CSD and Health Center) would be blocked off once the rail line was complete. The current rail plan reflects that entrance 6C would be closed off once the project is complete. Enriquez said that the entrance could remain open.
"We can go back, look at the plan and look at the viability of keeping this entrance accessible,"Enriquez said.
Mark Clarke, UH Faculty Senate president and associate professor of health and human performance, asked those in attendance if they felt that the accessibility of entrance 6 was important.
"I think it’s fair to say that because the Student Health Center and Center for Students with DisAbilities are located at entrance 6, that’s something we’d like to look at," Clarke said. "Would that be a fair comment?"
At this point, the audience applauded unanimously. Included on the plan’s diagram is a multi-modal center in lot 1A outside of Moody Towers. This facility would provide access to the light rail, METRO buses as well as campus shuttles. It also would serve as a parking garage.
Carl Carlucci, vice president for administration and finance, said that UH has requested federal funding for this campus enhancement. When asked about the multi-modal center’s impact on campus parking, he replied that parking facilities are being planned including a garage that will be located next to Robertson Stadium.
"Most importantly, let’s try to encourage new freshmen to take METRO," he said to a round of applause.
The campus community can learn more about the planned METRO rail lines by visiting GoMETORail.org and at twitter.com/METRORailSE.