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Long road to rail in Houston will finally end

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Metro celebrates its 25th birthday this week in majestic style, unveiling the first piece of Houston's light rail system on New Year's Day.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has pushed for rail since its founding Jan. 1, 1979. Voters had endorsed the idea in 1978 as part of the referendum authorizing Metro's creation and a penny sales tax to fund mass transit. But political squabbles and funding problems stalled rail plans for two decades, leaving Houston the last major metropolitan area in the United States without transit trains.

That distinction ends Thursday when Mayor Lee Brown cuts the ribbon for the grand opening of the 7 1/2-mile Main Street light rail line. Brown supported rail during his first campaign for mayor six years ago and instructed his Metro board appointees to dust off train plans in 1998. The mayor has been widely credited as the force that finally has brought rail transit to the nation's fourth most populous city. Construction crews labored on an expedited schedule to complete the line 10 months early so a term-limited Brown could ride the first train carrying passengers out of the station on his last day in office.

Metro brags it has built light rail faster than any other transit system in the nation and that its $324 million project -- paid for entirely with local funds after Congress blocked federal dollars -- has come in on budget. It envisions the Main Street line as the backbone for an eventual 80-mile rail network that voters approved Nov. 4.

Trolleys last ran along Houston streets in 1940, and the tracks were torn out in favor of buses and private automobiles. But the city's rapid growth and sprawl has brought nasty traffic snarls outside Loop 610, air pollution higher than federal guidelines, and made some bus routes crowded, slow and inefficient.

Many civic leaders have become major rail supporters, encouraging continued revitalization and development inside the Loop to densify the city and reduce dependence on expensive, space-consuming automobiles. Others are skeptical that the trains will have any impact on traffic congestion or air pollution.

By LUCAS WALL

Houston Chronicle

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