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East End light rail expansion brings 'sense of relief' after construction

Article published by Houston Chronicle, Lindsay Ellis, January 22, 2017

A Sunday ribbon-cutting event for a $30 million overpass at Harrisburg Boulevard marked a celebratory days for East End businesses and residents who have endured years of construction woes during Houston’s $2.2 billion Metro rail expansion.

Officials said they were excited and relieved to celebrate the last mile of the Green Line, which comes after years of political and construction setbacks complete with traffic detours that annoyed residents and beleaguered local shops in the neighborhoods east of downtown.

Metropolitan Transit Authority chairwoman Carrin Patman said the agency’s next step will be a $50,000 marketing campaign to show that the “East End is open for business.”

“This is our Super Bowl right here,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “As goes the East End, so will go the City of Houston.”

The neighborhood has waited for years for the expanded light rail to open after more than a decade of conversations about the importance of a rail line. But over the course of the project, residents have complained about lackluster community outreach and slow construction progress.

The overpass opened to vehicle traffic in July and began rail service on Jan. 11, though the bulk of the Green Line opened more than a year prior.

“It was a headache, but now it’s a lot less stressful,” said Efrain Bueno, a 23-year-old mechanic who lives near the overpass. He said family members have used the Green Line to commute and to spend time with their children elsewhere in the city, like Discovery Green.

‘Nightmare’ congestion

Still, he said, he worries about how the developed area will handle heavy rains and flooding going forward.

Changed traffic patterns are also frustrating for local residents. The construction was a “nightmare” for congestion, one man said as he took a break from mowing the lawn on Sunday. Blocks were closed, and he couldn’t park on his own street.

Diane Shenke, president of the Greater East End Management District, said that “there is a sense of relief – it’s been very difficult for the local businesses.”

Still, she said, “Some of them I’ve talked with have already seen an upside.”

That’s been the case for the Harrisburg Pawn Shop, said Paula Sauceda, a 29-year-old employee who’s worked at the store for several years.

“A lot of our customers don’t have transportation that would allow them to get to us,” she said, waiting on line to buy blueberry ice cream after the speeches concluded.

‘A good service’

Just this week, she said, a regular customer took the Green Line to the pawn shop and made a payment. She’s hopeful more customers will come back.

At Sunday’s kickoff event, tables promoted East End cultural venues, parks and restaurants as a high school mariachi band sang and played tight harmonies. Every few minutes, the overpass would rumble slightly, urging the many dozens of attendees to look up.

One Green Line passenger on Sunday was Peter Garcia, 78, who waited at the Lockwood/Eastwood stop with a metal cane.

Garcia, who is retired, takes Metro’s light rail and bus to Ben Taub hospital several times a week, he said. He took the Green Line to the nearby CVS Pharmacy to pick up medication on Sunday.

“It’s a good service,” he said, sitting on a clean bench as he waited for the eastbound train to arrive.

Article published by Houston Chronicle, Lindsay Ellis, January 22, 2017

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