You are here

Lawyers won't let us have a better bikeway network

Mean Green Cougar Red, August 8, 2012

Houston wants to grow, and connect the gaps in, its network of hike and bike paths. But a sensible and cost-effective way of doing so is currently unavailable:

The city of Houston's proposed November ballot measure to spend $100 million of taxpayer money on bike paths does not tap into a single free mile of utility-owned right of way.

Houston Parks Board executive director Roksan Okan-Vick said CenterPoint Energy agreed to give her group free access to land along its power lines, but only on the condition that it be protected from liability if a hiker or biker got injured while passing through. Houston and CenterPoint pushed for legislation in Austin last year that would have given utility companies immunity from lawsuits by recreational users of their property.

"That would save us millions of dollars if we could get the land, and we have CenterPoint saying, 'We'll give you the land if you can protect us,' " said state Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, who has carried bills in the last three legislative sessions that would have given utilities that protection.

Parks advocates, CenterPoint, the city of Houston, tort reform and running groups all advocated for similar legislation carried by state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, but Okan-Vick and lawmakers say the legislation died because of opposition from the Texas Trial Lawyers Association.

The defeat in Austin means the trails plan will not use what Okan-Vick estimates is 100 free miles of right of way. "It's crazy not to do that," she said.

It's not really crazy; it's just trial lawyers being their typical greedy, ambulance-chasing selves. It doesn't matter that using these rights-of-way for hike and bike trails would save taxpayer money and improve Houston's quality of life. It doesn't even matter that CenterPoint is on board with their utility ROWs being used in this manner. The only thing that matters to the trial lawyer lobby is their ability to sue a multi-billion-dollar company like CenterPoint if a jogger trips and falls while running along a trail in the company's right-of-way.

Of special note is this especially idiotic attempt at justification from the trial lawyer lobby's spokesman:

Rick Plezia, TTLA's vice president of communications, said that if the Davis bill had passed, "CenterPoint could lay wires on the ground, eat popcorn and watch people get electrocuted."

What a load of horsecrap. Aside from the fact that there are state and federal standards and regulations that prohibit transmission lines from being laid on the ground (the National Electric Code and the Texas Health and Safety Code both quickly come to mind), CenterPoint is not going to put their high-tension power lines along the ground where they're most vulnerable to damage, vandalism, corrosion or theft. Please.

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.

Perhaps somebody should look at the agreement the City of Bellaire has with CenterPoint so that the parking lot for Mulberry Park can be in the utility right-of-way adjacent to the UP Terminal Subdivision (near where I took this video). Ditto for the parking lot at St. Mark Coptic Church a bit further down. The article, meanwhile, suggests a possible solution that would have the entity building the trails provide some sort of liability insurance.

Whether any of these solutions will be acceptable to a trial lawyer lobby that puts lawsuit payouts ahead of the public good, however, is a completely different story.