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Trains finally roll in Houston rail system

Passengers wait to board a Houston Metro light rail train on it's inaugural day.
Passengers wait to board a Houston Metro light rail train on it's inaugural day.

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Houston (Texas)

HOUSTON, Texas (Reuters) -- A sleek silver train rolled out of the station Thursday in ceremonies opening the first light-rail public transit system in Houston's modern history, built after a 20-year battle in one of America's most polluted cities.

Mayor Lee Brown was at the wheel when the train broke through a banner and emerged from a cloud of confetti to the cheers of civic leaders relieved to finally have the trains rolling.

Houston was the last major metropolitan area in the United States without transit trains.

"It's a vision that came true," Brown told reporters. "It's something we worked for for years -- not just years, but decades and now we have rail in our city."

Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority spent $324 million in the past three years constructing the 7.5-mile line that is the centerpiece in a planned 80-mile-long system.

As the first train glided through the city, people gathered along the route to wave and take photographs.

A long series of contentious elections, funding controversies and political disputes has kept the city dependent on cars and buses and contributed to a smog problem that has made Houston second only to Los Angeles in air pollution, according to government statistics.

Experts blame about 50 percent of the city's smog on vehicle exhausts.

Conservative groups fought bitterly to stop the rail system by filing lawsuits and forcing a recent election, which they lost when voters approved the rail system.

U.S. House leader Tom DeLay, who represents a Houston-area district, had twice stymied the city's rail plans by cutting off federal rail funds in the House. A DeLay spokesman has said the Republican congressman thinks buses are more cost-effective than rail.

Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, one of the few leaders in the Republican-dominated state to push for federal rail funds, assured rail supporters federal money would flow as the system was built.

"As we rode in on that rail of 7.5 miles, I thought this is not 7.5 miles, this is a new beginning for Houston," she said in the opening ceremony. "You will get the federal funding."

Dallas is the only other Texas city to have a rail system, which it opened in 1996 and now has 44 miles of lines.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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