Boy, that spiffy new Westpark Tollway is something else, isn't it? Now they've had to close the exit ramp to the Southwest Freeway because it's a safety hazard.
The Harris County Toll Road Authority closed the eastbound exit from the 4-week-old highway to northbound U.S. 59 on Tuesday afternoon because of concerns that its design, combined with bad driving behavior, is a recipe for collisions.
Art Storey, the county's director of public infrastructure, said he anticipates the decision will cost the authority thousands of dollars a day, and the entire tollway might have to be closed for a time to make the safety modifications.
Here's the problem: The ramp dumps fast-moving tollway traffic into a notoriously congested area where the Southwest Freeway approaches Loop 610. Tollway drivers wanting to reach the Inner Loop are placed in the freeway's right lane, which shortly becomes an exit-only lane to Chimney Rock. Because the West Loop is under construction, many motorists lately have been using Chimney Rock as a back door to the Galleria area.
As dozens of cars line up while trying to move right to reach the Chimney Rock off ramp, the entering traffic attempts to merge left, creating a hazard. Adding to the trouble: A car that's just come off the tollway then has to merge across a couple more lanes to continue on U.S. 59 because those right-hand lanes are used as exits to the Loop.
"Just envision somebody coming off our ramp at 45 mph trying to cross all that to get into the inside lanes," Storey said. "It's a difficult movement under the best of circumstances."
Storey announced the ramp closure at Tuesday morning's Commissioners Court meeting. Steve Radack, whose precinct includes the tollway, blames impatient drivers for the current design's failure.
"It wouldn't be this huge problem if people would not break the law, if they would pay attention to the solid white stripes" that prohibit lane changes, Radack said. "Since we have a tremendous amount of people ignoring the striping, it creates a hazard."
Elsewhere, I see that Mayor White's new tow truck rules, a big part of his overall transportation package, have gone through.
The key piece of the plan divides the city's freeway network into zones and authorizes the auctioning of exclusive towing authority to one wrecker firm per zone to ensure vehicles crashed or stalled will be removed promptly.
White's towing plan survived mostly intact, though he did agree to three modifications prior to the council meeting. In the next few months, the Houston Police Department will draft rules, set towing prices and begin negotiating contracts. White agreed to council's request to require its approval of those rules.
The administration blessed two other changes: Wrecker companies will not need to possess heavy-duty equipment in order to bid on the segments and separate contracts will be issued for towing large trucks.
The Police Department must consult with the industry when designing the zones.