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But was it worth it?

No doubt that traffic on the Katy Freeway moves a lot more smoothly now than it used to. But there’s a lot more to the question of whether the $2.8 billion that was spent to widen it was a good investment or not.

Four years after the project was completed, a comparative analysis of drive-time data for a three-year period before and after the expansion shows that at both peak and non-peak periods of the day, it takes less time to traverse the Katy Freeway than it used to.

It’s a matter of mere minutes – the morning commute from Barker-Cypress to Taylor, for instance, a distance of 19 miles, now takes, on average, 27 minutes. It used to take about 33 minutes.

But added together, the users of the Katy Freeway are spending a lot less time in their cars.

The evening commute on that stretch now takes an average of 28 minutes as opposed to 38 minutes and 30 seconds.

Data show there is still congestion at peak periods, particularly the evening commute out of the city, but what was once a daylong traffic jam is now for the most part smooth sailing.

“Before they did all that construction, inbound basically was congested all day long,” said Darrell Borchardt, a senior research engineer for the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. “You would get stop-and-go speeds out there at 11 o’clock in the morning. Now, since that construction has been completed, with the additional capacity, they don’t have those issues in the middle of the day.”

I’ll stipulate to that. I remember driving back in to Houston on Sundays from Austin or San Antonio before the expansion and hitting traffic from Highway 6 on in. That doesn’t happen any more unless there’s been a wreck. The average commute time differences seem rather minimal to me, but I suppose the main thing is that it’s much less likely to take an hour to get where you’re going than it used to. For sure, there’s real value to that.

But no one ever argued that a widened I-10 would shave a few minutes off commute times. The argument was that there were better design options for this project. The Katy Corridor Coalition’s website is long defunct, but this Chron story from 2003 covers the gist of their case.

The Katy Corridor Coalition – a group of west Houston residents fighting the state’s plans to widen the Katy Freeway – will offer a plan today that calls for sinking several miles of the interstate and planting thousands of trees to filter out air pollution.

The coalition, which has filed a lawsuit to stall the massive freeway expansion, said its plan is a more intelligent way to combat air pollution, traffic noise and congestion.

Practically and politically, the new plan might have little chance of becoming reality. But it does seem to echo successful efforts by affluent residents of the Museum District in the mid-1990s to convince state highway planners to sink part of the Southwest Freeway.

“We’ve already seen what the Texas Department of Transportation does doesn’t work,” said Polly Ledvina, a member of the Katy coalition. “Just using a bigger version of the same strategy on the Katy Freeway will just result in a bigger version of the problems we already face.”

Jim Blackburn, the coalition’s attorney, said Wednesday that the proposal is a reasonable alternative to current plans to expand the freeway from 11 lanes to 18, including toll lanes down the middle of the interstate.

Although coalition plans call for sinking the freeway about 20 feet below ground level from the West Loop to Beltway 8, Blackburn estimated it will only add about $100 million to the $1.1 billion project. The work, he added, could still be done within the six-year timetable officials are already using.

And though it would mean massive redesign, the coalition’s proposal leaves room for toll lanes the Harris County Toll Road Authority wants to build and provides dedicated space for a future commuter rail line, Blackburn said.

Boy, remember when this project was only supposed to cost $1.1 billion? Those were the days, I tell you. The KCC’s design plan – which, presumably, would have wound up adding more than $100 million to the final cost, given how much more expensive everything else turned out to be – was generally well-received by those whose interests were broader than simply adding more lanes as fast as possible, but in the end none of what they pushed for was used. We can’t know what things would look like now if the KCC had been taken more seriously by TxDOT, HCTRA, and John Culberson, but it is worth asking if the money we spent was spent as wisely as it could have been. Is a six to ten minute reduction in peak travel time about what we expected? How long do we expect this effect to last – I mean, you have to think that when that new Grand Parkway segment is built it’s going to increase volume on I-10 – and what if anything is there to be done about it when traffic starts backing up again? Sure might have been nice to have that commuter rail option that was rejected. Do we have any idea what the effect of the expansion have been on air quality and flood control, which were two of the things that the KCC plan tried to address? Travel time is just one dimension of this project. It’s good that it’s worked out well so far, but that should be where the conversation begins, not where it ends.

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2 Comments

  1. Ernesto Migoya says:

    Good article.
    We should have had the light rail built on the rail right of way that was abandoned located next to the Old Katy Road.

    Please keep blogging about this important issue.

  2. Karl Ittmann says:

    I would also add that the travel times were only to Taylor. My experience is that traffic is worse from Taylor to the Pierce Elevated and I10 east to 59 south/north. It seems deliberately myopic to ignore that east bound traffic gets worse once get close to downtown. As someone who drives this route a lot it is now stacked up in the morning until 10am if not later. They succeeded in moving people east to west but then the progress stops. This is why building roads only goes so far.