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Still waiting for a design for I-45

Pull up a chair and relax, this could take awhile.

After 15 years of discussion, study and ideas for improvements ranging from enormous tunnels to a massive circulating freeway loop, planners are still at least six months from unveiling their $7 billion plan for historic changes to I-45 and most of the downtown freeway network. Challenges remain, such as paying for it and securing stronger support from city officials who worry the region’s largest road-building project ever is too heavy on solving how to move more cars and too light on long-term public transit expansion.

“I am really concerned about the fact we are focusing solely on road expansion and highway expansion without incorporating rail and other methods,” Houston At-Large Councilwoman Amanda Edwards said last week.

Recognizing they are suggesting a once-in-a-lifetime change to Houston’s freeways, transportation officials are going to unprecedented lengths to gauge reaction. They expect months more of meetings with city and transit officials, and residents living near more than 24 miles of freeway, mostly I-45.

“We’re meeting with several groups, it seems like every week,” said Quincy Allen, head of TxDOT’s Houston office.

[…]

A draft of the final plan for the entire corridor was expected to be released for public review later this year, but that likely will not happen until early 2017, said Pat Henry, director of advanced project development for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

“We have got some contract issues that are slowing us up a little bit,” Henry said.

Transportation officials think they can host what will be the fifth round of public meetings on the pivotal freeway project early next year, secure federal approval by 2018 and start construction on the downtown segments in 2020. The portions from downtown to Loop 610 and Loop 610 to Sam Houston Tollway would come later.

“Even if there is a hitch in the funding for the other parts we’re going to start (downtown),” Allen said.

The central business district segment likely would be split into numerous projects, as the U.S. 290 widening has been, officials said.

Boy, is this ever going to be a pain in the rear end when construction begins. There have been numerous tweaks and alterations to the initial designs, in response to feedback from the public. The I-45 Coalition does yeoman’s work tracking it all – see here for their latest update. It’s just as well that there will be more opportunities for the public to weigh in, because there have been some significant alternative ideas proposed. It’s more than fine by me if we take our sweet time getting started on this.

On a related note, Streetsblog speculates on what the final design could look like.

“The impacts on walkability and urbanism are real and are a big deal,” said Jay Crossley, former director of the smart growth advocacy group Houston Tomorrow. “If they could only do those parts of the plan it would be an amazing plan.” But while TxDOT is starting to consider how its highway projects affect urban neighborhoods, said Crossley, it hasn’t quite embraced the “paradigm shift” away from highway widening that Mayor Sylvester Turner has called for. It’s still an open question whether TxDOT’s plan will result in a net increase in highway capacity, pumping more traffic into downtown. TxDOT’s current proposal calls for adding one high-occupancy toll lane in each direction on I-45. While the tolls could help manage traffic and speed up buses (if prices are set high enough — something political officials have been reluctant to do, says Crossley), the project would still increase total car traffic on the highway.

[…]

The potential highway widenings are still under negotiation, said Crossley, with TxDOT gearing up for a fifth round of public meetings on the project early next year. That will be the real test of Turner’s commitment to the new transportation policy approach he has championed. Crossley believes the city is negotiating with TxDOT over the details of the plan as part of the recently-elected mayor’s transition effort. Turner could tell TxDOT not to add additional car capacity, and the agency might listen. “If Sylvester Turner was to stand behind that, that would be revolutionary in Texas,” Crossley said.

As the story notes, last year’s constitutional amendment voting gives TxDOT a lot of incentive to spend on road-related projects, so it would be quite remarkable if I-45 through downtown wound up with no extra capacity other than the HOV lanes. We’ll see how it goes.

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