Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hiking, biking and power line rights-of-way

A simple way for the Houston area to expand and connect the gaps in its hike and bike network is to use utility rights-of-way. These ROWs represent long, uninterrupted linear spaces that would be perfect for hike and bike trails. However, as I noted last year, we can't use them because the utility companies that own them want to be free of liability from injuries sustained by hikers and bikers using their property, and that's something that the ambulance-chasers at the Texas Trial Lawyers Association can't countenance.

Fortunately, an effort is afoot in Austin to rectify this impasse:
Hoping to ease the creation of local hike and bike trails, a bipartisan group of Harris County legislators have filed bills that would let local cities build trails on utility rights of way, and limiting the utilities’ liability in return.

Houston voters last fall approved a $166 million bond measure to expand the city’s trail system, to be matched by $105 million in private donations via the Houston Parks Board. About 78 miles of trails would get built, limited largely to east-west paths that run along bayous. Many of the utility easements run north-south.
Sens. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Dan Patrick (R-Houston) filed Senate Bill 633 and State Reps. Jim Murphy (R-Houston), Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), Wayne Smith (R-Baytown) and Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) filed House Bill 200. Both drafts were filed Monday.
These lawmakers argue that this law would create an easy and cost-effective path (pun intended) to trail development. As somebody who wishes to see an expanded and well-connected hike-and-bike trail in the Houston area, I agree: this bill is a no-brainer and I hope it passes. However, bills such as these have been proposed in previous legislative sessions, only to be defeated by the trial lawyer lobby.

Kuff points to an article asking how much immunity CenterPoint, the company that owns most or all of the utility rights-of-way in the Houston area, actually needs. It's a fair question, but in my mind it comes down to this: CenterPoint is the owner of these rights-of-way and does not materially benefit from their recreational use (they get good publicity, but that's about it). I don't think it's unreasonable for them to want to be assured that they are protected from liability arising from routine recreational use of their property.

I feel the same way about this now as I did last year:
I'm sure there's a relatively easy solution to this. Obviously, CenterPoint should not be given blanket immunity: if they do something in their right-of-way that is clearly negligent - for example a poorly-maintained power line falls on a biker and electrocutes them - then they should be held liable. But just as obviously, CenterPoint should not be held liable if a jogger trips and falls due to their own clumsiness, or if some dumbass decides to get drunk and ride their bike and crashes into a power pole.
So get it done. Write the law such that a clear line exists between gross negligence (i.e. poorly-maintained power lines) on the part of the ROW owner and "everything else." Bring both CenterPoint and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association to the table to hammer out a compromise that will be reflected in the final version of the bill. Do whatever needs to be done. The placement of hike-and-bike trails along utility ROWs benefits the community at large, and it needs to happen.

The Houston Press has more. Stay tuned.

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