By Houston Chronicle


Itís hardly on the fast track, but plans for light rail along Richmond  Avenue took a couple of big steps in the past two days, including an important planning approval on Thursday.


First, U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, who represents the area between Main Street and Shepherd Drive where the line is planned, signaled his constituents really want the project and that heíd like to find a solution to get something built. Thatíll still take overcoming the concerns of rail critics, and stopping fellow Republican Rep. John Culberson from blocking Metroís funding.


The University Line, as planned,  would stretch from the University of Houstonís main campus to the Hillcroft Transit Center west of Loop 610 and The Galleria . The line would run mostly along Alabama Street, Richmond Avenue and Westpark Drive.


The project, the first planned rail line west of downtown, also got a win at the local level Thursday when planning commissioners approved designating Richmond a transit corridor street. The designation, sought by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, prohibits new development within the boundaries of the planned street improvements.


Metro board member Christof Spieler last month said transit officials sought the designation so the agency doesnít later have to pay to demolish newly-built shops, offices and homes along the route. Officials stressed the designation only applies to new construction, but conceded that eventually any light rail line along Richmond will lead to some property acquisition.


When construction might start remains unknown; many hurdles, including vocal local opposition, remain. Metro officials have not figured out how to pay for the $1.3 billion line, and board chairman Gilbert Garcia said officials remain fixated on opening the three lines currently under construction and developing bus rapid transit service along Post Oak Boulevard. The latter is in partnership with Uptown Houston officials.