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Hardy Toll Road

From the “we don’t want those people coming here” files

Stay classy, Spring.

The headline wasn’t subtle: “Stop Metro from coming to Spring.”

The article,published July 15 on the website Spring Happenings, warned that bus service would “give criminals an easy way in and out” of the north Harris County suburb.

A range of experts I interviewed this week agreed that little evidence supports the “buses lead to crime” idea. (This is also true of its cousin, “Low-income housing leads to crime,” the subject of a column I wrote last year.)

Yet the perception persists that mass transit is the first step in the ruination of a community. It’s an attitude that could complicate the challenge of meeting the mobility needs of the vast, rapidly growing Houston region.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is holding public meetings to gather input on a new regional transit plan. Metro officials say the plan is needed to prioritize options for adding bus and rail service, along with van pools and potentially bus-only lanes or high-occupancy toll lanes.

More than 300 people showed up Tuesday night at a Metro meeting in Spring. My colleague Dug Begley, who attended, said many residents expressed the same concerns as those reflected in the Spring Happenings article.

[…]

Notwithstanding the concern on the near north side, suburbs are where opposition to mass transit seems to find its fullest expression. Transit researcher Todd Litman has an idea about why this is the case.

“Automobile dependency has been used for generations as a moat to keep poor people away from certain areas,” said Litman, the founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization.

Crimes involving vehicles – car thefts, vandalism, road-rage violence – are far more common than those associated with public transportation, Litman said. Imagine the reception a campaign to keep cars out of a neighborhood would receive in Houston.

Nonsequieteuse says what needs to be said about this. I’ll just add one thing, which is that if the people of Spring are that concerned about evildoers coming in from the outside world and defiling their pristine community, then they’re not thinking big enough. If they really want to defend their borders, they’ll need to petition TxDOT and HCTRA to tear up the exits to Spring from I-45, the Hardy Toll Road, and the Grand Parkway. I mean, that’s how everyone gets around in these parts, and that includes the bad guys as well as they good guys. If Spring wants to isolate itself, then let it isolate itself. Just as long as there are no half measures employed, that’s all I’m saying.

I got those reverse commuting blues

The Woodlands is growing as en employment center, which means it is also seeing a lot more traffic in what used to be the reverse commute direction.

There is no longer a simple drive to this onetime bedroom community, which has turned into an economic powerhouse and upended the flow of traffic in the process. These days, it can be nasty in both directions during rush hour, with just as many people driving to The Woodlands for work as residents leaving for jobs in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The movement is unique in the eight-county Houston region, where commuters mostly have followed the same paths from the suburbs into the city for decades. The rapidly growing ranks of reverse commuters have created new challenges for those responsible for keeping the area out of gridlock.

“I-45 North is congested in both directions every morning and afternoon,” said Thomas Gray, chief transportation planner for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “It’s because there are so many jobs in The Woodlands now, and people can’t or don’t want to move for them.”

[…]

Houston Transtar data shows the 21-mile stretch from the northern edge of The Woodlands to Beltway 8 takes about 34 minutes on average at 6 p.m. – up from 21 minutes just four years ago.

That’s in part because of road construction south of The Woodlands. But it’s also because there are more vehicles using I-45 than it was designed to handle.

For example, the stretch between Rayford Road and Woodlands Parkway is carrying 253,000 cars a day, which is 18 percent over capacity, officials said. The Texas Department of Transportation expects some 390,000 vehicles a day to be passing through that stretch by 2030.

Some people also worry about increased traffic within The Woodlands, with several high-rises sprouting in the town’s center, giving it a look that’s similar to Houston’s Galleria, a place where traffic routinely backs up throughout the day.

“There’s just so much volume that congestion starts early,” said Gavin Dillinghman, a scientist who commutes some 40 miles from west Houston to the Houston Advanced Research Center in The Woodlands. “You’re not beating anyone by leaving at 6 a.m. anymore. We just leave earlier and earlier, and it’s worse and worse every day.”

One problem is a lack of options for those with the reverse commute, which has existed for decades in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Washington that are ringed by mini-cities.

For Houstonians with jobs in The Woodlands, though, there are no buses going their way, no park-and-ride lots and no high occupancy vehicle, or HOV,lanes for relief. The only alternative is the Hardy Toll Road, which can cut down on drive times but does nothing to reduce the number of cars making the daily trip to and from the suburb.

That could change. The Woodlands is considering introducing bus service for reverse commuters. The township already provides express bus service for residents working downtown and at the Medical Center and Greenway Plaza.

“We’re looking at it very closely,” said Chris LaRue, transit program manager for The Woodlands. “The questions are, what’s going to make it viable and how soon should we do it?”

Three things:

1. Most of this is happening north of Beltway 8, where I-45 is six lanes wide – this is the portion of the freeway that has been improved by TxDOT already. There’s also three lanes’ worth of the Hardy Toll Road that can get you to the Woodlands. It’s not a lack of road capacity that’s a problem here, is what I’m saying. When TxDOT does whatever it’s going to do to I-45 between the Beltway and downtown, it will only get worse, just as I-10 inside the Loop got congested after it was widened out west.

2. It’s good to hear that the Woodlands is considering bus service from Houston into their township. There’s clearly a need for it. I would hope that they work with Metro on this, mostly to ensure there aren’t any egregious gaps where there should be overlaps. Ideally, they will work to integrate the two to extend the reach of their own service, and possibly save themselves some money on facilities. I’m thinking they should aim to have at least a few stations for their service at Metro transit centers, and provide a subsidy for for their riders to take a Metro bus or rail line to get there.

3. Ultimately, the only real solution here is going to be to get fewer cars to use the road. As we should surely have learned by now, adding highway capacity doesn’t solve highway traffic problems, and does a lot to exacerbate traffic problems on surface streets. More transit, more carpooling, more people living close enough to work to be able to walk or bike – all these things need to be in the mix. The idea that Something Must Be Done to enable you as a single-occupancy-vehicle-driver to get to work faster needs to be put to rest, because at some point that just ain’t gonna be possible any more. The sooner we all accept that, the better off we’ll all be.

Another I-45 public meeting should be scheduled soon

From Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition:

TxDOT will soon be holding another public meeting!

TxDOT has been working for years to come up with a plan to ‘relieve’ the congestion on I-45. After several years, TxDOT is getting closer to come up with a “plan”. The I-45 Coalition is a group of neighborhood volunteers that monitors TxDOT and makes sure that the affected neighborhoods are fully aware of their plans.

You can look at all of the Public Meetings information by going to TxDOT’s website www.IH45Northandmore.com.

Let me give you some brief history.

In 1998, TxDOT announced plans to widen I-45. They conducted a study, were stalled for a while and then started holding public meetings. In Nov 2005, TxDOT released the North-Hardy Planning Study that said 4 managed lanes were needed. The estimated cost at that time (in 2004 dollars) was $2.1 BILLION . According to TxDOT, AFTER doing the project, in the year 2025, the peak speeds in the main traffic lanes would be 35 mph instead of 32 mph if we did nothing (between 610 & I-10)!!

Public meeting #1 was in Nov. 2011. TxDOT wanted to know where the public preferred to put the 4 managed lanes. TxDOT said they would consider Hardy Toll Road as well as tunnels.

TxDOT broke the project into 3 Segments. Segment 1 = Beltway 8 to 610; Segment 2 = 610 to I-10; Segment 3 = Downtown “loop”.

Public Meeting #2 – in Oct. 2012 -TxDOT came up with 6 alternatives per 3 segment. They asked the public for input to identify the choices. TxDOT would narrow the 6 choices down to 3 per segment. Then after PM #3, TxDOT would narrow the 3 choices down to the final 1 per segment

Public Meeting #3 – in Nov. 2013 – TxDOT announced the results from PM #2. TxDOT eliminated almost all of the public’s preferred choices!

For Segment 1 – Almost ½ the comments wanted TxDOT to put the additional 4 lanes on an expanded Hardy Toll Road (Alt 3,3c); the other top 2 picks were taking an additional 30 feet right-of way (ROW) from both sides of 45 (Alt 7, Alt 8). Instead, TxDOT substantially increased all ROW demands and said the public had to select from taking an additional 200-225 feet ROW from either the West side (Alt 4)or East side of 45 (Alt 5) or 81’ from both sides of 45 (Alt 7).

For Segment 2 – The 3 picks the public wanted were 1) 4 lanes in a tunnel (Alt 14); 2) 4 lanes on Hardy (Alt 15); and (3) cover the below-grade section of 45 and make green space above(Alt 10). TxDOT eliminated the Tunnel option and the Hardy option and responded with 1) Put the 4 lanes on a double-decked structure in middle of road (Alt 12)…NO one in the public picked that! 2) 4 lanes on an elevated structure in middle of roadway (Alt 11) and 3) no cover for the below-grade area & no green space (Alt 10).

For Segment 3 – 98% of the public selected tunnels (Alt 4, Alt 6 & Alt 5) that TxDOT had proposed! TxDOT’s response … they eliminated ALL tunnels and came up with 2 new alternatives that the public had never seen before (Alts 11, 12 & Alt 10). They provided inadequate detail on any of the options they proposed, so the public could not make an informed decision.

When I asked the TxDOT engineer why TxDOT didn’t consider the Public’s input, he responded with “we did consider it, but this is not a popularity contest”! The next meeting has NOT been announced yet. I have been told it would be in Winter or Spring. We are quickly leaving Winter & entering Spring, so an announcement will likely be soon. I just wanted you to keep this on your radar, because you need to be involved. If we don’t remain vigilant, TxDOT will do what they want, where they want … and that usually involves pouring more & more concrete!

The I-45 Coalition has 3 main goals:

First – We want TxDOT to stay within its existing Right-of-Way (ROW). We do not want to increase the “footprint” of the existing roadway and we do not want our neighborhoods and our homes destroyed by an ever-increasing slab of pavement.

Second – We want TxDOT to investigate other modes of transportation, other than more and more concrete for more and more vehicles.

Third – We do not want our Quality-of-Life and our neighborhoods affected adversely by increased air pollution, noise pollution, flooding, increased neighborhood traffic, etc.

If you would like to be on I-45’s notification list for TxDOT meetings and updates, please go to our website at www.I-45Coalition.org and sign up OR/and go to our Facebook page and join. Thank you & PLEASE be involved!

I noted last month that in a longer story on the state of transportation projects around Houston, TxDOT spokesperson Raquelle Lewis alluded to the “next round of meetings” regarding I-45 and that 2015 would be a busy year for planning. Get ready to get involved, and be sure to let your preferred candidate(s) for Mayor know where you stand on this as well.

More concerns about the high speed rail route

Some people who live not far from me are not very happy about the high speed rail line possibly running through their neighborhood.

The prospect of a high-speed train crossing through First Ward into downtown Houston has residents scrambling to weigh in on the proposal.

“I’m completely opposed to this project. I believe we can work collaboratively, but I don’t think the infrastructure of our neighborhood should be destroyed,” says Alexandra Orzeck, whose home is next to existing rail right-of-way eyed as a potential route for Texas Central Railway’s “bullet train” between Houston and Dallas. Property she owns in Rice Military also could be impacted.

Many of her neighbors agreed during a recent meeting to discuss the project with TCR President Robert Eckels, who is a former Harris County judge and state legislator, and David Hagy, the company’s community outreach director.

[…]

Ideally, the train would enter Houston’s central business district and connect riders with other local transit, maybe even other high-speed routes. But the train route might end elsewhere, like on Loop 610 or even further out on Beltway 8, Eckels said. A draft environmental impact statement being devised now by the Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Department of Transportation will factor into those decisions.

[…]

Local neighborhoods are particularly concerned since the rail company would have eminent domain authority to acquire property needed to build the high-speed rail.

Over the past decade, First Ward has enjoyed a residential and artistic renaissance. New, multistory townhomes continue to wedge their way into the neighborhood, which has a recently designated historic district. The well-known Winter Street and Silver Street artist studios helped establish a state Cultural Arts District here. More studios are coming soon.

Stakeholders say one of two preferred routes for the TCR project could bisect the Washington Avenue corridor on existing rail lines, either on Winter Street or Girard, where rail right of way is squeezed to 50 feet in some place. TCR has said it needs 80 feet.

Local leaders hesitate to support the other preferred route, too, because it impacts Near Northside neighborhoods. TCR should continue to investigate a third route that follows the Hardy corridor into downtown, they said.

Similar concerns are expressed in this Leader News story. A route along the Hardy corridor would make a Woodlands station feasible, so the folks here will have at least one set of allies in that quest. As we’ve discussed before, these are the same issues that will have to be dealt with if a commuter rail line moves forward as well. Of course, commuter trains don’t move at 200 MPH, so there’s that. At the very least, you’d want to review the Super Neighborhood 22 transportation master plan from 2010 that called for putting the existing freight rail tracks in that corridor into a trench to avoid at grade street crossings. It should be noted that Tom Dornbusch, one of the architects of that study, doesn’t think trenching would be sufficient to accommodate the high speed line; among other things, the corridor is too narrow, by Texas Central Railway’s own design specs.

Eckels mentions other possible locations for the line’s terminal, but putting it downtown really needs to be the goal. Just from a connectivity perspective, it makes the most sense. If that makes a Woodlands-friendly I-45/Hardy Toll Road approach the best option, then so be it. Someone will need to convince TCR and the state and federal officials of that.

The process of drafting an environmental impact statement will require TCR to respond to concerns including social and cultural impacts.

The process has been extended to Jan. 9. First Ward residents are asking that the railway administration schedule a public meeting in Houston.

That sounds sensible to me. Give everyone who would be affected the chance to have their say.

I-45 again

I went to the open house for I-45 on Tuesday night to see what was going on, since we didn’t have much information about what the current state of TxDOT’s thinking is about this. Apparently, there isn’t a set plan yet. They’re soliciting input and have a five-year timeline before coming to a Record of Decision in 2016 for the project. What that means is that it’s important to start giving them feedback now. I would recommend you attend tonight’s open house if you didn’t make it on Tuesday, and bookmark the North Houston Highway Improvement Project website, where you can also go to give feedback. That website is still under construction, but there is supposed to be a comment form up there; you can also send email with your input.

One thing that I gleaned from talking to people, including Viula from The Heights Life: Apparently, TxDOT is saying that they do not intend to acquire any further right of way for the section of I-45 between Quitman and Cavalcade. If you go to the History section of the NHHIP website, you will see that this comes from the November 2005 final North-Hardy Planning, Alternatives Analysis Report:

As a result of public comments on the Draft report, the Draft Recommended Alternative from Downtown to Beltway 8 was revised. The Final report states:

“It is the goal of TxDOT to remain within the existing right-of-way of IH 45 as improvements to this congested freeway corridor are designed and developed. The existing right-of-way south of IH 610 is limited and multiple design options will need to be explored to remain within the existing right-of-way. Design options could include: reduced shoulder width requirements; reduced or eliminated frontage roads; cantilevered frontage roads, elevated roadway sections, and other creative engineering techniques. These options along with the feasibility to add capacity to the Hardy Toll Road will be thoroughly explored during preliminary engineering and preparation of the environmental document for this project.”

During the approval process for the Final report for the Highway Component, TxDOT agreed to the following project goals when the preliminary design and environmental document preparation phase begins:

– Stay within the existing IH 45 right of way between Quitman St. and Cavalcade St., except at intersections where turn lanes may be needed.

– Minimize effects on quality of life issues of the residents and neighborhoods in the project area.

– Study Hardy Toll Road as an alternative route for additional lanes.

– Evaluate use of tunnels as an alternative in areas of constrained right-of-way.

That’s good news for our neighborhood, but still leaves a lot of room for disruption elsewhere. To me, it remains the case that widening I-45 north of downtown is just going to result in bigger traffic jams through downtown on the Pierce Elevated. It also remains the case that there is a fair amount of underutilized capacity on the Hardy Toll Road, and that the eventual extension of the Hardy into downtown ought to help ease I-45’s woes a bit. The TxDOT folks I talked to couldn’t really address that as it’s not their project, but I note that construction for it is scheduled to start in 2013, meaning it will likely be done before there’s a ROD on I-45. Something to keep in mind. There are also freight rail tracks alongside the Hardy that I bet would make for a decent commuter rail line; if you’re going to make a comment to TxDOT – and you should – you should emphasize that, since they claim to be open to all possibilities at this point. That also apparently includes tunneling, but I didn’t see Gonzalo Camacho there, so who knows if this is still being pushed by anyone.

Since the NHHIP website is pretty bare right now, I thought I’d scan the handouts I got and post them here for your perusal:

TxDOT NHHIP handout, page 1

TxDOT NHHIP handout, page 2

TxDOT NHHIP handout, page 3

There was also a lady there representing Germantown, the little historic development nestled in between I-45, Quitman, and Houston Avenue that would have been wiped off the map if the proposal that was once floated to redirect I-45 down Houston Avenue had ever been taken seriously. While I think that was never likely to be considered, the folks in Germantown are taking no chances and are seeking historic designation from the city as an extra layer of defense. Here’s her handout:

Germantown historic designation, page 1

Germantown historic designation, page 2

Finally, on a related note, a hot idea these days among urbanist types is that cities should consider dismantling the highways that run through them. Yglesias explains the basic logic:

[T]he purpose of a highway is to make it easy to travel long distances in short periods of time. But the central fact about cities is that almost by definition they’re not far from downtown. When you build a freeway that leads from downtown, through residential areas, out to the suburbs what you’re doing is making it easier to get to stuff downtown without living in the city. If you replaced the freeway with a normal at-grade road, suddenly it would make more sense to live closer to downtown. The idea of urban freeway construction was to preserve the vitality of downtown areas at a time when more people wanted to move out to the suburbs. But trying to preserve downtown at the cost of eliminating your residential neighborhood’s core advantage — it’s easy to get downtown! — was fantastically short-sighted.

That sound you hear is heads exploding all over Texas. While I think this is an idea that deserves a fair amount of serious debate, there’s an inescapable fact about the freeways in our fair city, and that’s that they are a necessity for hurricane evacuation. As such, there really isn’t a case to be made for it here. Personally, I’d be delighted if we could just avoid building more freeways in the middle of nowhere to accommodate people who don’t live there yet and instead focused our resources on making it easier and more convenient for those who do live in the urban core to get around without having to use the freeways, thus freeing up more space on them for those who must. That would be a win-win if we ever did it.

Let’s share that toll road revenue

Have you ever taken the toll road connector from the Hardy Toll Road to IAH? I have, many times. Being able to bypass the traffic on Beltway 8 and JFK Boulevard makes it worthwhile for me to take the Hardy instead of I-45. Turns out that the city of Houston paid for part of the construction of this connector, but due to a weird quirk in the contract with the Harris County Toll Road Authority it’s not collecting any revenue for it. The city would like to renegotiate that deal.

In a recent letter to county toll toad officials, Houston Airport System director Mario Diaz pointed to the 1997 deal spelling out how the two governments would construct, maintain and collect tolls on the road.

The agreement, in what officials called a “puzzling” clause, does not give the city access to any of the revenues unless it builds its own toll plaza, Assistant County Attorney Nick Turner said. The county would have to tear down its existing toll plaza.

“It just doesn’t seem to reflect sanity,” said Harris County Toll Road Authority Director Peter Key.

In his letter, Diaz said the city has no plans to build such a plaza, but he noted that the city contributed 43 percent of the road’s $31.7 million construction cost and maintains a roughly 1.3-mile stretch of the road on airport property.

Tolls should be shared “in the same manner and ratio that construction costs were shared and we continue to share in maintenance responsibilities,” Diaz wrote.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved Key’s request to negotiate a revenue-sharing deal with the city.

“This is an outdated agreement,” Key said. “None of us really understand the mindset of the people that were involved in this 14, probably 15 years ago, in terms of setting it up. It ought to be amended to reflect today’s reality.”

One would think that a few of the folks who negotiated that deal are still with us, so it might be worthwhile to track them down and ask them. Not that it really matters that much today – this is clearly a silly arrangement, and it doesn’t make sense for anyone to have the city tear down an existing toll booth to build its own, so working this out ought to be easy enough. At least, if everyone involved is a grownup about it, it ought to be easy.

Commissioner Steve Radack said he does not support sharing the airport connector’s tolls with the city, saying it seems clear the city is not entitled to the revenues unless it constructs a toll plaza.

“I would hope that the city of Houston has enough common sense not to go out and tear down perfectly good tool booths to build their own so they can collect money,” Radack said. “I believe everybody should shake hands and leave things the way it is.”

Yes, in case you needed a reminder, you should never use the words “Steve Radack” and “grownups” in the same sentence. It’s always nice to know that some things never change.

Hardy Toll Road extension gets final OK

After many years of planning, a project to extend the Hardy Toll Road all the way into downtown is finally headed to the drawing board.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority is seeking the court’s permission to begin final negotiations with two railroads to relocate a track north of downtown, clearing the way for the 3.6-mile connector.

Moving a section of track along Maury Street and buying land around it, owned by Houston Belt & Terminal Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad Co., would cost a projected $130 million, said Peter Key, director of the toll road authority.

“Obviously, the hard part of the Hardy Toll Road was getting that final leg into downtown,” Key said. “It’s just greater mobility between the central business district and even points south of there, say, the medical center, and the north side of Houston, the airport.”

[…]

Work on the Hardy connector could then begin in 2013. Construction would take about two years, officials said.

The North Freeway “is already one of the most congested roads in the state of Texas,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a former transportation consultant. “Ultimately, as (U.S.) 59 gets more and more congested, we are going to need another north-south way into and out of downtown, and Hardy’s going to be it.”

Northbound travelers would access the road from the Eastex Freeway or downtown from Crawford Street, which becomes the Elysian Viaduct. The Texas Department of Transportation plans to rebuild Elysian where it crosses Buffalo Bayou.

Drivers inbound on the new road would be able to head north or south on U.S. 59 or could enter downtown on Elysian, which becomes La Branch Street.

The Court’s approval comes nearly four years after City Council gave its go ahead to the road work. My post from that time contains a link to this map of the extension from the Chron story, which still works. Here’s a Google map of the area, and the Houston Politics blog has an even better look. Back in 2007 I was confused about why the extension would connect into 59 and not I-10, but I think I understand it now. From that point on I-10, there’s no exit into downtown, whereas from 59 you can get off at Minute Maid and at McGowan. The main downside to this is that this particular section of 59, between I-10 and I-45, is already terribly congested. Exiting at Elysian north of I-10 might be the better option, though I’ll bet that gets crowded pretty quickly as well. Hey, you can’t have everything. The North Line light rail extension should be done by 2015 as well (please, please, pretty please) so at least folks who live in that area will have a good option to get downtown without getting stuck in all that traffic.

Speaking of folks who live in the affected area:

Fernando Cisneroz Jr., longtime president of the North Central Civic Association, said he has heard little opposition to the project. Some neighbors are nervous about traffic after the Hardy connector and the viaduct are built or replaced, he said.

“That’s an awful lot of access – it runs right through our neighborhood, and we’re going to be faced with additional traffic coming through,” he said. “We don’t know what kind of noise issues that’s going to cause.”

Cisneroz said he’s “not opposed to people taking an easy route home,” but said if the neighborhood is to accept some negative affects of construction, it should be balanced with some positives, such as new park space.

I hope the lack of opposition comes from general satisfaction with the plan, and not from lack of knowledge about it. I agree that they deserve some mitigation as part of the package, too. We’ll see how it goes.