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We’ll always have bottlenecks

Andrew Burleson points out an ugly fact.

Has anyone else noticed that traffic on I-10 is still not great?

I have a ‘reverse’ commute on I-10 every day. Before the expansion traffic was fine inside the loop outbound in the morning, slow outside the loop. Inbound in the evening it was slow outside the loop, fine inside, except near the 10-45 interchange.

Now things are much smoother outbound, no delay at all. Inbound, however, is a nightmare. Traffic comes to nearly a complete stop approaching the 10-45 interchange, and is usually very slow all the way back to Shepherd / Durham.

Observing the ‘regular’ commuters across the median, things are of course worse. In the mornings the backup to get onto the loop or through the 10-45 interchange is insane, it’s bad in the evenings as well.

The reason for this is pretty simple. The interchange from I-10 to I-45 is one lane for each direction. It’s the exit to I-45 south, which is the way into downtown and points south like the Medical Center (via 288) and Greenway Plaza (via 59), that’s the biggest mess, and with more traffic being brought in thanks to the out expansion of the freeway, the bottleneck is that much worse at this point. I can confirm Andrew’s observation, because one way I have to get to work after I drop the girls off at preschool is I-10 to I-45 to SH-288. In theory, it’s the fastest way for me to get to where I work by the Astrodome, even though it’s a longer-distance drive. But just about every day as I approach I-10 from Height Blvd, and I can see that traffic is basically at a crawl from before there onward, I say the hell with it, and I take my chances on the surface roads instead. It’s not really any faster, but I find it to be less stressful, and it offers me the chance to take an alternate route if it turns out there’s a real obstruction beyond just the sheer number of vehicles.

That’s kind of the dirty secret of all the highway construction we’ve had in Houston over the past two decades or so. We can spend billions of dollars to improve the drive out to the burbs – and we have! – but driving in town is still hell. This is just one example. The others I have in mind are no doubt familiar to you:

– US 59, northbound from roughly Kirby through downtown. It’s truly amazing just how unutterably horrible traffic is on that stretch of highway. I’ve been southbound on 59 coming from downtown a couple of times in recent weeks at around 2 PM on a weekday, and it’s all clogged up. I can only imagine how much worse it must be during rush hour; actually, I don’t have to imagine it, as I recently experienced it. The reason for this is simple: Five lanes of northbound traffic squeezes down into three lanes that go past the downtown spur, then into only two lanes as one peels off for the ramp to I-45. You do the math.

– I-45 on the Pierce Elevated, both directions. It’s the same problem as above: Multiple lanes of traffic coming in narrow down to two lanes at the interchange with 59 and 288. I’ve hammered on this point many times during the longstanding discussion about widening I-45 north of downtown, because as long as the Pierce is this way, you’ll just be pouring an ever bigger bucket of water into the same size funnel, with predictable results.

I should note that I-10 at the I-45 interchange also slims down to two lanes passing through, with one lane going to 45 South and another going into downtown via Smith Street, but unlike the other two examples above, I don’t think most of the traffic is continuing on – in my experience, things flow a lot better once you get past the exit for 45, despite the paucity of bandwidth. That may change some day, if there’s a reason for more traffic to keep going east at that point, but for now it’s not a big deal.

What all of these choke points have in common is that there’s not a damn thing we can do to add capacity. We can’t widen the Pierce Elevated. We can’t widen 59 entering downtown. Remember, we just spent a chunk of money renovating the Pierce, and redoing 59 in that area, which included putting all of it beneath street level. There’s simply no room to widen them. Because we can’t widen the Pierce, we can’t improve the interchange from I-10, for the same reason: no room to add capacity. If your daily routine includes any of these routes, it will never get any better for you. In all likelihood, it will just get worse. It’s no wonder to me that the plans for the I-69 part of the Trans Texas Corridor bypassed Houston altogether. Why would you want your long-haul truckers getting stuck in this mess when they don’t need to?

So what can we do about this? We can do what I’ve been agitating for over and over again around here, which is to create transportation alternatives for the inside-the-loop traveller that gets them where they need to be without the need for these hot spots. Yes, I’m talking about more light rail. In particular, I say my Kirby Drive route would do a lot to keep the 59/45 problems from getting even worse, since it would provide a north-south alternative for a very dense part of town. I proposed that route mostly because I think it’s the best answer to the increasing congestion on the surface roads, but let’s face it, one reason for that increasing congestion on the surface roads is because of people like me who are turning to them as alternate routes to the highways. It may not be an alternative for that guy who needs to get from Greenway to the Woodlands or Humble, but if it keeps a few Greenway to Heights commuters off the road he’s traveling, it still benefits him.

The bottom line is simply this: We cannot add capacity to the highways inside the Loop the way we can outside it. Just as we cannot add capacity to the surface roads, our only viable option for ameliorating the greater volume of traffic in Houston’s inner core is to add transit. I’ve made these points before, and I’ll keep making them because it’s everywhere you look. Either we add transit, or we’re doomed to lousy mobility in Houston’s densest areas.

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