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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.

The process for I-45

This time it’s different, more or less.

The region’s largest looming highway project – a massive rebuild of Interstate 45 from the Sam Houston Tollway to downtown Houston – has a lot of people looking into the rear-view mirror, pressing officials to make sure the job does not come with some of the downsides of its predecessors.

Even with the worries, however, the mega-project planned by the Texas Department of Transportation hasn’t been like many others, from the time it has taken to develop to the types of new lanes proposed.

Though often characterized as a bureaucratic behemoth, the state transportation agency has gone to unprecedented levels of public engagement the past three years, taking the designs for adding two managed lanes in each direction to public meetings, community groups, even sitting down with interested stakeholders for one-on-one meetings.

“We’re doing a lot of listening,” said Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT. “We want to be a good partner, with others, in every sense of the word.”

[…]

Though the goal of many of the proposed changes is to tear down barriers, notably the Pierce Elevated, previous Houston freeway projects around downtown – including Interstate 10, Loop 610 and U.S. 59 – have left some neighborhoods cleaved. The north side, also divided by Buffalo Bayou, has not enjoyed downtown-centered investment as much as Midtown and the Fourth Ward. Bellaire residents and leaders still have bad feelings over how Loop 610 cut through the small city.

Drivers do not want that to happen with the I-45 project, which officials have called a generational project that commuters still could be using 40 years from now. Cutting off neighborhoods or restricting transit options could have devastating consequences.

“The easiest way to destroy a neighborhood is to divide it,” said Seth Hopkins, who lives at Emancipation and Polk, where residents worry they will lose easy access to downtown if Polk and other streets are cut off by the freeway.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. I’ll agree that TxDOT has done a pretty good job taking its time and listening to feedback about the project. I suspect one difference between this and the Katy Freeway widening of 15 years ago is that project had a lot of pressure, from John Culberson and the Harris County Toll Road Authority, to get it done, while the pressure in this one is to slow down and not break anything. But for all that, at some point ground will be broken and people who live and work in the targeted area on the east side of downtown will be affected in ways we don’t know yet. It’s going to be a huge mess, one that may take a decade from start to finish. I appreciate what TxDOT is doing now, but there’s only so much that can be done to soften the impact of this kind of project.

Try to wrap your mind around what I-45 will look like post-construction

Swamplot is here to help.

HAVING TROUBLE SIFTING through some of the massive freeway jumbles in the latest plans for that major I-45 reroute between Downtown and the Beltway? This new video (making the rounds this month as TxDOT hosts a set of public meetings to chat about the project) may or may not help you out. The 10-minute animation shows off what the project plans look like in multicolored, car-spangled 3D action, dragging viewers slowly along the entire project route from Spur 521up to Beltway 8.

The project plans pull 45 over to the east side of Downtown, to line up alongside US 59 and dive underground behind the George R. Brown convention center. Various flavors of new express lanes, managed lanes, managed express lanes, and connectors weave into and out of a massive new 45-59-10 junction as shown above, all labeled by color.

[…]

There’s lot more to parse in the designs — including TxDOT’s estimate that the whole thing will “displace approximately 168 single-family residences, 1,067 multi-family residences, 331 businesses, 4 places of worship, and 2 schools.

There’s a ton of documents and downloadable videos, some of which are embedded at the linked post, at the I-45 project website. About the only thing I’m grateful about my upcoming office move out west is that I won’t have to deal with this horror on a daily basis. Personally, I have a hard time believing that any gains in improved traffic flow will outweigh the costs of executing this massive boondoggle, but maybe that’s just me. Additional views of this colossus from Swamplot are here, and the Chron has more.

TxDOT public hearings on I-45 widening scheduled for May 9th & May 11th

From the inbox, from Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition:

The I-45 Project – Planning Stage is coming to an end!  This next meeting is a HEARING –  much different from the public meetings that TxDOT has been holding.

This HEARING is the last meeting where the public will be heard!  After a short comment period following the hearing, nothing else will go on record on the project.

After the Hearing, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) will be completed – estimated to be complete next year – in 2018. Then a R.O.D. (Record of Decision) – also in 2018. And TxDOT will immediately start acquiring Right-of-way where needed and finish designs. 1st phase of construction will begin on Segment 3 (downtown) – estimated to start in 2020.

There are only 2 HEARINGS scheduled at this time.  You may remember that normally there were 3 meetings including one held at Jeff Davis High School (now Northside High School).  Northside is currently being renovated so no meeting can be held there.  We are asking TxDOT for a meeting that is convenient to Segment 2… but so far, no luck.

As a quick summary, there are 3 Segments involved in the project – Segment 1 (610 to Beltway 8); Segment 2 (610 to I-10) and Segment 3 (the Downtown Loop).  We are currently in the final year of an approximately 12-year planning phase.   TxDOT has held 4 public meetings – in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015.   Part of this project, is the re-routing of I-45 at Pierce Elevated and moving it to be coincident with I-10 on the north side of downtown and coincident with US-59 on the east side of Downtown.  Directly east of George Brown Convention both US-59 and I-45 will be below-grade.  This is a major project that is estimated to cost between $6 Billion and $7 Billion, WITHOUT right-of-way costs included.

I am part of the I-45 Coalition, which is an all-volunteer group that was formed to address issues related to the planned construction of I-45 and to work with TxDOT to ensure that the pending construction comply with these 3 tenets: (1) No expansion beyond the existing right-of- way (2) Alternative means of transportation must be explored (3) No negative impact on the neighborhoods quality of life.  We have not been very successful in these 3 tenets…but we have helped improve the project.

Regarding ROW in Segment 1 – 212 acres of land will be taken; Segment 2 – 19 acres of land and in Segment 3 – 79 acres of land.

In Segment 2 – the North St. Bridge will be removed.  The main roadway of I-45 will be raised to almost grade level at North St. so it is impossible with the current engineering to have any bridge there.

If you have commented or attended any of the prior meetings before, you should have received, or will soon receive notification via USPS of the 2 meetings locations from TxDOT. Locations and dates are:

Tuesday, May 9th                                                                   Thursday, May 11th

St. Pius X High School                                   Houston Community College – Central Campus

811 W. Donovan Street                                  1300 Holman Street –  San Jacinto Building

Houston, TX  77091                                                   Houston, TX  77004

 

Displays will be available for viewing at 5:30 pm, formal hearing starts at 6:30 pm.

Please review TxDOT’s plan, maps & designs on their website, www.ih45northandmore.com. As of today, the documents that will be shown at the hearing are NOT on the website…but they should be there soon.

I received notification of the meetings in the main on Wednesday. The images embedded in the post are from the I-45 Coalition’s Facebook group. I can’t quite make out the context, so I guess I’ll have to go to the meeting. The www.ih45northandmore.com webpage now has the meeting notice on it, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement is available as well, if you want a little light reading. If you use I-45 north of downtown at all, you should probably make plans to be at one of these meetings. There’s no next chance to give feedback after this.

Get ready for lots of road construction

Because a lot of money is fixing to be spent on it.

A sweeping revision of state highway plans adds nearly $9 billion in new funds for improving Texas roadways, including a $1.32 billion infusion in the Houston area for a major overhaul of Interstate 45 and nine other projects.

Projects along Texas 36 in Fort Bend and Brazoria counties and Texas 105 in Montgomery and San Jacinto counties are also included in the unified transportation plan approved Tuesday in Austin by the Texas Transportation Commission.

“This is a major step forward,” said Commissioner Bruce Bugg.

The newly approved plan adds 230 projects and $8.9 billion in funding statewide.

[…]

Construction is expected to start in late 2020 on the first of seven separate projects that will realign I-45 along downtown’s eastern side, parallel to Interstate 69, also known as U.S. 59 in the Houston area.

The first projects will reconstruct I-69 between Spur 527, which leads into Midtown, and I-45, including the interchange with Texas 288. That will be followed by a rebuild of I-45 at its interchange with I-69.

Combined, the two interchanges – technically four projects on TxDOT’s books – are expected to cost nearly $1.7 billion. That is more than half the $3 billion cost of remaking I-45 around downtown, which includes removing the segment of I-45 along the Pierce Elevated.

[…]

Next month, TxDOT is scheduled to open bids on the next phase of widening I-45 in League City, continuing a decade-long slog toward Galveston, making the freeway four lanes in each direction with frontage roads.

Typically, construction begins about three to four months after bids are opened. If that timing holds, two months after I-45 work moves south, drivers frustrated on their way to Austin when westbound Interstate 10 drops to two lanes in Brookshire will start seeing orange cones. Crews will widen the freeway to three lanes in each direction to the Brazos River.

Just before or after the holiday season, work will begin on a third project to reconstruct some of the connections where I-69 crosses Loop 610 near Uptown, as well as rebuild Loop 610 through the intersection.

TxDOT expects all of the projects to finish in 2021, around the time downtown interchanges will start to see construction.

Note that these are approvals for new projects, so it doesn’t include works in progress such as 290. Outside of Houston, there will be continued widening of I-45 farther south, eventually reaching all the way to Galveston. Years ago, I used to hear people joke that there had never been a day when some part of I-45 wasn’t under construction. In retrospect, I don’t think they were joking. I’m going to predict that by the end date for these projects in 2021, we’re going to be talking about if not preparing for further construction on I-10 out west, which already resembles what the Katy Freeway looked like pre-widening. Basically, there’s always going to be major construction somewhere. Get used to it.

Get ready for more I-45 chaos

Lord have mercy on our souls.

Relieving one of Houston’s worst bottlenecks will come with some lengthy complications for northbound drivers on Interstate 45 headed into Houston’s central business district, starting Friday night.

After years of delay, work is starting on a modification to Spur 5, the ramp that connects northbound I-45 traffic to downtown via Pease and St. Joseph. The spur is being rebuilt to also be the connection from northbound I-45 to Interstate 69, also U.S. 59 in the Houston area.

Though it is a major improvement, the work means seven months of construction detours for downtown-bound drivers, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. Crews will close Spur 5 at Scott Street starting at 9 p.m. Friday, so they can demolish the ramp parallel to I-45.

In the interim, drivers that would normally use the spur will exit at Scott and use the I-45 frontage road to travel into downtown. More than 13,000 vehicles use Spur 5 to access downtown at St. Joseph, according to a 2015 TxDOT traffic count. More than 200,000 vehicles use I-45 in the area.

In addition to affecting downtown-bound traffic, the spur closure means drivers won’t be able to access northbound I-45 at Scott Street, said Deidrea George, spokeswoman for TxDOT in Houston.

[…]

The interchange work is hardly the end of construction along the I-45 corridor around downtown, with many considering it a precursor to potentially a decade of constant construction. TxDOT is proceeding with plans to realign I-45, I-69 and the interchange with Texas 288 as part of a $3 billion redesign of the downtown freeway network.

The first of seven projects to rebuild interchanges, widen the freeways and shift I-45 to run parallel to I-69 along the east side of downtown is scheduled to begin in 2020, about a year after the Spur 5 work is set to finish.

Allen said the Spur 5 project is being designed with the future interchanges in mind, but will require some minor modifications once I-45 moves.

This has been in the works for awhile – we first heard about it in 2014, long enough ago that I had about given up in searching my archives for something I knew I had posted about because I was sure it had been more recent than that. This construction is part of the grander plan for redoing I-45, though it would probably be worth doing on its own if that doesn’t materialize. Whatever the case, it’s going to suck. I pity anyone who will have to deal with it. The Press has more.

TxDOT accelerates I-45 construction timeline

Gird your loins.

For many long-suffering Houston drivers, a solution to the infuriating bottleneck on Interstate 45 through downtown is likely something they thought they wouldn’t live to see.

More than a decade ago, a plan pitched to solve the problem – moving the interstate to the east side of downtown and demolishing the Pierce Elevated – appeared so preposterous they thought it would never get off the ground. It was too big of a change, too ambitious, too expensive and too disruptive.

Turns out it was also too good to pass up, leading to efforts by local transportation officials to now include the first phases of the project in an updated, expanded statewide transportation plan. So the project some only dreamed about is, at least on paper, a reality, pending the allocation of more than $900 million for the reconstruction of two major interstate intersections in the downtown area.

Though these first steps are incremental compared to the overall plan, officials say they are important and send the clear message: The I-45 freeway is relocating and the elevated portion along Pierce will be abandoned and maybe demolished within the next dozen years.

“We are turning the key and starting the engine and moving,” said Quincy Allen, district director for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

Work on revamping the freeway intersections is slated for late 2020 or early 2021, years ahead of when state officials first predicted when they unveiled their construction plans in 2014.

For the Houston region, it might be the most significant freeway project in anyone’s lifetime. That’s because it reconfigures the three interstates that form the backbone of how Houstonians move – I-45, I-69 and Interstate 10 – in the one area where they are so closely tangled and reliant on drivers making transitions from one to another as smooth as possible.

No doubt, those interchanges are the worst, but let’s not forget that a big part of the reason why is because one or both of the intersecting highways has narrowed or will soon narrow down from three or more lanes to two at these points of intersection. I guess the massive reconstruction plan will address that in some fashion, but that’s the problem in a nutshell, and there’s only so much you can do to engineer it away. And oh Lord, the mess even this preliminary construction is going to make. My head hurts just thinking about it.

One more thing:

The first part of the project, along I-69 near Spur 527, aims to lessen the congestion caused where traffic from the Greenway Plaza area flows into a bottleneck where I-69 drops to three lanes, with two others for the spur. It would add another lane, and widen the already depressed freeway through Montrose and Midtown.

The project’s next part takes that even further, burying the portion of I-69 that now is elevated east of Spur 527. Local streets that now flow beneath the freeway will stay where they are, but cross atop it.

“I expect us to continue to progress and go in a counter-clockwise motion around downtown,” Allen said.

Based on projections, when the entire downtown ring is completed and I-45 is in place parallel to I-69, the amount of congestion drivers endure will be cut in half, based on 2040 traffic estimates.

[…]

Eventually, the proposal is to widen I-45 from downtown to the Sam Houston Tollway in Greenspoint. Combined with the downtown efforts, it is estimated to cost at or near $7 billion.

Remember when we spent nearly $3 billion to widen I-10 from 610 to whatever point out west we stopped? On Friday, I had to be at the Lifetime Fitness in the Town and Country mall area at I-10 and Beltway 8 by 6 PM. I hit I-10 at Heights at 5:20. As I approached 610, there was one of those TxDOT marquees telling me the travel time to the Sam Houston Tollway was 29 minutes. That turned out to be a bit of an overestimate, but not by much. How many years do you think we’ll have to enjoy the lessened congestion this is promising to bring us before we’re right back to where we were before we began?

I-45 onramp closures coming

From the inbox:

The Texas Department of Transportation will close the Houston Avenue southbound and Allen Parkway eastbound entrance ramps to I-45 southbound on Friday, July 8 to begin construction on new ramps that will improve traffic flow and enhance safety.

Currently, motorists trying to reach I-45 southbound main lanes from Allen Parkway eastbound have to enter from the left or inside lane. This has slowed the approaching traffic on the freeway sometimes causing a bottleneck effect that backs up traffic. The new ramp will connect to the main lanes of IH 45 southbound from the right lane allowing for better flow of traffic along the corridor.

To make room for the new Allen Parkway eastbound entrance ramp to I-45 southbound, the Houston Avenue southbound entrance ramp to I-45 southbound and the connecting bridge before the ramp will also need to be reconstructed. The reconstructed bridge and ramps will provide more efficient and safer access to the I-45 southbound main lanes.

TxDOT will close the existing bridge and ramps on Friday, July 8 to facilitate the construction of the new structures. The Houston Avenue bridge will be completed in late September/ early October of this year and the Houston Avenue/ Rusk and Allen Parkway entrance ramps to I-45 southbound will be open in late November/ early December.

Below is a list of the closures for this project:

  • Total closure of the Allen Parkway eastbound entrance ramp to IH 45 southbound on Friday, July 8 at 7:30 p.m.. Detour during construction is as follows: eastbound on Allen Parkway/ Dallas, right on Smith St.,left on Jefferson St., and follow Jefferson to the I-45 southbound entrance ramp.
  • Total closure of the Houston Avenue southbound entrance ramp to I-45 southbound on Friday, July 8 at 7:30 p.m.and the Houston Avenue southbound bridge at Lubbock and at Rusk on July 8 at 7:30 p.m. Detour during construction is as follows: from Houston Avenue take a left onto Rusk St., right on Smith St., left on Jefferson St., and follow Jefferson St.to the I-45 southbound entrance ramp.

There will also be additional closures to prepare for the bridge and ramp construction at this location. TxDOT will close allmainlanes on I-45 southbound at I-10 beginning Friday, July 8 at 9 p.m. until Monday, July 11 at 5 a.m. Motorists will be detoured to IH 10 eastbound to US 59 southbound to IH 45 southbound.

For more information on scheduled lane closures in the Houston District contact Danny Perez at (713) 802-5077.

Also be sure to visit the Houston TranStar website at www.houstontranstar.org for a complete list of closures related to this constructionproject and other Houston District closures. All closures are subject to change due to inclement weather.  Follow us on Twitter @TxDOTHoustonPIO.

See here and here for the background. This is the implementation of something we first heard about last February. This is going to be painful, but at least it ought to be done in a few months.

To clarify what is being effected, here are a couple of pictures. First, what is being closed:

I-45 onramp closures

The black arrows point to the two to-be-closed onramps. The green arrow at the bottom shows where you will need to go in order to get onto I-45 South from downtown. If you’re saying to yourself “but Jefferson isn’t even next to I-45, how do I get onto I-45 from it”, take a look at this:

I-45 Jefferson entrance

You have to stay on Jefferson all the way through downtown till you pass under US59, then east of Dowling Jefferson elevates and crosses over I-45, where it basically becomes the southbound service road. The actual entrance on to I-45 is down past Cullen Blvd, so you’ve got quite a ways to go, especially if your journey involved taking Houston Avenue. Those of you who work downtown and commute in via the Gulf Freeway, you have been warned.

There’s also more work being done on Allen Parkway.

After a seven-week hiatus for some special events along Buffalo Bayou, major work will resume July 11 on pedestrian and parking improvements along Allen Parkway, part of an $11 million makeover that’s shifted the travel lanes on Allen south.

Officials also confirmed plans to meter parking along the bayou, to encourage turnover of the spots.

“The majority of users are visitors that are walking and jogging, riding their bike, taking their dog to the dog run, etc.,” said Angie Bertinot, director of marketing communications for the Houston Downtown Management District. “The three-hour time limit should suffice.”

Houston Downtown Redevelopment Authority, which is closely aligned with the management district, is overseeing the Allen rehab project expected to be completed in late September.

[…]

Growing demand for amenities in the Buffalo Bayou Park spurred officials to redevelop Allen to add parking, and make crossing the parkway more pedestrian-friendly. Slowing down traffic on the road – notorious for speeders who mistake the parkway for a freeway – also was a goal, downtown and city officials said.

Prior to the work slowdown in late May, traffic on Allen shifted to its new configuration. The remaining work focuses on landscaping, irrigation and some road repaving, said Lonnie Hoogeboom, director of planning and design for the Houston Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

“Also between July 11 and Sept. 30, the contractor will be constructing the new sidewalks with safer connections between Buffalo Bayou Park … and the west end of Sam Houston Park,” Hoogeboom said. “Transplanted live oaks have already been relocated to this area.”

Can’t wait to see what it looks like. We just have to make it through the summer first.

Still waiting for a design for I-45

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

The Purple City plan for I-45

Check it out.

Should a major freeway plan consider the needs of cyclists? Of transit riders?

And if we’re going to tear down and reconstruct the entire downtown freeway network of the fourth-largest city in America, shouldn’t the final result have better geometry than the mid-century structures it replaces?

The PDFs below contain an analysis of Houston traffic patterns, a critique of the current plans for Downtown Houston’s freeway ring, and an alternate proposal. My schematic requires less right-of-way, creates a continuous managed lane network for commuter buses and BRT, and eliminates all left-hand exits, among other improvements.

The plan is here, and a detailed schematic is here. I’ve read the plan and recommend you do as well, there are a lot of interesting and worthwhile ideas in there. Tory Gattis has a bullet point summary as well as the news that this has attracted the attention of TxDOT, which can only be a good thing. I’m still trying to make sense of the schematic, which is quite detailed, so I don’t have any analysis to offer here, but I do hope that we hear more about this, and in particular that we have a much broader discussion about what we want to happen. As Purple City notes in the introduction of this proposal, what we have now is the result of design decisions that were made decades ago. The reality around us has made some of those decisions less than optimal for us. This is an opportunity to completely change downtown and its environs in a way that better suits the Houston we have now, or it’s an opportunity to lock in those decades-old decisions for years to come. This is why I harped so much on this during the election last year. I still think it’s the most important issue that got exactly zero attention from anyone other than me during the campaigns. What do we want these freeways that dominate our city core to look like, and how do we want to interact with them? We need to understand those questions and give them our best answers. Link via Swamplot.

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.

Know any good, solvent highway construction firms?

TxDOT is looking for a few.

Drivers on Interstate 45 will wait longer for better connections to Loop 610 and U.S. 59 because a Woodlands-based contractor will have to be replaced.

The jobs, totaling about $102 million, were won by Tradeco Infraestructura, based in The Woodlands. The contractor is the American wing of the Mexican building giant Grupo Tradeco.

More than a year ago, the Texas Department of Transportation chose the company for three key jobs meant to relieve area congestion. The projects included two new ramps where I-45 crosses Loop 610 near Gulfgate Mall – from eastbound Loop 610 to I-45 northbound and from southbound I-45 to westbound Loop 610.

Tradeco also was the low bidder on a $28.5 million project to redesign how traffic moves from I-45 to U.S. 59 near the central business district. The project essentially moved the ramps to parallel lanes that carry northbound I-45 to downtown exits.

[…]

As of a Dec. 8 progress report, the ramp from southbound I-45 to westbound Loop 610 was 9.3 percent complete after work began on June 23, 2014.

TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said work can proceed after a new contractor is chosen, which should happen in the summer.

See this Chron story from June for more about the default. Not clear what went wrong or what if anything TxDOT could have done about it. Whatever the case, it’s back to the drawing board. Better luck next time, TxDOT.

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.

More on the proposed I-45 changes

Offcite reads the documents and provides some bullet points.

1. I-45 Would Rival I-10 in Width

The plan would dramatically widen I-45 to more than 30 lanes in certain sections. North of 610, I-45 would rival the Katy Freeway in its expanse. Though the west side of I-45 at Crosstimbers is largely vacant, TxDOT plans to take major right of way east of I-45 where many businesses thrive, including the Culinary Institute. The greater capacity to move automobiles might be accompanied by increased cancer risk and asthma for Houstonians generally, and for those living close to the path in particular.

2. I-69 Would Be Sunken through Midtown and Museum District

All of I-69 from Shepherd to Commerce Street would be sunk as deep as 20 feet below grade. That is to say, all the above-ground sections in Midtown and the Museum District (Greater Third Ward) would be sunken and widened, radically transforming the landscape in these neighborhoods. As Tory Gattis notes, the plans would eliminate the bottleneck at Spur 527.

3. TxDOT Would Demolish Apartments, Public Housing, and Homeless Services in EaDo

Lofts at the Ballpark, Clayton Homes (public housing), and the SEARCH building (a 27,000-square-foot facility for services to the homeless that is just now breaking ground) are in the path of the widened I-45/I-69 freeway east of Downtown, and will be torn down at the expense of taxpayers.

[…]

6. New Slimmed-Down Bridges for Cars to Cross Buffalo Bayou

The section of the “Pierce Elevated” over Buffalo Bayou would be rebuilt with new Downtown connectors that TxDOT alternately describes as “parkways” and “spurs.” Though the official rendering is dull, the public-private partnerships that have rebuilt the parks along the bayous might help bring about new iconic bridges for cars. A Sky Park in this location is unlikely because moving traffic across the bayou is considered a major priority for many stakeholders.

That’s a lot of real estate that could be sacrificed for this project, if it comes to pass – as the story notes, funding has not yet been secured for it. The bridges will be a contentious issue, at least in my neighborhood. Already there’s a disagreement between those who applaud and advocate for the closing of the North Street bridge, and those who want to maintain it so as not to cut off a large segment of the neighborhood from the east side of I-45. There are also some potentially good things that could happen, as item #2 points out. I’ll say again, if this goes through it will be the most consequential event of the next Mayor’s tenure. Sure would be nice to know what that Mayor thinks about it, wouldn’t it?

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.

TxDOT reveals its I-45 plan

Wow. Just, wow.

A massive reconstruction of Interstate 45 through most of Houston would topple one of downtown’s most frustrating barriers – the Pierce Elevated – and move the freeway east of the central business district.

That’s just one of the major changes Texas Department of Transportation officials included in the $6 billion-plus plan to be unveiled Thursday. It would make I-45 practically unrecognizable to those familiar with its current downtown-area configuration.

Two managed lanes in each direction will be added to the freeway between the Sam Houston Tollway and U.S. 59 south of the city’s central business district. Planners recommend moving I-45 to the east side of the city’s core, a change that an analysis suggests could increase downtown freeway speeds. Officials called it a once-in-a-lifetime change that would increase mobility and improve the city center.

“After having those freeways in the city for the better part of 70 years, it’s challenging and exciting to have the opportunity to come back and reshape how they fit,” said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District.

The first of three public meetings this month [was] scheduled for Thursday night, when residents and businesses will get their first detailed look at the plans. In 2013, when neighborhood leaders got a look at early versions, some feared the reconstruction would leave a big, concrete scar across their communities.

“I am really looking with dreaded anticipation for what they are going to propose,” said Jim Weston, president of the I-45 coalition, a group of residents tracking the freeway project. “There’s a lot of engineering and lots of questions about the design that really, I feel, TxDOT hasn’t answered.”

Remaking I-45 will take years, with numerous public meetings and more detailed analysis remaining. Officials said it is too early to pinpoint an exact cost, but transportation officials predict all of the work will cost “north of $6 billion,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT’s Houston office.

The final cost will be determined by when officials can start construction, likely in phases starting in downtown Houston after 2017. The central business district parts of the plan alone will cost about $3 billion.

Much of that cost comes from moving the freeway. Eventually, I-45 will move from the west side of downtown and follow the same route U.S. 59 does now east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, according to the plans. The two freeways will split where they now cross near Pierce Street.

Perhaps just as importantly, transportation officials are designing segments of the new or combined freeways as depressed roadways, meaning local street traffic flows above them, similar to U.S. 59 west of Spur 527. East of the convention center and between Cavalcade and Quitman streets, the space above the freeways could be developed as open green space or a park-like setting.

See here and here for the most recent updates. The public meeting documents are here. I’m still working my way through them. I’m happy that the roundabout idea appears to be kaput, but there’s a billion details to work out, and until we really understand what this is all about, it’s impossible to say if this is good, bad, or indifferent. I’m more hopeful now than I was before, but I need to read the docs and hear what the folks who have followed this more closely than I have are saying. And – and I really cannot say this often enough – we need to know what the Mayoral candidates think about this. Forget pensions and potholes, if this project goes forward more or less as detailed here, this will be the defining issue of the next Mayor’s tenure. What is your impression of this?

Rearranging the traffic

Not sure how much of an effect this will have.

Among the 200,000 motorists who traverse Interstate 45 just south of downtown every day, a fair number find themselves weaving frantically from lane to lane as they approach the connection with U.S. 59.

State transportation officials hope to reduce the stress felt by these drivers, and to unclog a notorious bottleneck, by changing the design of the spot where two of Houston’s most heavily traveled freeways meet.

An upcoming project will move access to U.S. 59 to the parallel elevated lanes that now connect drivers to downtown. The change will require drivers to head to U.S. 59 about a mile farther south, but officials believe the transitions will be smoother.

“The big thing is to prevent the weaving,” Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Danny Perez said. “Traffic tends to bottleneck there.”

When the U.S. 59 connections move to the existing downtown access ramp, traffic bound for the central business district will shift to a new exit ramp with access to St. Joseph and Pease.

The change also will make it impossible for drivers to enter northbound I-45 from Scott and race across several lanes to access U.S. 59 south.

Officials say the new design will keep traffic moving by eliminating the weaving toward ramps that feed left and right from northbound I-45 – leaving drivers who want to continue north on the freeway in the middle.

This is a good idea, and I do think it will help. It will also be nice to have some new ways to enter and exit the freeway from south of downtown. But let’s maintain some perspective here. Eliminating the weaving and all that is nice, but I-45 will still narrow down to two lanes as it enters the Pierce Elevated, and that will create a bottleneck no matter what they do with the US59 part of it. I’m more than a little curious to know what will become of those two left lanes if they’re not an offramp to 59 and 288. The story doesn’t address either of these points, and I’m left wondering if this is all part of the downtown roundabout plan. Construction may start as soon as December, so I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

The trouble with the Southwest Freeway

I think the problem is easy enough to identify. The solution is another matter.

Houston-area transportation planners are considering some novel strategies – at least for Texas – for managing traffic to ease congestion on U.S. 59 between downtown Houston and the Sam Houston Tollway.

Among the steps that may be considered are clearing accidents more quickly, restricting trucks to certain lanes and allowing buses to use freeway shoulders.

First, though, planners are running ideas by the public.

A variety of agencies, corralled by Houston-Galveston Area Council planners, have been discussing options for short-term fixes to U.S. 59 traffic. The puzzle regional planners are hoping to solve has one major constraint.

“The approach for this study is not taking more right of way or adding more lanes,” said Bill Tobin, chief transportation planner for H-GAC.

Using the same lanes more efficiently is a big challenge along the 14-mile stretch of U.S. 59. Officials estimate 300,000 vehicles use the freeway on an average work day.

Often, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said at a recent meeting, the congestion defies common assumptions.

“It has baffled me for many, many years why inbound the Southwest Freeway backs up in the afternoon,” Emmett said, noting one would expect most traffic to be heading away from downtown jobs and back to suburban homes.

All due respect, but I don’t think there’s anything to be baffled about. Heading northbound on 59, when you hit Loop 610 there are five lanes. At the downtown spur, north of Greenbriar, it narrows down to three lanes, as the two leftmost lanes peel off onto the spur. Then when you get to the I-45 junction a mile or so farther north, it squeezes down to two lanes as the leftmost lane is exit only. This is also the point at which 288 merges into 59, which returns to three lanes and stays that way till you get north of I-10. And this isn’t really “inbound” traffic in the traditional sense, either. It’s people heading from employment centers like Greenway Plaza and the Galleria, not to mention the Medical center for all those 288 folks, to the various suburbs via 59 and 45. It’s the same reason why 288 northbound backs up in the afternoon. What to do about it, I have no idea – the suggestions proffered are fine, though I doubt they’ll make much difference – but putting a finger on the cause is easy enough.

Culberson says he’s killed the University Line

And maybe he has, though it wasn’t going anywhere at this time anyway.

Residents and business owners along Richmond Avenue are breathing a sigh of relief — at least for now — as U.S. Rep. John Culberson has had his way, quashing federal funding for light-rail along Richmond, west of Shepherd, and on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond. Rail proponents on the other hand will be disappointed to hear that Culberson succeeded in getting the key amendment tacked onto the transportation leg of the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill recently passed by the Senate.

“I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” Culberson told CultureMap following a fundraising luncheon at Tony’s, which not so coincidentally is located on Richmond.

Culberson trumped METRO in his long-running feud with the local transportation agency. He has been threatening and attempting to get his law passed for several years. “It’s a permanent federal statutory law. So it’s a felony if any governmental entities attempt to spend any federal money to push rail on those routes,” he said.

METRO board chairman Gilbert Garcia called the move “very disappointing.” He noted, however, “This is not our focus. We’ve got a full plate right now and we are not taking steps to complete the University Line. First and foremost, we want to complete the other two lines, get time under them.”

The water is muddy on the potential for future federal monies for rail along Richmond and Post Oak Boulevard. Culberson says the federal funding prohibition is permanent. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond,” he said.

I’m pretty sure Culberson, who tried this trick before, does not have the power to tell future Congresses what they can and cannot do. Congress will pass other budget and appropriations bills after this one, so some pro-University Line member of Congress, like maybe Rep. Ted Poe, could get an amendment in there to undo what Culberson did. Doing something is certainly harder than stopping something that hasn’t been done, so Culberson has the advantage now, but it’s not the final word. Despite his protestations about the popularity of rail on Richmond, opposing its construction has not been an electoral winner in the precincts along the proposed line. Perhaps this will galvanize rail proponents and they will help defeat Culberson in an election; a future Republican primary is the more likely path for that, but anything could happen. Perhaps Metro and the other stakeholders will get tired of Culberson’s act and find their own funding. The options aren’t great, but they never have been. The point is that the fight isn’t over just because Culberson says it is.

One more thing:

Not completely opposed to rail, Culberson noted that he has already begun working with Congressman Al Green on possible rail connections from Fort Bend County and that he would support the US 90A southwest rail corridor. On another potential east-west light rail route, Culberson said, “West Park would be perfect. They have the right of way.”

That was news to Garcia. “We would welcome him to shift his approach,” Garcia said. “That would be new information to me. If he told you that, that would be great.”

I suspect Culberson is peddling snake oil here, but let’s take him at his word for the sake of argument. Westpark only runs as far east as Kirby, and east of Shepherd you’re literally in people’s backyards. How do you connect the east end of the line at Montrose to the proposed Westpark part of it? That subject came up in 2006 and the non-Richmond options generated a lot of neighborhood opposition as well as some creative but impractically expensive solutions. Even if there is an affordable way to do this that the area residents would support, the simple fact remains that Richmond is where the people are, and Westpark isn’t. Getting to Richmond from Westpark or vice versa means walking under US59, which is not terribly appealing from a pedestrian perspective. Putting it another way, rail on Westpark will have lower ridership and thus be less useful. Why would we want to do that? If the choice truly is “Westpark” or nothing, then “Westpark” is better, warts and all. I see no harm in Gilbert Garcia giving Culberson a call and seeing if he’s willing to put some money where his big mouth is. I don’t think he means it, and even if he does I don’t think it’s the right answer, as I don’t think this fight is over. But let’s go ahead and find out, so we at least know what’s on the table. Link via Swamplot.

Reminder: I-45 public meeting tonight

From The Highwayman:

As officials take another step in the process of widening Interstate 45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway, one option to essentially make the teardrop-shaped inner loop created by I-45 and U.S. 59 an odd confluence of I-45 running along both sides of the business district remains a possibility, according to planning to handouts for a Thursday meeting.

Texas Department of Transportation officials have spent years planning for a wider I-45 north of downtown, holding public sessions for the past decade to gather comment. Residents, especially those within Loop 610 north of downtown, have vehemently and vocally opposed any idea that widens the freeway in its existing right of way.

After a lot of winnowing of options, TxDOT officials have proposed three options for adding lanes between Loop 610 and Interstate 10. The first simply widens the freeway by adding two carpool/toll lanes in each direction, either by taking more right of way or by burying the freeway and capping it with concrete so the frontage road is atop the freeway. Two other options add the managed lanes either as a center-bridge structure or double-decking the managed lanes.

Things get even more complex south of I-10, where the three remaining options seem to be widening the Pierce Elevated portion of I-45 and making Pierce Street more narrow; moving I-45 to where U.S. 59 is and running the freeways parallel along the eastern side of downtown while tearing out the Pierce and turning the route into a parkway to get to I-10; and leaving I-45 southbound lanes on the Pierce Elevated and moving the northbound lanes to follow U.S. 59.

See here, here, and here for more on the meeting, and here for more on the giant downtown highway roundabout. Personally, I think all of these choices are lousy, but if you forced me to pick one anyway, I’d take the bury-the-freeway option. I have a schedule conflict and can’t attend this meeting tonight, so if you go please feel free to tell us about it in the comments, or drop me a note at kuff – at – offthekuff – dot – com. Thanks.

UPDATE: Today’s Chron story has some more detail.

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.

Roundabouts in the sky

I have three things to say about this.

The words will make you down and out

Imagine driving into downtown Houston on interstates 10 or 45, or U.S. 59, and having to merge with all other incoming traffic onto an elevated, one-way traffic circle around the cluster of skyscrapers.

If downtown isn’t your final destination, you would stay on the circle until you got to the point where your freeway picks back up. Otherwise, you would pick an off-ramp to exit.

For now, the concept – a first-of-its-kind roundabout fed by multiple major highways rather than surface streets – is one of many untested and undeveloped ideas that local transportation entities will entertain as they begin taking a more creative look at how to relieve congestion in the highly developed area inside Loop 610 in an era of declining state funding.

[…]

Ted Houghton, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, which governs TxDOT, turned heads when he described the concept as both “fascinating” and “feasible” during a breakfast address in Houston in early August.

“Believe that, or not, but that is a recommendation,” Houghton told the Houston Realty Business Coalition. “In other words, if you’re coming north on 59 to downtown and you want to get to 45, you will get on that roundabout and get spit out either north or south onto 45.”

Houghton said the fate of the concept largely would be contingent on public input – “the outcry of the folks who are going to drive that and work downtown.”

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said regardless of whether the roundabout idea is workable, it’s indicative of the creative thinking that’s been sparked by an array of challenges facing transportation leaders.

People like Clark are charged with figuring out how best to reduce crippling congestion in a highly developed area while minimizing the impact on traffic flow and the need for more land – all as the area’s population explodes and funding for transportation dwindles.

Clark also noted that Houston has multiple, major employment centers that are as spread out as its suburbs, meaning rush hour traffic doesn’t flow in just one direction. And since multiple, major freeways converge downtown, travelers headed elsewhere often get stuck in the bottleneck there.

1. I gather from Houghton’s comment that the traffic would be going counterclockwise. That would leave the flow of I-10 West, I-45 South, and US 59 North unaffected, but would mean taking a noon-to-eight equivalent detour around the circle if you’re going the other way. I think I can predict what that outcry is going to sound like.

2. The fact that funding for transportation is “declining” and “dwindling” is not the result of some natural law over which we have no control. It’s entirely the result of policy decisions, beginning with the refusal to increase the gas tax over the past 20 years, that leave us now with population growth and transportation needs that far outstrip our ability to pay for them. Rather than come up with these crazy-sounding solutions to work around our entirely self-inflicted problem of insufficient transportation funding, we could, you know, work to redesign the funding mechanism for transportation in such a way as to make it adequate and sufficient for our needs. Some people in Texas are talking about real solutions to our infrastructure problems, others don’t understand the question. Solving political problems is much harder than solving technological problems, but the former are almost always more foundational.

3. I’ll keep saying this till I’m blue in the face, but we cannot solve this problem if we are not working to provide alternatives to taking crowded freeways through downtown for people who don’t really need to be taking freeways. I speak once again of better and more extensive transit, which would make it easier for people who are just trying to get from one place inside the Loop to another to leave the highways to the suburbanites and long-haul truckers. You don’t want people like me clogging up the Pierce Elevated as I commute from the Heights to the Medical Center. There will thankfully be a transit alternative for me in a couple of years, but there needs to be a lot more of this. Highways should be for long trips, not short trips.

Here comes I-69

Best have your tinfoil hat at the ready.

The first Houston-area piece of a trade corridor — debated for more than a decade and envisioned as one day linking Mexico to Canada — has been officially designated.

Motorists will soon notice new road signs naming a 35-mile stretch of existing U.S. 59, from the 610 Loop to FM 787 in Cleveland, as part of the new Interstate 69.

With little fanfare, the Texas Transportation Commission recently voted to put up the new signage while keeping the U.S. 59 designation.

The I-69 corridor, the so-called NAFTA Superhighway that is supposed to connect the Texas-Mexico border to America’s heartland, has been on the drawing board since at least 2002. Plans to make the corridor wide enough to include tollways, rail and utility lines were phased out in 2009 in favor of a more traditional corridor that will be built in small increments.

The project has met with opposition from farmers and ranchers championing private property rights and others who opposed a large toll-road component of the plan.

That’s one way of putting it. There’s already a seven-mile stretch of highway down by Corpus Christi that has the I-69 designation, and according to Wikipedia there are little bits of I-69 in other states as well. If you’re unsure what I mean by the “tinfoil hat” remark, I suggest you spend a few minutes Googling “NAFTA superhighway”; all will be abundantly clear. Or just spend a few minutes giggling like a schoolboy about the new name. Either way it’s not likely to make too much difference in your daily life, but at least now you know.

You should also plan to drive on I-69 sooner rather than later, because it’s gonna get crowded pretty quick.

As the transformation of U.S. 59 in Houston to Interstate 69 continues, projections show an increase in traffic of up to 150 percent by 2035. Experts say traffic will increase regardless of whether the so-called NAFTA Superhighway, envisioned two decades ago as a trade route from Mexico through Houston to Canada, is fully built.

[…]

Houston’s segment, which already experiences traffic pileups and is not scheduled for any expansion under the plan, would be hit with the largest increase in traffic volume on Texas’ interstate route.

“But that traffic is coming to us no matter what we do. We are going to see a huge increase in freight — more than 300 percent in a little over a decade,” said a committee member, Ashby Johnson, the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s deputy transportation director. “Some of it is coming from NAFTA and some of it’s from the widening of the Panama Canal.”

Imagine how nasty the northbound approach to I-45 will be by then. Naturally, there’s no plan to deal with it. If I’m still in the same office, I’ll definitely be taking the train to work by then. Thomas 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.

Here come the HOT lanes

Metro's HOV system

Those of you who commute from the ‘burbs into the central core will have new options for how to get there, if you don’t mind spending a few bucks.

Solo drivers willing to pay extra to breeze through heavy traffic could get their chance soon, with Metro expected to start opening its high-occupancy toll lanes early this year.

Metro officials had previously projected a January start to the high-occupancy toll lanes but now say they don’t have a specific date, agency spokesman Jerome Gray said Friday by email.

“We are undergoing final testing of the infrastructure,” Gray said. “In addition, we are completing the integration of the toll processing with HCTRA (Harris County Toll Road Authority). Once that is complete we should be ready to go.”

The Metro board approved this change in November. There have been HOT lanes on the Katy Freeway since 2009 – they call them managed lanes, but it’s the same thing with lower tolls. The thing I’ve always wondered about is how they know whom to toll, and whom to ticket if they’ve neither a tag or enough passengers.

Metro’s tolls will apply only to drivers with no passengers who opt to use the HOV lanes for a price. Single-occupant vehicles will enter the lane through a designated path that allows tolling.

Vehicles with at least two occupants will not be charged a toll.

Booth attendants will monitor the number of passengers in vehicles entering the HOT lanes, and Metro police will patrol the lanes.

Violators who evade the toll will be assessed a $75 fine, while “occupancy violators” (solo drivers who use the lanes when they are designated for HOV use only) will be issued a citation requiring a court appearance.

More on that is here. Maybe it works simpler than it sounds. Anyone have experience with the Katy lanes? Hair Balls has more.

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.

Hardy Toll Road extension gets final OK

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of folks who live in the affected area:

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

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

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

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

The EaDo decade

Things are looking good for a wave of development in East Downtown, a/k/a EaDo.

Discussions are under way for a six-block-long linear park in EaDo, and there is talk, still in the early stages, of a 1,000-room convention hotel.

The area has already seen plenty of apartment complexes built in the past few years, and a music venue and bars have also popped up. But it also has its share of warehouses, vacant lots and boarded buildings.

The more residential density in the area, the greater the chance it will also produce a thriving entertainment district, [Anita Kramer, senior director of retail and mixed-use development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.] said.

“EaDo has all the potential in the world,” said David Cook, executive vice president and shareholder at the Cushman & Wakefield real estate firm.

“I see the same kind of blossoming in EaDo as we saw in Midtown.”

EaDo is a triangle-shaped area bounded by U.S. 59, the Gulf Freeway and the Union Pacific rail line running from Cullen to Congress. The soccer stadium, clubs and the planned promenade and the hotel under discussion are in the section closest to downtown.

EaDo land prices have increased dramatically recently, Cook said – to the $50-per-square-foot range, about the same as in Midtown, from around $25 to $30. By comparison, Cook said, land is about $400 per square foot downtown.

The area has already seen fairly significant growth this past decade. I believe that it will see a lot more, and will establish itself as a significant population center. Proximity to downtown is a valuable thing, and while there are still corridors close to downtown that have room for development, EaDo has the most in one place. There’s one thing that might hold it back, however.

“A complete redevelopment in EaDo is likely more long-term than short-term, but all indicators are positive,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said.

She added, “I do believe Highway 59 creates a visual and psychological barrier, and it is quite possible there will be a thriving downtown and EaDo side by side.”

The city will try to bridge that barrier with improved lighting and sidewalks and street signs to help people find their way under the overpass, she said.

Here’s a radical suggestion: Rebuild that stretch of US59 so that it’s underground instead of above it. You know, like it is from Midtown to 610, where you’ll note that neighborhood development is more continuous. It’s not a panacea – I-45 still serves as a barrier north of downtown even though it’s a trench and not an overpass; there is an alternate suggestion for that as well – but I’m willing to bet it would help. That would cost a boatload of money, of course, for which the federal government would need to pick up the tab, but why not see what support might exist for it? If it gets anywhere, maybe we can try to do the same for the Pierce Elevated next. It won’t change history, but it would still be a good idea.

You should now be avoiding Buffalo Speedway

Ugh.

Road work designed to solve traffic jams at Buffalo Speedway and U.S. 59 is scheduled to get under way Tuesday, Feb. 15.

Work will begin on the east side of Buffalo Speedway between Bissonnet Drive and U.S. 59, with all traffic shifted to the west side.

For the next five to six months, there will be one lane of traffic in each direction, with a “continuous” turn lane between them, on the west side of Buffalo, said Travis Younkin, director of Capital Projects for the Upper Kirby Management District.

When the east side is repaired, traffic will be shifted to one lane in each direction on the east side.

The work entails burying utility lines and improving drainage, but the primary objective is enhancing mobility, Younkin said.

And in the meantime, it’s going to be hell. I drove by this on Monday and saw the prep work going on but was too in denial about it to realize what it meant. According to the latest Upper Kirby Weekly Construction Update, the “goal for completion of the entire reconstruction of Buffalo Speedway is November 2011”. You have been warned.

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.

Gandhi Street

Hillcroft Street may get another name.

Lined with international shops and restaurants, Hillcroft is known for its vast diversity. Now the India Culture Center wants to rename Hillcroft as Mahatma Gandhi Street, to honor the late spiritual leader.

Indian business owner Vimla Patel said, “It is good for Indian people. It is good for our country.”

[…]

Houston city council member MJ Khan said, “I think everybody should be part of being Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy.”

Khan says he will support changing Hillcroft’s name to Mahatma Gandhi Avenue, if that’s what the community wants.

“Our city is a very international city so I think it will help if we start branding that area,” Khan explained.

I think that’s a perfectly rational reason for wanting to change the name, though as others mentioned in the story, there are plenty of other cultures represented in the area as well. Hillcroft, which changes names several times as you go north, starting with Voss just past Westheimer, doesn’t need that many more names. That said, I think KJB434’s comment on Swamplot to make it a dual name, adding a sign on top as they do in areas like Little Saigon and Chinatown, is quite sensible and could also be used to address the matter of the other cultures. We do this in some other places – US59 is subtitled the Senator Lloyd Bentsen Highway, after all – so why not on Hillcroft? If you’re going to make a change, I’d prefer the addition to the substitution. Not making any changes is fine by me, too. Hair Balls has more.

What next for Wilshire Village?

Nancy Sarnoff runs an obituary for the Wilshire Village apartments, which are slated for demolition now that they have been officially declared a fire hazard.

A historic Inner Loop apartment complex, once slated for a high-rise redevelopment, was shut down last week after city officials ordered residents to vacate the property.

[…]

The complex is the 1940s Wilshire Village apartments at the corner of West Alabama and Dunlavy, one of three Federal Housing Administration-insured garden apartment complexes built here and the only one still in existence, according to architectural historian Stephen Fox.

In 2005, the owner announced plans to tear it down and possibly build an upscale tower in its place.

Matt Dilick, a commercial real estate developer who controls the partnership that owns Wilshire Village, said the demolition process will start “relatively soon.”

“The buildings are unsafe, and for numerous years prior groups have not kept the buildings maintained or the property up to city code,” he said. “The dilapidated buildings are an eyesore to the public and to the numerous homeowners and businesses in the area.”

[…]

As far the property’s redevelopment, “plans have not been released,” said Dilick, adding that the prime site is best suited for apartments, shops and a hotel.

Okay, an apartment is obvious; one hopes this one will be better maintained than the Wilshire ultimately was. Shops I can see, as long as they figure out how to incorporate parking. The other side of Dunlavy is a strip center anchored by a Fiesta, so more shops would fit in just fine. But a hotel? And was this really considered a good spot for a high-rise? I can’t see it. Dunlavy is a narrow little street. It’s not particularly close to an entrance or exit on 59, which would seem to be a negative for a hotel. It’s not far from Greenway Plaza or the Museum District, but as far as I know there’s no shortage of hotels in those areas, certainly not one acute enough that it would need to be relieved by new construction there. It’s all bungalows in the immediate area, so anything over three stories would stick out like a sore thumb. Basically, it’s analogous to the Ashby Highrise, with slightly better vehicular throughput potential and probably less political clout. I don’t see how a hotel makes sense, and I don’t even see how a developer might see how a hotel makes sense. Am I missing something?

Actually, there is one possibility: The Universities line will have a stop at Dunlavy, so the area will have very easy access to light rail. Maybe that figures in to the calculation. Whether that’s the case or not, I hope whoever redevelops the property includes improvements to the sidewalk, as that will make getting to that rail stop much more pleasant. And hopefully whatever does get built there will be at least mostly done before the U-line is in place, so that stretch won’t be all torn up while people are trying to get to the station. Swamplot has more.

We’ll always have bottlenecks

Andrew Burleson points out an ugly fact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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