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traffic congestion

Abandon hope, all ye who drive here

Just stay away. Far, far away.

Houston’s worst chokepoint is about to be a construction zone for the next five or six years, in the hopes that drivers eventually reap the rewards.

Federal, state and local lawmakers gathered Monday on the HOV ramp overlooking the Loop 610 interchange with Interstate 69 near Uptown, to kick off reconstruction of the interchange. Major work is expected to start early next year, with some construction already noticeable, according to Texas Department of Transportation officials.

The interchange is the crossing point for most congested roadway segment in Texas – Loop 610 from I-69 to Interstate 10 – and the third-most-congested segment in the state, along I-69 from Loop 610 to Texas 288. As a result, officials say the interchange is Texas’ worst for slowing traffic to a crawl.

“This project is going to help change that,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT in Houston.

The interchange rebuild will make all the ramps between the two freeways in all directions two lanes, add shoulders and rebuild the main lanes of Loop 610 and make other design changes that officials said will help traffic flow through the area.

Work is expected to take six years.

Emphasis mine. My in-laws live near this interchange. We may need to tell them that they have to move. I don’t have any advice to offer the poor wretches who have to travel this way, but I do have one stray observation: It sure would be nice to have some alternate transit options through that area, which don’t depend on road capacity, wouldn’t it? You know, like the University and Uptown rail lines. Maybe next time. In the meantime, avoid if you can. If you can’t, may God have mercy on your soul.

Montgomery County officials indicted over road bond shenanigans

I know I’m a bad person, but this continues to amuse me greatly.

A grand jury has indicted Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal and two commissioners, charging them with violating Texas’ open meetings law last year while developing a bond package for new and improved roads.

Traffic-weary voters in the rapidly growing county approved the $280 million financing proposal, but the indictments left Doyal and Commissioners Jim Clark and Charlie Riley to face criminal charges for their actions in getting it on the ballot.

Grand jurors also charged Marc Davenport, an adviser who helped to broker a deal on the bond proposal. He is married to the county’s treasurer, Stephanne Davenport.

Chris Downey, the special prosecutor who presented the case to the grand jury over six months, said that the misdemeanor charges are punishable by a fine up to $500, as many as six months in jail or both.

Downey said that it’s too early to know whether the case will go to trial.

“Like any criminal matter, whether or not a matter goes to trial is going to be a function of further discovery and negotiation,” he said.

See here for the background. The charges are fairly small potatoes, and I’ll be very surprised if they result in any kind of guilty verdict. I just find it all hilarious. The next time anyone tries to tell you that the suburbs are so much better at running things than the big cities, point to this and remind them that we can generally get bond measures on the ballot without anyone getting indicted.

Can you ever truly “fix” the 59/610 interchange?

I kind of think the answer is “No”, but they’re going to try anyway.

With Houston choking on traffic congestion from Clear Lake to Jersey Village, an infusion of $447 million in state funds promises relief sooner than expected at three notorious freeway bottlenecks.

That sum amounts to more than one-third of $1.3 billion allocated to relieve congestion in major Texas cities where officials announced targeted projects Wednesday. As a result, major upgrades to the Loop 610 interchange with U.S. 59 near Uptown and widening of Interstate 45 south of Houston and Interstate 10 west of Katy will happen years before initially predicted.

“The sooner you can get it constructed … chances are it will be a lower price as opposed to a higher price,” Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said. “And the faster drivers receive relief.” Construction will stretch from 2017 to 2021.

Tasked in September by Gov. Greg Abbott to address congestion in the state’s five largest metro areas, state transportation officials directed $1.3 billion to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth. The spending plan requires approval by the Texas Transportation Commission, likely next month.

Commissioner Bruce Bugg led various sessions in the five metro areas, consulting with local TxDOT officials and others to find projects that could get the state the most bang for its buck now.

[…]

At peak times, some segments of Houston freeways have average speeds slower than most cyclists. Along southbound Loop 610 from Interstate 10 to Post Oak in the Uptown area, the average speed between 4:45 p.m. and 6 p.m. dipped below 12 mph in 2015, down from about 15 mph in 2014 and 18 mph in 2013.

The difference in evening northbound traffic is greater, with average speeds between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. below 20 mph, compared with about 45 mph or more in 2013 and 2014.

Initially, Lewis said, TxDOT planned to rebuild the 610-59 interchange in phases as funding allowed.

The focus on congestion, and voter approval in 2014 and 2015 of new road spending, changed that strategy. The congestion-relief money includes $132 million for this project, making it possible to rebuild the entire interchange at once.

That means new lanes and more effective ramp designs will arrive sooner, although congestion is likely to be even worse during construction.

The three projects were selected because they can provide substantial relief for drivers and were planned and approved so that construction could start in a few months.

I’m pretty sure George Orwell’s actual vision of the future was a human foot stomping on a brake pedal forever, but I could be wrong about that. In any event, my skepticism about this is based on the fact that you can only have so many lanes exiting the first freeway, and only so many lanes entering the second freeway. The 59/610 interchange backs up in all directions because you have multiple lanes of cars trying to cram themselves into one exit lane. TxDOT could certainly add a second exit lane, like it has for I-10 at 610, but that only helps so much if there’s room on 610 for twice as many cars to enter at one time. There’s only so much water you can pour into a bucket, you know? And all of this is before you take into account induced demand or complicating factors like people wanting to enter and exit at Richmond and Westheimer. I’ve no doubt that TxDOT can do things to make this interchange better, though honestly I think they’ve already done a lot with the dedicated flyway to Westheimer and the separation of traffic there. I don’t think they can “solve” it in any meaningful sense, and when you add in the four years of pain from the construction, you have to wonder just what the return on this investment will be. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong. Ask me again in 2021 and we’ll see.

The Katy Freeway cautionary tale on addressing congestion

Turns out that throwing more lanes at the Katy Freeway hasn’t helped all that much.

Several years ago, the Katy Freeway in Houston was a major traffic bottleneck. It was so bad that in 2004 the American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA) called one of its interchanges the second worst bottleneck in the nation wasting 25 million hours a year of commuter time. (The Katy Freeway, Interstate 10, connects downtown Houston to the city’s growing suburbs almost 30 miles to the west).

Obviously, when a highway is too congested, you need to add capacity: make it wider! Add more lanes! So the state of Texas pumped more than $2.8 billion into widening the Katy; by the end, it had 23 lanes, good enough for widest freeway in the world.

It was a triumph of traffic engineering. In a report entitled Unclogging America’s Arteries, released last month on the eve of congressional action to pump more money into the nearly bankrupt Highway Trust Fund, the AHUA highlighted the Katy widening as one of three major “success stories,” noting that the widening “addressed” the problem and, “as a result, [it was] not included in the rankings” of the nation’s worst traffic chokepoints.

There’s just one problem: congestion on the Katy has actually gotten worse since its expansion.

Sure, right after the project opened, travel times at rush hour declined, and the AHUA cites a three-year old article in the Houston Chronicle as evidence that the $2.8 billion investment paid off. But it hasn’t been 2012 for a while, so we were curious about what had happened since then. Why didn’t the AHUA find more recent data?

Well, because it turns out that more recent data turns their “success story” on its head.

Go read the rest for yourself. Speaking from my own experience, the Katy Freeway between 610 and downtown is clogged pretty much all the time, something that was almost never the case pre-widening. I’ve discussed this many times, how it’s not only the freeway itself but the cross streets at the freeway where people are getting on and off as well. I don’t know how much of this is people going far out on the freeway and how much is just because there’s more people in the Heights area and thanks to the bayou I-10 is the easiest way to get from Sawyer/Studemont to Durham/Shepherd, but I’m sure some of it is the “induced demand” that this story talks about. You can see it with your own eyes, not just inside the Loop but well beyond it. We got maybe a couple of years of smoother traffic, and now it’s a lot like it was before. All for $2.8 billion, with no obvious next step to take. Keep this in mind when you hear promises of this expansion proposal or that bringing relief to 610, 288, 45, wherever.

Would the elevated 610 lanes really reduce congestion?

Color me skeptical.

The elevated lane design, officials said, would allow traffic headed around the loop, and not into the Uptown area, to flow more freely. The lanes would have no access to exits for San Felipe, Westheimer, Richmond or U.S. 59.

Moving that through-traffic to the express lanes would open up space for local traffic on the existing Loop 610 lanes, TxDOT officials said.

The plans have reignited fears about the effects of a double-decker freeway on the area and Memorial Park. Proposals for two tiers of freeway traffic have run into staunch opposition twice in the past 25 years.

Residents and leaders of the Memorial Park Conservancy – a nonprofit that helps protect and manage the park – are taking a close look at the latest proposal. Local landowners and businesses also are monitoring the project, said John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston and administrator of the area’s tax increment reinvestment zone.

“Noise and the visual are the biggest issues,” Breeding said.

[…]

Because of limited space, TxDOT said only one lane to and from the elevated lanes would be practical and help control traffic flow. The absence of a second lane, however, creates a bottleneck where the lanes rejoin the rest of Loop 610.

Others criticized the plan for not having direct access to I-10.

“That’s a big loss,” frequent Loop 610 and I-10 driver Jason Wilkinson said. “Everybody that needs to go downtown, you’ve just made it so they can’t use it.”

TxDOT officials this week extended the deadline for comments from Dec. 28 to Jan. 8, spokesman Danny Perez said.

Though officials have said the lanes may be tolled, recent infusions of cash to transportation funding via voter-approved changes in state budgeting could mean the express lanes stay free.

Pending state and federal approvals, construction could begin in two or three years, provided TxDOT and local officials devise a way to pay for it.

The lanes, estimated to cost $250 million, are not included in regional transportation spending plans approved by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out much of the state and federal money meant for congestion relief.

See here and here for the background. I guess I just don’t believe this will work. The particulars of getting the people who want to pass through the 59-to-10 part of the West Loop (how many such people are there?) onto and off of the express lane or lanes will cause confusion and likely some backups all on their own. Getting to the I-10 exit on the northbound Loop, and to the 59 exit on the southbound side, will still be a mess. And I say again, ain’t no way this comes in at $250 million. It’s just a question of how much of an underestimate that is. I get why people find this enticing – who wouldn’t like to think that we can reduce traffic on the Loop? – I just don’t buy it. It’s false hope. Sorry.

Elevating the West Loop

I suppose this was inevitable.

Planners on Dec. 10 are scheduled to detail plans for elevated managed lanes along Loop 610, from north of Interstate 10 to U.S. 59. Long constrained by the development and parkland along the freeway, the Texas Department of Transportation project aims to put elevated lanes in the middle of the freeway, within the existing right of way, for 3.7 miles.

The meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the Junior League of Houston, 1811 Briar Oaks Lane.

[…]

Relieving traffic, especially where drivers enter and exit in the bustling Uptown area and merge to and from U.S. 59, is a huge priority for regional transportation officials.

Drivers, meanwhile, said they’d welcome anything that offers a faster trip.

“Anything over what’s there now would be an improvement,” said Jason Weiss, 29, who drives the Loop to work daily.

Relief, however, will be years in coming. Construction of the lanes, expected to cost $250 million, isn’t expected to start for at least two years. Funding would likely come from tolling the lanes.

I was a little confused at first by the description of “from north of Interstate 10 to U.S. 59”, thinking that maybe they meant this would be along the North Loop, but no: It’s the northern half of the West Loop, from the Southwest Freeway to I-10, exactly where the traffic is the worst. It’s also separate from the Metro HOV plan that is part of the whole Uptown BRT package.

And there’s no freaking way this would cost $250 million. Maybe they mean that’s the out of pocket money for TxDOT, with the rest of it financed by future toll revenues, but come on. Anyone who believes that is the real cost also probably still believes that the Katy Freeway expansion came in under the original $1 billion estimates for it.

Will this help make traffic better? In the sense that it will make cars move faster along this stretch of the Loop, the answer is most likely Yes, at least for awhile. Mostly what it will do is shift the effect of that traffic elsewhere, which will in turn be exacerbated by the higher level of throughput on the West Loop. More vehicles passing through the West Loop per minute and per hour means more vehicles exiting the West Loop per minute and per day onto 59 and I-10 and surface roads like Westheimer and San Felipe. None of those roads are going to have any extra capacity, so what do you think will be the end result? This is basically the same as the effect of the Katy Freeway widening on I-10 between 610 and I-45, which is why it is so much busier these days, and why the streets that connect to it, like Studewood and Yale and Shepherd, are also so much busier. If you’ll be just passing through, it ought to make for a more pleasant experience. But sooner or later you’re going to exit, and that’s when it will catch up to you.

Chron overview of the Montgomery County bond referendum

The voters there are engaged in this issue, that much is for sure.

Life is on hold in the parking lot that is Rayford Road, 4 miles of too many cars squeezing into too few lanes. Even when it isn’t so busy, which isn’t often, there is a chance a passing train can bring traffic to a halt.

It is just the sort of bottleneck Montgomery County leaders intend to unplug with a $280 million bond measure to build new and wider roadways that voters will decide on Nov. 3.

The measure would set aside the biggest chunk of money – $60 million – for improvements along Rayford Road, one of the county’s most congested streets. While the project could bring needed relief to traffic-weary drivers, the roadway represents only a small part of the rapidly growing county’s mobility problems.

That’s because there are far more projects across the county than could be covered by a one-time burst of cash. A new study estimated road needs to be about $1.6 billion over the next quarter-century for just south county, roughly the area from the Harris County line to FM 1488 and Texas 242, including The Woodlands.

“The bond issue is only the start of the process,” said retired Montgomery County Judge Alan Sadler, who backs the measure. “The county has billions of dollars of road needs.”

If voters approve the borrowing, those funds could generate hundreds of millions more in state and federal aid for road projects, Sadler said. But voters have rejected the last two requests for new transportation money.

[…]

Sadler, the former judge, said he expects the county to ask voters to approve more borrowing within next four or five years.

While H-GAC’s study made recommendations with cost estimates, it’s not a comprehensive mobility plan, said Carlene Mullins, a transportation planner for the regional council.

“It’s a concept,” she said. “It’s going to be up to local officials on how to implement a plan.”

But Mullins said they need to act. “Doing what you can with the funds you have would be better than nothing at all,” she said. “If you don’t build any roads, the people are still going to come. It’s just going to get more congested.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I have no dog in this fight and don’t really care what happens with this referendum, I just continue to be amused by it all. It’s a lovely combination of parochial self-interest, severe dislike of spending money, and utter lack of planning, which is ironic given the super-master=planned status of The Woodlands, with a dash of back-room dealmaking thrown in for good measure. I’ve wondered before what Montgomery County will do if they continue being unable to pass these bonds, but it’s also worth wondering if they can solve their problems even with a compliant electorate. There’s an awful lot of demand on their roads, with a rapidly growing population and few if any other tricks in their bag beyond building more roads. What does Montgomery County look like in 20 or 30 years if can’t ever get anywhere in a timely fashion? I’m glad that’s not my problem.

The Woodlands versus its neighbors

I have three things to say about this.

The Woodlands prides itself on being the best-planned community around, with tree-studded neighborhoods, miles of trails, sprawling parks and a town center with a distinctly urban feel.

Across Montgomery County, however, some see The Woodlands as a snooty, well-off enclave that grouses about its tax dollars subsidizing services elsewhere.

Unfair or not, those hard feelings are coming into view as the county nears a Nov. 3 vote on whether to invest in new and improved roadways. The $280 million bond measure is a slimmed-down version of one that failed four months ago amid heavy opposition in The Woodlands.

After urging county leaders to try again on the coming ballot, the township’s governing board has come out against the revised bond measure, saying that the package is tainted because it was put together in negotiations outside public view.

A special prosecutor is investigating whether the county’s dealings broke the state’s open meetings law. Even then, some local officials and residents are upset by The Woodlands’ hasty turnaround.

“You can’t overcome the fact that we still need the roads,” said Alan Sadler, who recently retired after 24 years as Montgomery County’s judge. “It’s dire. If we wait another year, we won’t have the roads built until 2020, 2021 or 2022. We can’t wait that long.”

The Woodlands board’s opposition to the measure before the investigation is complete has widened a divide between township and county leaders. Sadler, among others, was irked by the township’s sudden decision last year to pull out of a deal to help pay for a new customs facility at Montgomery County’s airport. Township leaders complained about a lack of responsiveness from county leaders.

And in May, voters in The Woodlands rallied to defeat the initial road bond because it included a controversial extension of Woodlands Parkway west of the master-planned community, a project that critics said would worsen traffic woes. Forty percent of the voters in the countywide election came from its largest community, and they opposed it by a 9-1 margin.

Penny Benbow, who resides in southeast Montgomery County, said voters outside The Woodlands listened to its concerns, and many rejected the bond measure, too. But the parkway extension isn’t part of the new bond package, and it’s time for the town to support it, she said.

“We can’t do it without you,” Benbow told the township’s governing board last week. “Your neighbors stood by you in May. Now it’s time for you to stand by your neighbors.”

See here and here for the background. I know I’m a horrible person for saying this, but I find this whole saga to be hilarious. This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in the suburbs! You guys should be setting a good example for those benighted city residents! Stop fighting before you make Joel Kotkin cry!

Bruce Tough, the board’s chairman, bristles at the suggestion that The Woodlands isn’t a good neighbor. He noted that the township has supported the Conroe Independent School District’s bond measures and pays “the lion’s share” of taxes in the county.

Of course The Woodlands pays the lion’s share of the property taxes in the county. That would be because the Woodlands has the lion’s share of the property value in the county. If the Woodlands would like for its share of the property taxes to be lower, they’ll need for the rest of the county to be built up more. I don’t know what share of Harris County’s property taxes Houston pays, but I’ll bet it used to be more back when more of Harris County was uninhabited or undeveloped.

The highest priority is Rayford Road, an artery that has become a backed-up pool of frustration for the unincorporated neighborhoods east of The Woodlands. Plans call for widening the road to as many as six lanes and building an overpass over railroad tracks.

“The Woodlands has a good road grid,” said Thomas Gray, a planner for the area council. “The east side doesn’t, so that’s why they’re experiencing the problems they have right now.”

I predict that regardless of what happens with this particular bond issue, the problems won’t go away. In fact, I’d bet the projects that the bond would provide for give little more than temporary relief. This is partly because of the fast growth in Montgomery County – there’s only so much you can do when that many people are moving in – but it’s also partly by design. You pretty much have to drive everywhere in Montgomery County, and that’s not going to change. There are plenty of places you can live in Houston and do a minimal amount of driving. Until that becomes the case in Montgomery County, they’re going to have to keep paving to try to keep up. Good luck with that.

No way to run a road bond election

Am I a bad person for being unreasonably amused by this?

A special prosecutor has been assigned to determine whether behind-the-scenes negotiations could void a last-minute deal struck by Montgomery County commissioners to get a scaled-back $270 million road bond package on the upcoming November ballot.

At question is whether some commissioners and a powerful tea party group violated the open meetings law. It would mark the third defeat of a road bond proposal in the past decade, with the last one coming four months ago when voters rejected a 20 percent larger bond proposal.

“We’re going to aggressively inquire into all communications and activities that led up to commissioners putting this latest bond proposal on the ballot,” said Chris Downey, the Houston attorney appointed as special prosecutor. “We need to move quickly to determine if anything criminal was done before the Nov. 3 election is held. It could be voidable.”

A Texas Ranger has been ordered to gather emails, phone records and statements from those involved in the negotiations. Downey will then use the information to determine whether a quorum of elected officials intentionally held secret deliberations with the Texas Patriots PAC tea party that decided upon the bond proposal.

County Judge Craig Doyal and Commissioner Charlie Riley have acknowledged meeting with the tea party group, but that doesn’t represent a quorum of the five-member court. However, if emails or phones were used to include other commissioners in the decision process, it could become a “walking quorum,” which violates the law.

“This can be a way for officials to avoid open discussions in a public venue. Under the law, the public is to be notified of when and where a meeting is held so that anyone can attend,” said Dan Bevarly, interim executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. “It sounds like elected officials in this case might later come together in public only to rubber-stamp decisions made earlier in private.”

On Thursday night, The Woodlands Township Board voted unanimously to withdraw support given to the November bond package in light of the investigation.

“It stinks. It’s a back-room deal that lacks transparency,” said Township Chairman Bruce Tough. “A special interest group (Texas Patriot PAC) is dictating terms of the road bond to the county. They are not elected to represent us.”

See here and here for some background. I haven’t followed the details of Montgomery County’s efforts to get another road bond on the ballot, and I don’t have anything constructive to say. I’m just laughing at the comedy of errors going on here. For a region that has so much growth and projected growth, they sure have a hard time governing themselves. You have to wonder if this inability to do anything will eventually hinder all that growth they’re supposed to have.

And then there’s this:

The Texas Patriot PAC issued a written statement: “All private citizens have a right to petition people they elected to serve them. Meeting with two commissioners is not a violation of the open meetings laws. Any suggestion that these meetings violated such laws is entirely without merit.”

Because of the fast-approaching deadline to get a bond proposal on the ballot, the organization said there was insufficient time for more input from residents.

“Throughout this process, we thought of ourselves as representatives of all the conservative citizen groups. The framework ultimately agreed to was representative of what all the groups had been proposing since (the last bond defeat),” the statement said.

However, Duane Ham, who had served on the committee that supported the last failed bond proposal, disagreed. He recently formed the Texas Conservative Tea Party Coalition that the Patriot PAC called the “fake tea party.” “It’s sad when a few are controlling and dictating what happens in our county instead of our people.”

I’m not the only one who thought of this, am I?

I don’t know what this world is coming to when tea party groups start turning on each other.

More I-45 stuff

From The Highwayman:

Public meetings meant to debut the massive plan to remake Houston’s downtown freeway system might be coming to an end, but it’s hardly the last chance residents will have to poke and prod the plans.

Years of work remain on the $6 billion-plus project that shifts Interstate 45 to the east side of the central business district and sinks I-45 and U.S. 59 so the freeways act as less prominent barriers. By moving the freeway, Texas Department of Transportation officials are also eliminating the elevated portion of I-45 along Pierce. The Pierce Elevated would then be removed, or perhaps turned into a park or green space as some are suggesting.

[…]

A fifth set of meetings — the first public meetings on I-45 were held in 2011, though some discussions date to 2003 — is likely next year, when officials will unveil their draft of the technical plan for the freeway.

Despite a lot of attention on the major components of the plan, such as moving the freeway, some important details are tiny (in comparison) fixes to local intersections. A sweeping ramp from Chartres Street that connects to I-10 and I-45 is an example, officials said. The ramp, which makes a high arc with tight curves, slows traffic and leads to a difficult merger with the freeway.

Redesigning that ramp helps move traffic, which helps all lanes flow more effectively.

There is a similar potential ripple effect from the new design that will ease congestion throughout the Houston region, said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT’s Houston office. After looking at some of the proposals, he said he is confident traffic on U.S. 59, Texas 288 and Interstate 10 will improve because of a better connection to I-45.

“Every one of these legs is getting something fixed on it,” he said.

Swamplot has a TxDOT-produced video that shows what the new highways will look like; a few stills plus typically snarky comments are here, and the full slidewhow from whence that came is here. It’s a little hard to wrap your mind around all of it; doing a before-and-after might have been more helpful. Purple City has a good explanation of why traffic through downtown is so bad now. I can only imagine what it will be like during the construction. Even with that, the downtown real estate set is all in. Be careful what you wish for.

I’ll close with a bit from the most recent email from Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition:

For Segment 2 – (610 to I-10) – I suggest that you understand clearly some of the proposed changes:
1) Houston Avenue will no longer connect from White Oak to N. Main – Won’t that force a substantial increase of traffic thru Woodland Heights for no reason?
2) Why does TxDOT remove the current highway entrance from Houston Ave and reroute it to North Street? That will destroy acres of trees and route more traffic thru Germantown Historic District for no reason.
3) TxDOT says that the “Main Lanes will be elevated” between 610 and Cavalcade – What does elevated mean? The Main Lanes are currently at ground level.

Public comments will be accepted through May 31. Go to http://www.ih45northandmore.com/ and tell them what you think.

News flash: Traffic is getting worse

I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

It’s a common dilemma for Houston motorists. Congestion in Houston increased sharply from 2013 to 2014, according to a report released Tuesday by TomTom, developer of the mapping and traffic data fed to phones and other GPS devices.

Analysts said trips in the region on average last year took 25 percent longer than they would have in free-flowing conditions, compared with 21 percent longer in 2013.

This means that a hypothetical 30-minute, congestion-free trip, on average, takes about 52 minutes at peak commuting times. For an entire year, it means drivers waste 85 hours – more than 3.5 days – plodding along the highways and streets of Houston.

It’s the first increase in TomTom’s traffic index for Houston in four years after three consecutive years of slight declines.

Growing cities with robust economies tend to experience the biggest increases in traffic. Oil price dips notwithstanding, Houston certainly fits the bill, said Tony Voigt, the program manager for the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Houston office.

Voigt said local analysis supports the conclusion in the TomTom report: More local streets and highways are more congested for more hours of the day. Even weekend trips to some spots – notably retail corridors – can be increasingly time-consuming.

“This is a result of more people living here as compared to two or three years ago and our economy being very active and healthy,” Voigt said.

The rest of the story goes on in that vein, and you can read it for yourself if you’re interested. What I’m interested in is this: The I-10 expansion project was completed in October, 2007. Certainly at the time, traffic flowed much more smoothly than it had before the project began in 2003, but just as certainly, it’s slower now. That’s especially the case for I-10 between downtown and the West Loop, since all those new drivers on the widened freeway still have to go somewhere. What I’d like to know is this: How do the average speeds on I-10 now for various stretches compare to what they were in 2003? I would expect that overall it’s still better, but is it $2.8 billion worth of better? And at what point are we going to start hearing a call to Do Something about traffic on I-10 being too damn much again? Like I said, I’m just curious. I’m sure TxDOT and/or TransStar has that data, but I’m not curious enough yet to pursue getting it and doing something with it. Am I the only one who wonders about this? For more on the report in the story, see Hair Balls and Dallas Transportation.

How to solve the traffic problems of The Woodlands

All that growth has its downsides.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council, along with local entities including The Woodlands, Montgomery County, the City of Oak Ridge North and the Texas Department of Transportation, are working on a South Montgomery Mobility Study that they hope will ultimately ease the woes of commuters.

Officials say they realize there are no easy answers. But they say the blueprint will help guide transportation planning for years to come.

“It’s obvious. The traffic situation is getting worse,” said Thomas Gray, a Houston-Galveston Area Council planner who is helping to lead the study. “The existing road network can barely sustain current traffic, and they won’t be able to handle the anticipated volumes.”

Preliminary findings reveal that most of the main arterials in and surrounding The Woodlands, such as Woodlands Parkway, Gosling Road and Kuykendahl Road, are either at or over capacity.

Congestion will only worsen as new residential communities and companies break ground in the coming years, according to early data and area council officials.

Township board members said that some residents believe the township and other regional leaders are not working quickly enough, as growth stresses the local infrastructure.

For many, completion of the study can’t come soon enough.

“I have residents calling and saying, ‘Why can’t you do something?'” said Jeff Long, a member of The Woodlands Township board. He said the No. 1 concern he hears from residents is that they’re spending too much time in traffic.

My advice is to invent a time machine, travel back to 1975 or so, and try to convince George Mitchell to do a traditional grid design for the streets instead of the mishmash of self-contained cul-de-sacs that exists now. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t known for some years now that this funnel everything to a single main road approach doesn’t work so well. Doing a grid would also allow for the creation of a public transportation network, and would also allow people to, you know, walk or bike to certain destinations instead of having to drive everywhere. It’s so crazy it just might work!

While I maintain that the time machine approach would ultimately be cheaper and less disruptive to The Woodlands and other parts of southern Montgomery County and far north Harris County – I wonder if all those soon-to-be-relocated ExxonMobil employees are aware of this? – I daresay that’s not likely to be the way the folks that are charged with fixing this will go. What the next best alternative is, I have no idea. Whatever solutions they do come up with, I’ll bet they can’t afford them with their current level of taxation. Good luck, y’all. You’re going to need it.

North Line ridership continues to be strong

Awesome!

Nearly six months since trains began rumbling north of the central business district along Main and Fulton on the north side, residents and community leaders said the train is becoming a valued part of the neighborhood and a critical link for many transit travelers, even as it contributes to record-setting use of the rail line.

“I’ll be honest, it wasn’t an easy construction time,” said Rebecca Reyna, executive director of the Greater Northside Management District. “No construction is easy. Now that it’s there, it is slowly becoming a part of the fabric of the north side.”

After adding 5.3 miles of track from the University of Houston Downtown to Northline Commons outside Loop 610, the Red Line posted more trips for the first three months of 2014 than in any three-month period in the light rail system’s history. Based on ridership data compiled by the American Public Transit Association, more than 3.5 million trips were logged on the Red Line from January to March.

What’s harder to calculate is how many of those rides were skimmed from the bus system. Route 15, which largely followed Fulton, was discontinued when the northern extension opened. Two lines that run a similar north-south path along nearby streets, Route 78 and Route 24, have experienced slight decreases in ridership.

When the bus and rail routes are all compared, overall ridership on the Red Line, Route 24 and Route 78 was 4.7 percent higher for the first four months of 2014 than the same lines – and the discontinued Route 15 – during January through April of 2013.

We knew that the first month’s ridership numbers were strong, so this is just a continuation of that. It should’t be a surprise – the Main Street Line has far exceeded its initial ridership projections from the beginning, and the North Line is an extension of the Main Street Line. It would be weird if its ridership numbers weren’t strong. But since one of the criticisms that the anti-rail crowd has long made – and continues to make, despite all the evidence to the contrary – is that nobody really uses the train, it’s important to highlight the fact that they are still wrong.

Speaking of which:

Skeptics point to the $756 million cost ­­- $142.6 million per mile ­­- for the north line and suggest the money could have been better spent adding bus service. Federal funds awarded solely to rail projects covered $450 million of the cost.

I was going to start this sentence by saying “I’d take our local rail skeptics more seriously if…” but the honest truth is that I don’t take them seriously because they’ve never given any reason to be taken seriously. They’ve never been about anything more than hocking spitballs at light rail. Oh sure, they’d occasionally intone somberly about how Metro really should pay more attention to its bus service. And that’s the tell, because as we know Metro recently completed a vast, overarching redesign of its bus network that will simplify routes, provide a lot more service, and have a goal of increasing ridership up to 20%, all without adding any cost to the system, yet the silence from the anti-rail peanut gallery has been deafening. Bill King still hasn’t written a single word about this, for crying out loud. So yeah, I don’t see any point in mistaking them for people with a constructive role to play.

As for the cost, I mean, look, we’ve spent countless billions on widening highways, and we still have terrible traffic. All that widening ultimately does is shift the mess to other parts of the highway and the surface streets. We’re already at a point where simply adding more lanes to existing highways isn’t practical or in some cases even possible, so the solutions being put forth are esoteric, to say the least. Light rail is scalable and sustainable in a way that highway construction just isn’t, and it has other benefits besides. As I’ve argued before, there are no single solutions. There’s a suite of ways to improve access and mobility, and light rail is a key part of that. It’s definitely doing its part, and we should be glad for that. The Highwayman has more.

How to make the warehouse transition something to look forward to

I have four things to say about this.

Houston developers plan to build a mixed-use project, including upscale apartments and retail, on a 15-acre tract close to downtown, replacing a large produce warehouse that’s occupied the space for decades.

Capcor Partners and Kaplan Management bought the land this week from Grocers Supply, which has been at the corner of Studemont and Interstate 10 for 42 years.

[…]

Josh Aruh of Capcor, which specializes in retail developments, said it’s rare to find such a large piece of land in the Inner Loop and added that the project will make a “big footprint.”

“There is tremendous, continuous demand in this sub-market,” Aruh said. “We believe the scarcity of such a large, contiguous tract so close to downtown Houston, the Heights and entertainment districts is primed for a strong multifamily component. And with frontage near I-10, this property is ideally suited for retail. The size of the tract invites many possible other uses and users that we are currently exploring.”

Aruh said he has already discussed possibilities for the property with grocers, cinemas, restaurants and several big box retailers.

The developers are also working with the city to expand a street to split the property and reduce traffic, he said.

Michael Kaplan of Kaplan Management, which specializes in multifamily developments, said he hopes to build up to 400 high-end apartments, to go with the retail and commercial uses, to meet the demand for housing in the area.

“It’s just in the heart of this terrific growth corridor,” Kaplan said. “It is such a strong area.”

1. I admire their desire to have as small an impact on traffic as possible, because traffic on the stretch of Studemont between Washington and I-10 sucks thanks to the Kroger, the long light cycle at I-10, and the huge number of cars turning left to get onto I-10 and to get into the Kroger. Let me suggest that the first order of business would be to rebuild that piece of road, because it’s axle-breaking awful right now. Yeah, that’ll make traffic even worse for the duration, but the gain will be worth the pain. As for expanding a street – not sure which one they have in mind – let me suggest that what they really ought to consider is adding a street. I presume the entrance to this new development would be opposite the entrance to the Kroger where the traffic light is and where there’s already a left turn lane on northbound Studemont, which currently turns into a wall. Having that entrance street connect to Wichman on the west so that vehicles can access Hicks Street, which passes over Studemont and which connects to Heights via Harvard, will help.

2. If you really want to lessen the impact on traffic in the area, then it’s vital to ensure non-vehicular mobility into and out of this development and to the surrounding areas, by which I specifically mean Washington and White Oak. First and foremost, put in a sidewalk on the west side of Studemont, along the front of the development. There’s already a decent sidewalk on the east side of Studemont, but it terminates immediately north of I-10, where a well-worn path in the dirt connects you up with the bridge over the bayou and the continuation of the sidewalk at Stude Street. That new sidewalk could split at the underpass to give pedestrians the option of continuing on Studemont to Washington or ascending to Hicks and the overpass for better access to Arne’s and Kroger, and on to Sawyer Street if one is adventurous. I took the #50 bus home from work on Friday when this story was run, and I got off at Studemont to walk home from there. It took me 15 minutes to get from Washington to White Oak – I timed it – so having good pedestrian paths between these two streets will make the new development a lot more accessible. Given the traffic and the parking situation on either end, you’d be better off walking from whatever residence they build to Fitzgerald’s or BB’s or wherever you want to go.

3. At least as important as facilitating pedestrians is connecting this development to the existing bike paths and bike lanes nearby. You could take Hicks to Heights and from there get on the Heights Bike Trail, but that’s a mighty big detour if you’re heading towards downtown. And Lord knows, no one in their right mind would want to bike on Studemont to get anywhere. Look at a map of the area. Isn’t the solution to all this obvious?

GrocerSupplyMap1

This just screams for a new trail along the bayou to get past I-10 and eventually hook up with the existing trails. This picture shows how that would be possible:

GrocerSupplyMap2

Pass under Studemont, and pave that truck path to get to the Heights trail. You’d need to build a bridge over the bayou to connect to the new trail adjacent to Stude Park, which you can’t see in this old Google satellite image, but that shouldn’t be a big deal. I have no idea how much this all might cost, but for something like this that enhances mobility there may be federal grant money available. Or, you know, maybe the developers can kick in on this, since it would greatly enhance the value of their property. This might in fact be an excellent candidate for 380 agreement, one that would offer a clear benefit to all involved. I’m sure there’s a way to make this work.

Ed Wulfe, chairman and CEO of retail development and brokerage firm Wulfe & Co., said as Houston becomes more dense and urban, more warehouses will be converted into residential and commercial properties.

“We are changing land-use patterns,” Wulfe said. “Now the need is greater and the market is stronger. Warehouses can only command so much economic benefit.”

4. Density with transit >>> density without transit. The good people of Super Neighborhood 22 have that comprehensive transportation plan for their area that includes various rail and streetcar options for the Washington Avenue corridor. Moving forward on that would be a huge boon to mobility in the area, and to projects like this one and the ones that will inevitably follow. Look, I know people get skeptical whenever non-car modes of transportation are discussed. Most people don’t want to give up their cars, even a little bit. I get that, but in a city this size that still leaves a whole lot of folks who do want alternatives, and these are the people who will be seeking out dense development. We can do it right and make the whole experience a hell of a lot better, which includes the drivers since they’ll have fewer competitors for road space, or we can do it wrong and make a huge mess of it all. You tell me what the right answer is. Swamplot has more.

So what is the capacity of the Katy Freeway these days?

This story was about the increase in the toll on the managed lanes of the Katy Freeway, but there was a tidbit at the end that caught my eye.

600px-i-10

When officials started widening the freeway in 2003, at an eventual cost of $2.8 billion, their goal was to ease congestion in one of the area’s most clogged corridors.

The freeway then had 11 lanes and was carrying more than 2.5 times its capacity of 79,000 vehicles per day. Now with 20 lanes in some spots to flow traffic – including the managed lanes and frontage roads – the freeway can handle more vehicles, but demand is increasing as well.

In 2003, the average daily traffic count along I-10 at Wirt Road was 202,500, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. By 2011, the last year for which verified counts are available, the average traffic at Wirt was 274,600, a 35 percent increase.

[…]

Yet the freeway still isn’t as congested as it was prior to the widening, said Alan Clark, manager of transportation air quality programs for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

“It is still vastly better than it was before,” Clark said. “Particularly it is easier to handle incidents. If there was an accident or problem on the freeway before the widening, the whole thing practically shut down.”

So the pre-expansion capacity of the Katy Freeway was 79,000 vehicles per day, and they basically doubled the number of lanes, what is the capacity today? I don’t know if you’d simply double that 79,000 per day figure, or if the math is more complicated than that. It sure would have had to go up quite a bit – like, almost four times as much – to stay ahead of that 274,000 vehicles per day average we’re seeing now. To say the least, I have my doubts about that. I sent an email to Chron reporter Dug Begley to ask about this, but he never replied. My point here is that way back when this expansion was still a twinkle in John Culberson’s eye, critics of the expansion were predicting that traffic levels would quickly rise to fill the extra capacity that was being built. Sure looks to me like they were right. No question, I-10 needed to be expanded, but where do we go from here? The design of the widened I-10 left no room for rail, further widening seems unlikely, and going up with a second deck or down with a tunnel would seem to be prohibitively expensive. Denser development with more and better transit is starting to look pretty good, isn’t it? Maybe we’ll have better luck with that next time.

Yes, but why is traffic so bad at these places?

Two things that aren’t mentioned in this story but need to be.

Two adjoining stretches of U.S. 59 in downtown and west Houston fared the worst regionally on an annual list of the 100-most congested freeways in the state, compiled by Texas Department of Transportation and Texas A&M Transportation Institute officials.

[David] Schrank, a co-author of the report, said changes to methodology led to some spikes in average congestion along certain routes. Areas with major freeway interchanges saw average congestion estimates increase, giving planners a fuller view of the gridlock afflicting most areas of the state.

The additional traffic is having a pronounced effect in certain areas, Schrank said: “These areas are teetering on really, really heavy congestion for long hours of the day.”

Houston’s two worst freeway segments are along U.S. 59. The stretch from Interstate 10 to Texas 288 ranks second-worst in the state, with an average of 743,006 hours of delay annually, per mile. The freeway from 288 to Loop 610 West ranks third-worst, with 730,655 hours of annual delay, per mile. Only a segment of Interstate 35 in downtown Austin fares worse.

Along both parts of U.S. 59, the new figures show a worsening pattern. Traffic on the eastern segment increased roughly 50 percent. Intense traffic at the interchanges with I-10 and Texas 288 was largely to blame, Schrank said.

“When you have a really, really bad quarter-mile or half-mile, it makes the whole area much worse,” he said.

Part of the problem is design and high demand for the freeway during many hours of the day, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“You clearly have as much traffic going north and eastbound on 59 in the afternoon as you do in the morning,” Emmett said, saying any remedy needs to consider the traffic flow.

That same problem causes backups on 288 northbound as well. Interchanges are a big part of the problem, no doubt. I-10 eastbound at I-45 South, where the one exit lane can be backed up to the Studemont exit or farther, is a classic example of this. But as I’ve noted before, the main issue with 59 northbound as you approach 288/45 is that it narrows down from five lanes to three at the downtown spur, then down to two lanes at the 288/45 turnoff. The volume of traffic that wants to continue north on 59 past these points is just too much for the available capacity. I hesitate to make absolute statements, but I don’t see how this can ever be resolved by adding more lane capacity, because there just isn’t the room for it. It’s a problem that isn’t going to go away.

The other point is that one big reason why there’s so much demand for that limited amount of lane space is because we’ve spent the past 20 years building much more lane capacity from Loop 610 and/or Beltway 8 outward on all the major freeways. A lot more people now live out where those expanded freeways take them, and they’re all trying to fit into those squeezed spaces on their way to and from their homes. That’s not the only reason for this – as noted, the traffic problem exists well outside the rush hours these days – but the same principle is in play. There’s much more demand for these freeways outside these urban core congestion zones, and that demand puts extra pressure on the places that are least able to handle it.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: We’ve pretty much maxed out our ability to deal with traffic by throwing more lanes at it. Unless we start double-decking or building tunnels, what we’ve got most places is what we’re going to have. One thing we can do but have not done is provide viable alternatives to taking the freeways for the people who are mostly moving about in town. Taking the people who are making short trips out of the equation and you can free up some space for the long haul drivers who have no other alternative. It’s the same argument I make about urban core restaurants providing bike parking to help keep spaces available for the customers who have to drive to get there. That’s going to require a much bigger commitment to and investment in public transportation, and so far there isn’t much evidence that’s going to happen. If they really thought about it, the people who have to navigate these traffic disasters every day ought to be the biggest supporter of expanded mass transit precisely because it will help get the people who would have options other than driving off the road. Someday I hope that argument sinks in.

For the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ

Ed Wulfe never mentions Mattress Mack or his recent diatribe in the Chron about the proposed Uptown/Memorial Park TIRZ, but his op-ed in the Chron is clearly aimed at countering naysayers like Mattress Mack.

Uptown is one of the most successful mixed-use urban environments in the United States and a leading economic driver of Houston; yet, Uptown has been historically underserved by public transportation. This is a major concern expressed by employers in the area or those considering a new location in Uptown because a functional and efficient means of mobility for their employees is critical to productivity and an ability to retain and attract workers.

More than 75,000 people work at the 2,000 plus businesses in approximately 23 million square feet of offices, 5 million square feet of retail and 7,000 hotel rooms. Sixty-five percent of Uptown’s workforce currently lives in the Sugar Land, Westpark, Katy or Cypress areas, and the ability and need to connect workers to Uptown is an ongoing and increasing challenge.

This plan, while primarily designed to serve the workforce of the Uptown area, also enables movement to, from and through the corridor more efficiently in both directions.

The widening of Post Oak Boulevard will allow for construction of bus rapid lanes within a landscaped median while still preserving six lanes totally dedicated for automobile traffic.

The plan is designed to connect with Metro’s Northwest Transit Center and the proposed Westpark Transit Center. Exclusive bus lanes will remove buses from general traffic lanes while augmenting pedestrian access. The existing traffic signal system and left turn lanes will remain as is, and Post Oak Boulevard’s signature oak trees will be preserved.

The plan before City Council has evolved based on growing transit needs in and around Uptown, and discussions with the city and the Memorial Park Conservancy to ensure the restoration, preservation and improvement of Memorial Park, a major amenity and connector to downtown Houston.

Two points come to mind. One is that this plan isn’t just about Uptown mobility, it’s also about reforesting Memorial Park, which abuts Uptown to the northeast. Mack never touched on this in his rant, but the two are a package deal. There may be a way to fund Memorial Park reforestration that doesn’t involve Uptown, though such a thing isn’t on the table as far as I know, and one could argue that the Uptown mobility part of this plan should be removed, but then what does Uptown get out of it? Basically, this is the plan to reforest Memorial Park. If you approve of that idea but don’t like the other parts of the plan, then you need to propose an alternative plan. What other options are there?

Point two is that the same thing holds true for Uptown mobility. Mattress Mack, as is often the case with opponents of mass transit in general or to specific plans, doesn’t offer a competing vision for Uptown. The closest he comes to that is at the end of his piece when he says “More than 80 percent of our region lives and works in the suburbs, so obviously that is where we need to concentrate our efforts”, which is both a dubious statistic (he gives no citation) and beside the point – it’s not the city of Houston’s responsibility to abet mobility in the non-Houston suburbs, though plenty of our Harris County tax dollars do just that. Assuming that you agree that doing nothing is not a good option for Uptown, what would you do to improve mobility there? Remember, this isn’t just about building dedicated lanes for BRT on Post Oak, it’s about connecting Uptown to the greater Metro park and ride network, via the Northwest and Westpark transit centers. If you don’t support that, what do you support?

Anyway, the plan is still in flux, as Council has not had a chance to discuss it yet. The BRT plan depends in part on grant funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, but that funding has not been approved and may not be guaranteed despite strong support from the Greater Houston Partnership. It’s possible this could all fall apart, in which case Mack will have ranted for nothing. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but nothing is certain until it’s done.

Mattress Mack’s Uptown rant

There’s a lot missing from Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale’s screed in the Sunday op-ed pages.

When you get right down to it, the recent announcement that the Uptown Houston Management District wants to spend $177.5 million to “redesign and widen” Post Oak Boulevard and build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system through the heart of the Galleria area tells you everything you need to know.

What does it say?

It tells you that here in the fourth-largest city in America, our Metropolitan Transit Authority is so tarnished by corruption and scandal, so riddled with $1.3 billion in debt, and generally so ineffective that they now must rely on a local taxing district to do their job.

So one “rogue” organization, as Mayor Annise Parker referred to Metro back when she was running for office, is passing the baton of an incredibly expensive and very ineffective transportation program to an even less transparent organization – the Uptown District.

Folks, this is not progress. It’s government at its worst.

First, if the Uptown District wants Metro to provide bus service up and down Post Oak, they could do that right now without spending an additional dime. But this isn’t about buses.

It’s about paving the way for light rail and helping the contractors and developers who live off city contracts and make generous campaign contributions.

I wish I could quote the whole thing, because it’s a masterpiece of unfocused anger, buzzwords, and vague accusations. It could easily have been a transcript from a talk radio segment. But let’s discuss some of the things that aren’t in this piece.

First, McIngvale’s antipathy to the Uptown Line goes back at least three years, when he and some other Galleria-area businesses, aided by one of the anti-rail-on-Richmond agitators, threw a fit about a design for the Uptown Line that had come to light a few months before. It’s curious that he spends as much time as he does raging about Metro and Mayor Parker and Washington, DC (?!?) since the main driver of the BRT effort, as well as the earlier Uptown Line design, is the Uptown Management District. Management districts are government-created entities, and there are certainly issues about the powers being granted to these unelected bodies, but all that escapes Mack’s wrath.

Second, Mack misses the point about bus service in the Galleria area. The idea here is to provide a dedicated right of way to the BRT buses, as is the case elsewhere with light rail and would be/would have been the case with the Uptown Line, so that they are not stuck in the awful traffic that currently snarls mobility in the region. A lot of people live and work in Uptown, and of course a lot of other people come into Uptown to shop or do business. Some number of the trips they take during the say is from one Uptown destination to another. Ideally, the Uptown BRT line would provide a viable alternative to them to driving from point A to point B, which in turn would help un-snarl things a little more. A BRT line could make such a trip quicker than driving, factoring in walking and waiting on the one hand and navigating a parking structure on the other. A bus line using the same streets as your car cannot.

Third, remember that part of the Uptown plan includes tying the Uptown district into Metro’s park and ride system, which Mack never mentions in his jeremiad. While it’s not clear (at least to me) how this will be done, it should be obvious why this is a good thing. Having the BRT line in place so that one isn’t stranded during the say will make using the park and ride service that much more attractive. Add bike sharing to the mix, and you can make non-car transit into and out of the Uptown area, and around it for those who live there, viable in a way that it just isn’t right now. How can this not help with mobility?

Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, the voters did approve the Metro 2012 Solutions plan, which included a light rail line in Uptown, back in 2003. We’re not going to get exactly that with the Uptown BRT line, though we may yet someday, but as is so often the case with opposition to this and to the University Line, those expressing that opposition simply ignore that electoral result. This is the vision people voted for. For a variety of reasons, some of which can be blamed on Metro and some of which cannot, that vision still isn’t and may never be completely fulfilled. But that vote mattered, and the default direction should towards its fulfillment, not away from it.

And maybe we won’t need as much road capacity as we think, either

Felix Salmon writes about the possible implications of driverless cars.

While I’ve generally been a fan of just about any alternative to the automobile, now I’m not so sure: I think that smart car technology is improving impressively, to the point at which it could be the most promising solution, especially in developed parts of the world like California.

One reason is simply fiscal. Projects like the self-driving car, and the Sartre platooning project in Europe, move the costs of new technology onto companies (Google) and individuals (people buying smart cars). As such, while the total amount of money spent might well be enormous, the money doesn’t need to be spent up-front by any state or national government. That stands in stark contrast, of course, to rail projects, which cost billions of dollars up front; if they ever do pay for themselves, they do so only very slowly.

It makes perfect sense for dense urban areas to invest in subway systems, of course — as China is doing; India should follow suit. A pedestrian-friendly city with a great bike-path network and a fast subway system is basically any urbanist’s dream, both energy-efficient and reasonably low-tech. But between cities and suburbs, or between cities, you need other ways of getting around. And here there are real choices to be made, between rail and roads. Or rather, given that roads are necessary, do you build roads and railways, or can you solve all your problems with roads alone?

[…]

If and when self-driving cars really start taking off, it’s easy to see where the road leads. Firstly, they probably won’t be operated on the owner-occupier model that we use for cars today, where we have to leave our cars parked for 97% of their lives just so that we know they’re going to be available for us when we need them. Given driverless cars’ ability to come pick you up whenever you need one, it makes much more sense to just join a network of such things, giving you the same ability to drive your car when you’re at home, or in a far-flung city, or whenever you might normally take a taxi. And the consequence of that is much less need for parking (right now there are more than three parking spots for every car), and therefore the freeing up of lots of space currently given over to parking spots.

What’s more, the capacity of all that freed-up space will be much greater than the capacity of our current roads. Put enough platoons and self-driving cars onto the road, and it’s entirely conceivable that the number of vehicle-miles driven per hour, on any given stretch of road, could double from its current level, even without any increase in the speed limit. Then, take account of the fact that vehicle mileage will continue to improve. The result is that with existing dumb roads, we could wind up moving more people more miles for less total energy expenditure in cars — even when most of those cars continue to have just one person in them — than by forcing those people to cluster together and take huge, heavy trains instead.

This vision creates a dilemma, when we start facing choices about building rail lines or new suburbs. We’re not in a self-driving-car utopia yet, and the transportation problems we have are both real and solvable using rail. So do we use the tools we have, or do we wait and hope that future technology will solve our problems in a more efficient way?

Via Kevin Drum, who is particularly bullish about this. The implication here is that maybe, just maybe, we don’t really need all that extra road capacity that TxDOT says we need but can’t pay for and for which we’re currently groping around for funding sources. Sure, this is all pie in the sky, but driverless cars do exist, and they’re surely going to be a disruptive force. Predicting the future, especially that far out, is hard, you know? Just something to keep in mind, that’s all.

Time for another report on how much traffic sucks

We love this sort of thing, don’t we?

Houston commuters continue to endure some of the worst traffic delays in the country, according to the 2012 Urban Mobility Report released Tuesday by the Texas A&M Transportation Commission. Area drivers wasted more than two days a year, on average, in traffic congestion, costing them each $1,090 in lost time and fuel.

And it’s unlikely to get any better, researchers and public officials say.

“I think as rapidly as this area is growing, (the challenge) is just trying to stay where we are,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said of the traffic congestion.

Planned toll projects on Texas 290 and eventually Interstate 45 will help ease traffic, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes did in 2008, Emmett said.

With all due respect to Judge Emmett, these projects will help ease some traffic, for some people, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes have done. It will make traffic worse for some others. Anyone who has driven inside the loop on I-10 in recent years knows what I’m talking about. Traffic coming in on 290 is still going to dump onto 610 and I-10, and they’re not getting any more capacity. Traffic coming in on I-45 is still going to enter downtown streets and get stuck on the Pierce Elevated, and I’m sorry but no crazy downtown roundabout scheme is going to solve that.

Based on the mobility report, in 1982 drivers spent about 22 hours each year stuck in congestion, a figure that has increased almost every year since. Traffic congestion peaked in 2008 at 55 hours, the same year two carpool/toll lanes along I-10 opened between downtown and Katy. The lanes took five years to complete and cost $2.8 billion.

But some of the best ways to reduce congestion are less costly. As Houston drivers have acclimated to rush-hour traffic jams, they’ve become more adept at saving themselves time.

“People are adjusting when they leave,” [report co-author Tim]Lomax said, noting resources that provide real-time traffic information. As smartphones and computers become more common, and workdays come with greater flexibility for some people to work from home, commuters can adjust to less-stressful drive times.

Emphasis on the “some” in that statement. Those of us who have to drop off kids at school in the morning, for instance, don’t have a whole lot of flexibility.

Public transit can provide some relief, but with jobs in Houston divided among a dozen or so job areas, it’s hard for public transit to carry everyone where they need to go efficiently, Lomax said.

Public transportation doesn’t need to carry everyone everywhere, it just needs to be a viable alternative for enough people at least some of the time. The current light rail expansion will help some, and if we ever build the University Line and the Uptown Line (or a reasonable facsimile of it), that will help more. Better bus service will help, as will more park and ride service. Longer term, the best thing that can happen is a shift away from living a long distance from your job to living closer to it, close enough to make other options like walking, biking, and car sharing viable options. If we’re really lucky, that Chapter 42 update could help with that.

Anyway. A copy of the report with a few tidbits highlighted is here, or visit the TTI webpage for more.

The 288-to-the-Medical-Center connector takes a step forward

I still have a bad feeling about this.

In a first step toward providing relief, transportation officials will spend the year winnowing six possible locations for reversible toll lanes that would provide a direct connection between the sprawling medical campus and Texas 288. They hope to start construction in 2014.

Texas 288 between U.S. 59 and Interstate 610 is the 25th-most-congested freeway in Texas, according to a Texas Department of Transportation analysis. And not all the blame can be assigned to Texans games at nearby Reliant Stadium or to tourists looking for the Astrodome.

“A significant number of motorists traveling along 288 between downtown and Brazoria County are traveling to the Medical Center,” said TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis. The center includes more than four dozen medical institutions, employs about 100,000 people and has nearly 7,000 hospital beds.

Reversible ramps would allow traffic to flow faster in and out of the area during peak commuting times, Lewis said. The ramps would complement a larger project to add toll lanes on Texas 288 from U.S. 59 to Brazoria County.

Residents have until Feb. 22 to comment on the project to add a ramp connecting the freeway and the Medical Center south or east of Hermann Park. Plans call for a roughly $12 million flyover linking Texas 288 and a street around the center.

In addition to the freeway improvements, Houston plans to add one lane in each direction to Almeda Road between South MacGregor Way and Old Spanish Trail. Transit and pedestrian improvements also are planned for Main Street.

I’ve expressed my concerns before, and I don’t really have much to add to that. At best, I think this will mostly move some congestion from the highway to the connectors and the surface roads. It still won’t do anything about the backup at 59, which is what causes most of the delay on 288 as you head north past 610. Ultimately, the only solution to to the problem of too many cars trying to park in a limited area is to reduce the number of cars trying to park, which is to say to provide viable non-car alternatives. I have no idea what, if anything, is currently on the drawing board for that.

UPDATE: The Chron editorializes on the subject.

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.

TxDOT finally publishes comments from last year’s public forum on I-45

From the Inbox:

Hello I-45 Coalition folks –

There are finally some updates regarding I-45!

As you may recall, back in mid-November 2011, TxDOT held 2 public meetings to get the public’s input on their thoughts on what should be done regarding the expansion of I-45. Comments were encouraged via email, website, comment forms, etc. TxDOT was supposed to publish those findings within 2 months after the meetings. Well 2 months came & went, 6 months and now – 10+ months after the November meetings, the results have been posted! You can find them by going to TxDOT’s website for this project at www.ih45northandmore.com. Left column at ‘NHHIP Scoping Meeting Documents’. If you made comments – make sure they are there & accurate. Many of the comments make very interesting reading!

On Sunday, 9/2/12, the Chronicle reported that I-45 between Loop 610 & Beltway 8 had the 3rd worst congestion in Texas! I-45 between I-10 heading North to 610 was the 10th most congested. I-45 heading South from I-10 to 610 was ranked #13.

A couple days later, the Chronicle reports that TxDOT is considering the concept of a downtown “roundabout” to help congestion.

TxDOT will be holding their 2nd round of public meetings to discuss I-45 soon, probably sometime this fall. No specific date has been announced yet. Please be sure that you are on the I-45 Coalition’s email list so that we can notify you when the meeting(s) will be held. If you are getting this email directly now, you are probably OK – but if you are going to change emails, perhaps adding a work email or home email or alternate email might be a good idea so that we can contact you. Please share this information with friends & neighbors – we need to be sure that TxDOT knows & understands the desires and concerns of folks that live & work in the areas that will be affected by TxDOT’s actions.

As always, for updates, you can always check our I-45 Coalition Facebook page or our website at www.I-45Coalition.org. You can also sign up on our website (email info, volunteer info, contribute $, etc) or send me your email info directly to jim@I-45Coalition.org.

If you would like to become more involved, you are welcome to attend our next (quarterly) meeting of the I-45 Coalition Steering Committee. Our next meeting will be held on October 22nd at 7 pm at the Lindale Park Clubhouse, 218 Joyce (off of Fulton in Lindale Park). Once activity on I-45 becomes more active, we will increase our meeting frequency.

This has been & will continue to be a LONG, LONG project – but the MOST important time to be involved is NOW – while TxDOT is determining what the scope of the project will be, with a LOT of input from residents & taxpayers! Please stay involved if you value your homes, your neighborhood & your city!

There are now specific dates and locations for the second scoping meetings, the details of which you can see here:

Two identical public scoping meetings will be held in the project area. An open house meeting format will allow the public to come and go at their convenience. Project team members will be available to discuss issues and answer questions regarding the proposed improvements and the EIS process. A short video regarding the project will be presented throughout the meeting. Maps of the study area and exhibits of the preliminary alternatives will be on display. The same information will be presented at both meetings. The public is encouraged to attend anytime between the hours of 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the most convenient meeting location.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Jefferson Davis High School
1101 Quitman Street
Houston, TX 77009

Thursday, October 11, 2012
Aldine Ninth Grade School
10650 North Freeway Houston, TX 77037

The purpose of this public scoping meeting is to present information about, and receive public feedback on, preliminary alternatives for highway improvements in the North Houston corridor, the process being used to evaluate these alternatives, and how community feedback has been incorporated to date in the planning process. The revised Need and Purpose Statement and Project Coordination Plan documents will be available for review. After the scoping meetings, the information presented at the meetings will be available for review and reproduction on the project website www.IH45NorthandMore.com, and at the TxDOT Houston District office, 7600 Washington Avenue, Houston, Texas 77007. The office is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., excluding state holidays.

The public will have the opportunity to provide written comments during and after the meeting. If you are unable to attend one of the public scoping meetings, you may view project information and submit comments on the project website www.IH45NorthandMore.com, or you can mail comments to: Director of Project Development, Texas Department of Transportation, P.O. Box 1386, Houston, Texas 77251-1386. You may also email comments to the address: HOUpiowebmail@txdot.gov. Comments received by email or postmarked by Friday, October 26, 2012, will be included in the public meeting record.

Here’s the direct link to the documents and comments from the first scoping meeting. Take a look through them and be sure to attend one of the meetings in October. Marty Hajovsky has more.

Tomorrow’s traffic jams are being planned today

I have two things to say about this.

Projects to widen U.S. 290 and Texas 288 with a mix of free and toll lanes in an attempt to ease congestion in the traffic-choked corridors would get a jump-start under a proposed agreement between Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation.

The deal, scheduled for a vote by Commissioners Court [today], also foresees the state building a direct connection from Texas 288 to the Texas Medical Center, as well as improving nearby Almeda and Cullen.

TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said work on U.S. 290 could start early next year; he declined to say when dirt could turn on Texas 288, but said environmental work is under way.

[…]

The proposal envisions a free lane being added in each direction on U.S. 290 between the 610 Loop and the Grand Parkway, and two to three managed lanes in the center. There is disagreement about which directions those lanes should flow at what times. The plan for Texas 288, according to the agreement, would see two toll lanes added from U.S. 59 to near the Brazoria County line. TxDOT’s Kaufman said it is too early to discuss details on either project.

Alan Clark, head of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said the agreement puts long hoped-for improvements “within striking distance.” Both stretches of U.S. 290 and Texas 288 are among TxDOT’s 100 most-congested road segments.

[…]

Citizens Transportation Coalition board chairwoman Marci Perry and advocacy chairwoman Carol Caul said they support improvements to the congested section of U.S. 290 inside Highway 6, but said population statistics do not support such an investment much beyond that point.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, whose district is home to a large section of U.S. 290, said there is no question that both projects are needed.

“If we want to continue the economic growth and the prosperity that we have, we have to address mobility,” Cagle said. “If this agreement is signed, it’ll be a signal to everyone, not just within our region but … to the entire nation, that ‘Houston is ready to do business – come on down.’ ”

1. I don’t think there’s any question that the return on investment for the 290 expansion is much greater for the 610 to SH6 section of the highway than it is for the rest of the way out. This is about justifying the ridiculous amount that TxDOT and the county will be spending on the Grand Parkway extension north from I-10. It’s also another example of how much we favor spending on transportation projects where there aren’t any people yet over those where there are. To some extent that makes sense – you do have to plan for growth – but to a much larger extent it’s about politics rather than need. The County Commissioners care a lot more about some parts of the county than they do about some other parts of it. And remember, “planning” inside an established population center hinders growth, while “planning” outside existing population centers facilitates it.

2. My experience on 288 is almost exclusively the stretch of 288 between 610 and 59. Whatever this plan may do to alleviate congestion on 288 outside 610, I can assure you it will exacerbate it inside 610. Take 288 north any afternoon, and I can guarantee that it will be backed up starting around MacGregor all the way up to 59. This is because that stretch of 59, which stretches back to at least Greenbriar, is hopelessly congested all the way through I-10. What do you think the effect of bringing in more people on 288 will be? As for having a direct connection from 288 to the Medical Center, all I can say is that “the Medical Center” is a huge place, with components along Old Spanish Trail, Holcombe, and Fannin. Where exactly would this “direct connection” go? What path would it take? How will you avoid massive congestion at its terminus? Perhaps those aren’t TxDOT or HCTRA’s concerns, but as someone who currently works near the Medical Center, they sure as heck are mine.

There’s congestion on I-10: Film at 11

I’m sure you will be completely unsurprised to hear that I-10 has bad traffic congestion. You may be surprised to hear where the worst of it is, however.

Just in time for Thanksgiving travel, a new study has found that a stretch of Interstate 10 through Houston is one of the nation’s most congested highways.

The study by The Weather Channel, the Texas Transportation Institute and INRIX, a provider of traffic information, found that eastbound I-10 between T.C. Jester and San Jacinto is the fourth-busiest road in the country.

According to study highlights released today by the Weather Channel, this 4.4-mile stretch costs $43 million dollars a year in wasted gas and drivers’ time.

In 2010, this section of I-10 cost drivers 475,000 wasted hours and 951,000 wasted gallons of fuel, according to a news release about the study.

Yes, I-10 inside the Loop is the stretch cited by the study as our worst and one of the worst nationally. I don’t know how much this study factored the current construction into its calculations, but it’s certainly a factor. Even without that, it’s been getting worse, thanks in my opinion to the bottleneck at I-45. I’m willing to bet that after the service road expansion is completed we’ll still see frequent major backups.

A summary of the study is here, and all of the reports are here. I have to say that I’m not exactly clear where that “fourth-busiest” ranking comes from. If you look at the Congested Corridors Report and scroll down to Table A-2, Congestion Leaders, this bit of I-10 is ranked #26 overall. The Houston roadway ranked highest on Table A-1, Reliably Unreliable, is Loop 610 from 290 to Yale. All the data for Houston corridors is here. If you can see how any one overall ranking was determined, you’re seeing more than I am. The Houston Business Journal, which discusses a couple of other Houston corridors and which appears to have a more accurate depiction of their rankings in this study, has more.

Kroger gets its 380

Despite neighborhood opposition, City Council has approved a 380 agreement for the proposed Kroger on Studemont at I-10.

District H Councilman Ed Gonzalez, who represents the area around the proposed store and who championed the 380 agreement, insisted the deal was less an incentive to Kroger than it was a way for the city to extract benefits from a market-driven project. The deal gives the city two blocks of road, sidewalks and traffic lights more than a decade early, and also hands over to the city a third of an acre that it would someday need to extend Summer Street from Studemont to Sawyer.

Mayor Annise Parker said Houston’s strategy differs from that of cities that build infrastructure first and then try to recruit businesses to move in.

“We have not chosen to use that sort of what I would call ‘corporate welfare.’ We have said, ‘Business, if you want to open and you need the street, you pay for the street. We’ll pay you back, but if you really want to be there, you use your dollars upfront,'” Parker said.

The city will pay a premium on that upfront money. The deal calls for the city to pay Kroger back with 5.17 percent interest. The city’s rate on bonds through which it finances public works projects ranges from 2.55 percent to 4.06 percent, according to information that Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck got from the city’s Finance Department.

“What do you make on your IRA? I would love to make a 5.17 percent return,” Clutterbuck said. “The taxpayer, in my opinion, should not be on the hook for that.”

The rationale given by Mayor Parker for the use of 380 agreements is sensible. It’s certainly a less risky approach than “build it and hope they come”. Aside from the premium interest rate, whether it’s good policy to use a 380 in this particular location is another matter. The outline of the deal here sounds better than what was struck for Ainbinder on Yale Street, but I’m dubious about the wisdom of a supermarket there. I’ve seen traffic at the light back up all the way to Center Street during the afternoon rush hour, thanks in large part to the many people wanting to enter I-10 West from Studemont. The thought of adding in grocery store traffic, not to mention another traffic light, makes my head hurt. Having said that, I’m not sure what kind of development could have been built there that would be both low impact on traffic and profitable to the developer. Long term, I may have to think about using Sawyer/Watson as an alternate route, though if the rumored plans of an Alamo Drafthouse come to fruition, it may not be much better.

Where the congestion is

From the On The Move blog:

Dallas motorists suffer the most highly congested road conditions in Texas, says a recent report from the Texas Department of Transportation.

The state’s top three bottlenecks are all located in Dallas County, according to the 100 Most Congested Roadway Segments in Texas. But while Dallas has the hottest spots, Harris County actually has more of them. The Houston area has 31 on the worst road conditions traffic list while Dallas has 21.

Road conditions for Fort Worth are next in line for headaches, with 15 tight spots, followed by San Antonio with 11 and Austin with 10.

Here are the top 10 most congested roads and their respective counties:

  1. SS 366 in Dallas, from I-35E to U.S. 75
  2. I-635 in Dallas, from I-35E to U.S. 75
  3. U.S. 75 in Dallas, from I-635 to Woodall Rodgers Freeway
  4. I-35 in Travis, from SH 71 to U.S. 183
  5. I-35W in Tarrant, from I-30 to SH 183
  6. U.S. 59 in Harris, from I-10 to SH 288
  7. I-35E in Dallas, from I-30 to SH 183
  8. I-10 in Harris, from I-45 to U.S. 59
  9. I-610 in Harris, from I-10 to I-45
  10. I-45 in Harris, from I-10 to I-610

See this interactive map to locate all 100.

Congestion patterns haven’t changed much over the past year, Texas officials say.

Here’s what struck me about this. Take a look at the map for Houston:

TxDOT Houston Congestion Map

As was the case last year, by far the worst congestion is inside and on Loop 610, with the roads between 610 and Beltway 8 right behind. For all the billions we’ve spent on I-10, it still sucks, with the stretch from Beltway 8 to 59 being worse than the stretch outside Beltway 8. I-45 is a mess from one side of the Beltway to the other, but especially from 610 South and up. 59 is a parking lot from the West Loop to I-10. And none of that is getting any better.

I harp on this stuff because I get so worked up about how skewed our priorities are. We’re about to spend billions on a road to nowhere out of some vague concern about future traffic when we’ve got traffic stacked up to high heaven right now on existing roads. The reasons behind this are entirely political, yet the people who are affected by it essentially have no voice in the process. We engage in urban planning on a massive scale when it suits those who benefit from it and cry about distorting the “free market” when it doesn’t.

Of course, part of the problem is that the standard solution of simply pouring more concrete and increasing lane capacity won’t work in many of these areas. As I’ve discussed before, two big factors in the congestion on these roads are interchanges – I-10 to I-45, 59 to 610 and vice versa, 59 to 45, etc – and that all of these roads narrow to two lanes at some point inside the Loop, with no place to go to add any more. The only way we are going to be able to truly increase capacity for mobility inside the Loop is to add rail. Frankly, I don’t know that I’ll live long enough to see that happen. But for less than what we’ll be spending on a few miles of road through empty land in far northwest Harris County, we could more than double what the 2012 Metro Solutions plan will eventually provide, and in doing so add a lot of rail to the most heavily traveled parts of the city. If we did that, we just might get some people who currently use these congested freeways for local trips to stay away from them so that the people who have no viable alternative can get where they need to go. It’s a win for all involved, if only we’d recognize it as such. I won’t be holding my breath for it, I’m afraid.

Those road congestion blues

I’m more interested in the methodology used to determine the list of Texas’ most congested roads than I am in the roads themselves, since most of us could have named the roads on that list without doing any work.

Like the Dallas freeway, many of the roads on the list aren’t a surprise. But TxDOT officials believe the rankings will help focus public understanding on the state’s transportation problems.

“This is a good tool for us to use, for the public to use, for our planning organizations and professionals to use — for the Legislature to use — to help us focus on our problems,” says John Barton, the agency’s assistant executive director for engineering services. “This helps us understand the magnitude of the issues and helps all of us as a society to determine if we’re able to and willing to continue to fund solutions for them.”

This is the second year the agency conducted the study, which was managed by Tim Lomax, a researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute. Last year, the study relied largely on traffic count totals — an incomplete measure, officials say. This year, though, the agency spent $27,500 to purchase state-of-the art traffic speed data from a private company.

The company, Washington-based Inrix, collects massive amounts of real-time traffic data by tracking travel direction and speeds of more than 2.5 million vehicles in its network, which consists of commercial partners — taxis, delivery trucks and tractor-trailer rigs, among others — that have agreed to share global positioning system details on their fleets.

Inrix also uses data collected by traditional freeway traffic sensors and consumers using traffic-related GPS devices and applications. It analyzes all the records while keeping in mind outside variables like weather, sporting events, holidays and other factors.

“We get a very detailed view into what traffic looks like that extends into city streets and arterials, not just major interstates and highways, so you get a more complete picture,” says company spokesman Jim Bak.

The full list is here, which includes non-highways as well. Clever stuff, and I look forward to seeing how they build on it. If it winds up driving sensible policy, so much the better.

Despite the opening paragraph of this piece, I really am interested in the roads themselves, though for the most part not because I have any interest in seeing them get widened. Take a look at the map of the Houston area. Note that the vast majority of congested roads as listed here are inside Beltway 8, with more than half of them inside Loop 610. Every single highway segment inside Loop 610 west of I-45 inclusive is on this list. I trust nobody at all is surprised by this, but it’s still a bit jarring to see it displayed so starkly.

There are two points to be made about this, and neither of them should be a surprise, either. One is that our ability to ameliorate any of this by increasing lane capacity is very limited. We are never going to widen the Pierce Elevated, which is the main bottleneck on I-45. We will never add lanes to 59 at I-45 and through downtown, which is the reason why nobody who has a choice ever takes the Southwest Freeway northbound past Greenbriar. The Katy Freeway west of the Beltway isn’t a Top 100 Most Congested Road any more, but I-10 still narrows to two lanes as it passes I-45, and there’s still only one lane that exits onto I-45, so from my perspective all of that extra far-western throughput has done nothing but make a huge mess in my neighborhood.

And two, the only hope to change any of this dynamic is to recognize that transit is the most viable way to add capacity in the dense inner core. In particular, rail transit, especially rail transit that has its own right of way, can help ease the burden on these overcrowded roads and interchanges. An awful lot of this traffic is from short local trips, people who live in the area doing their home/work/school/lunch/errands thing. More and better local transit options means the choice to do more of that without the car. It also means that the folks who live in the burbs and who commute in to work have non-driving options to get around once they arrive, which in turn may make the park and ride look more appealing. You can still have more capacity even if you can’t build more lanes, and in the end even the folks who stay in their cars can benefit from it.

We have traffic, yes we do

Yeah, no surprise.

Surprise, surprise. The No. 1 road for traffic congestion in the entire state is — drumroll, please — the stretch of Interstate 45 between the North Loop and Beltway 8.

In fact, Harris County was home to six of the top 10 most congested roads in Texas. A list of the top 100 was released Tuesday by the Texas Department of Transportation. A third were in Harris County.

You can see the Harris County listing, which is basically “I-45 anywhere inside Beltway 8, plus two other stretches of road”, here. The state list is here, along with links to TxDOT’s plans to do something about them. I’m curious as to the methodology for ranking the pieces of road. The second-ranked bit of highway in town, third overall in the state, is I-45 North between I-10 and 610, yet its “Annual Hours of Delay” is by far the lowest among those listed. I-45 between I-10 and the South Loop has the second highest hours of delay figure, but comes in behind it. There must be some other factors here, but I cannot tell what they are. In any event, I will note that this particular stretch encompasses the Pierce Elevated, which as you know is a problem I think we’ll always have. At least, if there’s a plan to do something about it, I’m not aware of it.

Speaking of plans, I received the following statement from Peter Brown regarding this article:

“This report shows the clear need for real traffic solutions in Houston. Residents are wasting far too much time stuck in traffic, and that’s got to change. That’s why I released a detailed transportation blueprint last month, laying out clear, practical proposals to improve our city and deal with our traffic problems.”

Brown’s traffic plan is here, and my commentary on it is here.

Peter Brown’s traffic plan

Today I want to take a closer look at Peter Brown’s traffic plan, the highlights of which you can see here, with the longer and more detail-filled form here (PDF). My thoughts:

– As with Annise Parker’s crimefighting plan, I am in general agreement with Brown’s priorities, and believe there is or would be general consensus for many – but not all – of his items. Among them are a number of things that originated with or were expanded by Mayor White, such as construction incentives to speed up infrastructure work, traffic light synchronization, SafeClear, and better coordination of road projects. I for one especially like this bit:

EMPOWER HOUSTON TO HELP

Peter Brown will use the latest technologies to allow residents to instantly alert the City of poorly maintained infrastructure – including potholes and signage problems – to help make roadwork more responsive. Smart-phone applications can enable streamlined reporting to city departments, allowing residents to quickly collect and share photographic evidence of disrepair or neglect. We can also connect with residents via their existing social networks to enhance communication between residents and the City.

Note that the city of Boston has already implemented an iPhone app that will allow residents to snap photos of neighborhood nuisances, such as potholes, graffiti, and blown street lights, and e-mail them to City Hall to be fixed. If they can do it, we can do it.

– That said, there are numerous items here that clearly bear the “Peter Brown” stamp, and not just because almost all of them contain the phrase “Peter Brown will”. Mostly these can be summed up as urban planning in some form. That’s Brown’s passion and I daresay his motivation for running, and it’s clear he’s put a lot of thought into these items. It’s also clear that not everyone will agree with some of them, and to a large extent Brown’s chances of winning this race will hinge on how successful he is at getting people to agree with his vision. I personally find a lot to like in his vision, but I also have serious doubts about how much of it could ever actually get implemented.

– A key component to Brown’s vision is the idea that you can help to decongest the streets by making it possible for people to do less driving in their daily lives.

GROW CLOSER TOGETHER

We should encourage denser mixed-use growth and development near public transit to help reduce car trips and save time. With shops, amenities, and employers all located close to housing, growing livable, mixed-use centers will help minimize the amount of time residents spend on the road. Similarly, encouraging growth near public transportation will give residents more transportation choices.

AFFORABLE CHOICES NEAR EMPLOYMENT CENTERS

Oftentimes, workers are forced to take long commutes because they can’t afford to live near work. Peter Brown will coordinate our housing policy with our transportation plan and enable workers to live closer to their places of employment. We need to ensure a variety of housing choices so that new development is accessible to the entire community.

ENCOURAGE HIGH-QUALITY URBANIZATION

With nearly a hundred square miles of undeveloped land in Houston, we have a tremendous opportunity to shape our future that few other large cities have. Peter Brown will encourage smart, high-quality development of urban density that improves the quality of life and strengthens neighborhoods. A denser Houston would put workers closer to their jobs, allowing them more choices about the routes they take, including better access to the city’s street grid as an alternative to commutes along primary arterials and highways. Aside from the transportation benefits, it will also reduce response times for emergency services and first responders by keeping population centers closer to public safety facilities.

This is classic Brown. He’s talked about this sort of thing for a long time, and again, I think the reason he’s running for Mayor and not another term in Council is because he believes being Mayor is the only way he can really do this stuff.

I think there’s a lot to be said for Brown’s ideas, which include making Houston more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly and expanding transit options. There’s really no reason why Houston can’t have a more walkable, transit-oriented urban core. I realize we’re in a time of the year when the notion of walking anywhere isn’t too appealing to most folks, though as Andrew Burleson has shown, the quality of the pedestrian experience can make a huge difference in that. Most of the year here is just fine for being outside, and as someone who actually has gone to school in two feet of snow, I’d say that on the average our climate is more conducive to that kind of lifestyle than many cities where it is the norm.

Obviously, not everyone wants to live in an urban area, and even if Peter Brown were to achieve everything on his wish list, there’d still be plenty of people living in the burbs. The point is that more people would choose to live in this kind of setting if it were more readily available and affordable, and that there are a lot of things a Mayor can do to make that happen. The irony is that a lot of these things are deregulatory in nature, such as loosening requirements for providing parking, which tends to get lost in the “free market” dogma that arises whenever stuff like revisions to the form-based codes are brought up.

The main critique I have of Brown’s vision is that we’ve already got a lot of density happening in the core, mostly but not exclusively inside the Loop, and it’s already had a significant effect on traffic and mobility in the area. A lot of main roads, at least ones I drive on like Kirby, Shepherd, Richmond, and Westheimer, are already at the point of being nearly unusable, and this has a spillover effect onto residential streets. It’s not clear to me that Brown has prioritized mitigating the effects of some of this unplanned density. Infill development, especially in places that are already reasonably serviceable by transit, makes a lot of sense, but I don’t think we can really tackle this problem without dealing with the places that are plenty dense now.

Part of the reason why I have my doubts about Brown’s ability to get his vision implemented is that the problems we’re seeing now, and will see more of as we continue to densify (whether in a planned fashion or not) are caused by our unwillingness to require developers to pay for the costs they impose on our infrastructure. We’ve crammed a bunch of townhomes into old neighborhoods, but we haven’t addressed the strain this has put on sewers and drainage in most of them. A lot of inner core streets are in disrepair, and the sidewalks, where they exist, are often in even worse shape. How do we deal with this, and how do we pay for it? It makes sense to me to pass at least some of these costs to the developers, but good luck with getting them to accept that. I find this to be a real stumbling block to buying into the vision he advocates.

It’s also the case that some forms of mitigation are necessarily long-term in nature. For instance, Metro could announce tomorrow that it’s designating a Kirby Drive Corridor for its next phase of light rail expansion, and I’d have no faith that they’d even break ground before Mayor Peter Brown finished his third and final term in office. How do you ensure your vision outlasts you? Is that even possible for something like this?

– Moving on, Brown is also talking about encouraging telecommuting, which also has the effect of decluttering the roads, as well as saving gas and reducing our carbon footprint.

INCENTIVES FOR FLEXIBLE EMPLOYERS

Employers who help reduce traffic during peak periods and keep us moving should be rewarded for the time and money they are saving all of us. Peter Brown will find ways to provide incentives for companies that offer flexible schedules and stagger shift times to avoid rush hour commutes, based on the amount of traffic that they are able to off-set.

Brown says the city will lead by example on this, and that’s fine and good. As Houston Politics notes that this approach has been tried, which makes me wonder what Brown can or would do differently. As with Parker’s crimefighting plan, this is more about the what than the how, so that remains to be seen.

There’s more to Brown’s plan, but I think this post is long enough. Since he includes a bit on what Houston’s busiest streets will be in the year 2035, I’ll point you to this David Crossley post which takes a look at some of the other projections for the farthest-out forecast we have of the Houston region. Check it out.

The down side to a good economy

Traffic congestion hasn’t gotten any better.

Rising gasoline prices in the last half of 2007 produced less traffic, according to an annual study by researchers at Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute. The typical urban commuter spent one less hour stuck in traffic that year, and wasted one less gallon of gasoline than the year before.

Although the study analyzed data only through 2007, the researchers said they were fairly confident that the trend continued in 2008, as the recession kept people and products off the roads.

“Not as many people are driving, they are sitting at home because they don’t have a job to go to,” said Tim Lomax, a research engineer who co-authored the study of 439 urban areas.

The national average time lost to traffic in 2007 was 36.1 hours, down from 36.6 a year earlier.

But the Houston region did not see a dip in congestion because the recession has not hit as hard here, Lomax said. Rush-hour delays in Houston stayed flat from the previous year. In 2007, drivers here wasted an average of 56 hours in stopped or slowed traffic, and burned 40 gallons of fuel while doing it.

That means Houston, the nation’s fourth-most populous city, also ranked fourth in time lost to traffic. Los Angeles, at 70 hours, ranked highest. Houston has been steadily climbing in the ranks for years.

“The places like Houston where the ranking got worse, those are the places that had pretty good economies,” Lomax said. Urban areas like Oklahoma City, Raleigh-Durham, and Charleston, S.C. also experienced the blessings of economic growth and the related burden of more traffic, Lomax said.

All in all, that’s a tradeoff most of us would take. But maybe one of these days we’d like to keep our traffic from getting worse as our economy grows. Then what?

The study concludes that congestion can only be eased through a mix of solutions, such as adding lane capacity, increasing public transit, offering workers flexible hours and telecommuting, using technology to better manage accidents and traffic flow, and promoting “denser” land use so people don’t have to drive as far to work and shop.

In other words, expect the trend to continue for the foreseeable future. Eye on Williamson has more.

The case for freight rail

I’ve seen this linked several places, and finally got around to reading Phillip Longman’s article on freight rail and the very strong case for investing in it as part of an economic stimulus package. It’s got something for everyone, including the promise of relieving highway congestion by getting big trucks off the interstates. Read it and see what you think.