Transmission right-of-ways could be used for recreation

Jun. 25, 2014Memorial Examiner

Hikers and bikers in Houston and Harris County may soon be using trails built on those long ribbons of green underneath electrical transmission towers.

A bill passed during the 83rd Legislature allows entities to negotiate with CenterPoint Energy to build and maintain trails in the corridors’ right-of-way. The bill also limits CenterPoint’s liability in suits arising from trail users.

“It’s a permissive bill” in that it allows the agreements to happen, said state Rep. Jim Murphy (R-133), the bill’s author. “(The bill) doesn’t say you have to,” adding that not all corridors are suitable for trails.

CenterPoint maintains more than 900 miles of right-of-way in Harris County but estimates that only about 140 miles of that would be suitable for recreational use.

Murphy said the bill does not remove CenterPoint from all liability, and does not extend protections for trail users to trespassers.

Murphy, general manager of the Westchase Management District in West Houston, is currently negotiating an agreement with CenterPoint for use of its right-of-way in a north-south transmission corridor between Westheimer and Richmond.

That trail will connect with the district’s Library Loop trail that runs east-west between Wilcrest and Rogerdale, which will ultimately connect with a north-south trail to Art Storey Park at Bellaire Boulevard.

When all is built, “you can go off-road from Westheimer to Bellaire (Boulevard),” said Murphy.

State Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-138) is an enthusiastic supporter of the bill and its possibilites in the Spring Branch area.

He said he and neighborhood groups are “brainstorming” about what trails and recreational uses wold look like along the corridors.

“We’re dreaming big,” he said. Harris County maintains a trail in a corridor east of Gessner near the Spring Shadows neighborhood, and advocates are looking at extending that west of Gessner, he said. The Spring Shadow neighborhood is also looking at amenities beyond trails.

The city of Houston earlier this month approved an ordinance that allows negotiations with CenterPoint to extend its Bayou Greenways Initiative. The first agreement will allow a trail to be built along Brays Bayou near the University of Houston.

Murphy said he first looked at using the corridors when the Westchase District was building its master plan in 2003, who was first elected as state representative in 2006.

“We said ‘wouldn’t (using the corridors) be great? Why can’t we do that?’” said Murphy. “CenterPoint said ‘we’ll work with you, but you’ll have to change state law’.”

CenterPoint wanted to limit its liability in the case of trail users, and trail users have protections as well, Murphy said.

Watching the bill languish in committee over several sessions, Murphy said he was approached by state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), who told him it was a good bill and that he’d help him get it passed.

Ellis brought the state’s trial lawyers, who didn’t want to lose the right to sue, to the table and hammered out an agreement.

“The bill wouldn’t have happened without Rodney,” said Murphy.

Murphy said he was surprised by objections to the recreational use of corridors by some residents whose homes back up to a north-south corridor along Wycliffe between Memorial Drive and Westheimer in West Houston.

That corridor was one of many identified as a possible spine trail in the West Houston Master Trails Plan, completed by the Energy Corridor District in 2011.

Those objections included safety and crime concerns from the increased traffic if a trail was built, and how obstacles such as major street crossings might be executed.

Murphy said he knew of no plans to build in that corridor and that any trails would be considered on a “case-by-case” basis.

“Not all corridors will be suitable for trails,” he said. “(Advocates) will have to work with all entities.”

Murphy said he heard similar objections 30 years ago when the West Houston Association and other groups were beginning the Green Ribbon project to build hike and bike trails along Buffalo Bayou.

“Ask any real estate person who works that area now,” he said, “and they’ll tell you it’s an amenity.”