When will Houston's M-K-T bridge be fixed? No one can say, but work is still underway

Why has one of the city's most crucial hike and bike trail link been closed for more than 500 days?

Photo of Jay R. Jordan
Firefighters work to extinguish a fire on a hike and bike trail bridge Wednesday, August 19, 2020, in the Heights neighborhood in Houston.
Firefighters work to extinguish a fire on a hike and bike trail bridge Wednesday, August 19, 2020, in the Heights neighborhood in Houston.Jon Shapley/Staff photographer

Houston Parks Board officials can't say when a crucial section of the Heights hike and bike trail will be reopened even after cyclists bemoaned the 500th day of a so-called temporary closure this past weekend. 

The M-K-T bridge, which carries the Heights trail over White Oak Bayou, caught fire in August 2020 and was immediately closed for assessment and repairs. In June 2021, crews started the repairs but later discovered additional damage in November, according to Adam Zuvanich in Leader News. Those issues prolonged the bridge's closure, which passed its 500th day Jan. 2, according to bicycle advocates with BikeHouston.

"Getting around Houston by bike is already difficult enough, so it is especially disappointing for such an important car-free link in the bike network to be cut off for 500 days and counting," Joe Cutrufo, BikeHouston executive director, said in a statement Sunday. "We are frustrated with the length of this closure, and are demanding an explanation of why the bridge remains out of service, as well as a clear timeline for its reopening." 

The M-K-T Bridge, which carries the Heights Hike and Bike Trail across the White Oaks Bayou, has been closed since August 2020. 

The M-K-T Bridge, which carries the Heights Hike and Bike Trail across the White Oaks Bayou, has been closed since August 2020. 

Yi-Chin Lee, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

The Houston Parks Board, which implements and maintains more than 100 miles of trails on bayou greenways, is coordinating and funding the bridge repairs. Designs for the repairs require approval from the Harris County Flood Control District and the city of Houston permitting center. The board received approval from the flood control district earlier this week, according to board spokesperson Abbey Linney. They forwarded the plans to the permitting center Tuesday, two days after Cutrufo's statement was released.

Staffers with the Houston Permitting Center, which is within the Houston Public Works Department, will review the plans, according to Public Works spokesperson Erin Jones. If the plans meet the city's criteria, the project could be approved "within 30 days," Jones said. 

"We do not have a target date for reopening," Linney said in an email. "Given that we have not received the final permits, it would be premature to predict a completion date. We are working diligently to manage the repairs so that we may safely reopen this vital link."

A sign notifying people to make a detour from M-K-T Trail to White Oak Bayou Trail is placed at the junction before M-K-T Bridge Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, at in Houston. 

A sign notifying people to make a detour from M-K-T Trail to White Oak Bayou Trail is placed at the junction before M-K-T Bridge Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, at in Houston. 

Yi-Chin Lee, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Construction could begin soon after the permitting center approves the plans, although that 30-day timeline could be longer if the board is forced to revise the plans for any reason. Linney did not say how long the anticipated construction phase would last. 

An average of nearly 1,200 people used the bridge on a daily basis before it was closed, according to Zuvanich's story in Leader News. Cutrufo of BikeHouston theorized that more was at stake than giving people a sense of stability. 

"It is rare for any piece of transportation infrastructure to remain out of service this long," Cutrufo said. "Despite remarkable progress in recent years, we worry that the city will struggle to achieve its stated goal of being recognized by the League of American Bicyclists as a Gold-tier Bicycle Friendly Community if connectivity is limited by broken links in the bike network."

The bridge is more than 100 years old, according to Zuvanich's reporting, and formerly carried freight rail into downtown. Nearby, the city of Houston is building a connection that will link the White Oak Bayou trail to the Heights hike and bike trail, Julie Garcia wrote in the Houston Chronicle. 

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