September 25, 2005
Contraflow controversy

There will be many questions asked over the next few weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. One that's being asked now is whether the inbound highway lanes could have been opened in a more timely manner that they were on Thursday.

The so-called contra-flow lane change, part of the state emergency plans, was implemented only Thursday morning, drawing criticism from frustrated motorists who ended up spending more than 24 hours on a drive that normally takes less than five hours.

Gov. Rick Perry said decisions were complicated by Rita's changing course over the past several days.

Early projections, which had it hitting between Houston and Corpus Christi, moved gradually north.

At one point, forecasters fingered the Houston area and its 4 million residents.

"Once Houston in particular was in the bull's-eye, if you will, then a decision had to be made, which Mayor [Bill] White and [Harris County] Judge [Robert] Eckels did appropriately and timely," Mr. Perry said.

"Being able to switch over that southbound lane of I-45 and I-10, it doesn't happen at the drop of a hat," he said.

Transportation Department officials have said they did not strongly consider converting highways to one-way traffic before this week.

That step had long been considered a last resort.

But the size of the evacuation led officials to reconsider. By midweek, highways leading north and west from Houston recorded traffic increases up to 339 percent.

"It became absolutely apparent that more had to be done," said Randall Dillard, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation.

Closing highways to inbound traffic poses massive logistical challenges.

The transportation department estimates that about 130 entrance and exit ramps were barricaded along Interstates 45 and 10 and U.S. Highways 69 and 96.

The closures then had to be staffed with police or other officials to prevent motorists from driving around barricades and causing head-on collisions.

Brian Wolshon, a professor of civil engineering at Louisiana State University, said Texas officials "will probably see there were things they could have done better."

But he added: "It's not economically or environmentally feasible to build enough roads to evacuate a city the size of Houston in a short time and with no congestion.

"It's just not going to happen."

Personally, I'm inclined to cut the decisionmakers some slack on this. I think the sheer number of people who evacuated was more than they expected, and I think once they realized this they acted as quickly as they reasonably could. This was a huge job. TxDOT and local police forces blocked off neaerly 200 miles of I-45 in a matter of hours. I'm just not willing to say they should have done it sooner than they did.

I mean, most people went to work in Houston on Wednesday. Schools were open. I-45 South and I-10 East were being used as they normally are. There was a risk of cutting people off from their homes before they had a chance to get out. You could have tried doing all this at night, I guess, but at what risk to the people who were doing the actual work clearing the roads and blocking the entrance ramps? I don't buy it.

There's one more thing to keep in mind here, and that's even with the contraflow lanes, the traffic demand overwhelmed everything. I-45 didn't start to move for us until we were north of Conroe, and that was only because people started to pull off the road. North of FM1488 (the original starting point for the I-45 contraflow) there's only two lanes on each side. It's that narrowing from six to four, and earlier from eight or nine to six, which will always cause bottlenecks. (And that doesn't take into account other choke points, such as the junction at US59, which is also two lanes on each side.) Unless you're willing to start evacuating several days sooner, and to enforce a south-to-north priority pattern (think of a church exiting one pew at a time, from front to back), you're always going to have more cars than the roads can handle.

That doesn't mean that we have to accept what happened as inevitable or the best we can do. I agree with Rick Casey that a full after-action review is called for, and I agree with Stace that we could have done a lot better ensuring there was enough gasoline for the evacuees. On this point, though, I'm okay with the decisions that were made.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 25, 2005 to Hurricane Katrina | TrackBack

On the way from Corpus to San Antonio they have gates that can be closed at exits and onramps. That way, you don't need to put officers at each on/off ramp and you can reverse traffic faster.

Posted by: matth on September 25, 2005 4:51 PM

Personally, I'm inclined to cut the decisionmakers some slack on this.

Well, I'm not.

How many years have the regional planners had to consider the consequences of 40% of the population taking their advice and evacuating at the threat of a Cat 5 hurricane? Three or four days from landfall?

What confidence do you have in their plan for a terror event -- say, a dirty nuke going off near the Ship Channel (with, oh maybe, 80% of the area's residents fleeing on a few hours' notice)?

And I expect Rick Perry will start selling his toll road again as a remedy.

You may have missed the press conference Thursday morning, Charles, where the contraflow plan for three outbound freeways was announced (Bill White said they'd take Metro buses if necessary and block entrance ramps). That news was the only reason I hit 45 two hours after you did, because I figured it would open up. I was even provisioned for a 24-hour trip, as that was the media's account.

But after crawling six miles in five hours, I chose not to trust myself to their judgment any longer.

That 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome' recreation on the interstates was a colossal cluster-you-know-what, and it lies right at the feet of TxDOT.

Let's see, does the Governor appoint those positions? Behrens is an Aggie...

Posted by: PDiddie on September 25, 2005 9:00 PM

I'm with PDiddie on this one. The idea of how, when and where to set up contraflow on major transportation arteries should be part of a plan devised well ahead of time. Listen to the news conferences while stuck in traffic it was clear that wasn't the case.

Need proof? Throughout Thursday's updates the promises were that contraflow would be set up on I-10, 290 and I-45. They did contraflow I-10 and I-45 but they never "contraflowed" 290. They didn't know exactly what they were doing and were making it up on the fly.

Here's a idea. Make a plan before hurricane season hits. Make note of where you have construction projects in progress and include that in your plan. Tell the road contractors to knock it off 72 hours in advance and give you as much space as possible. (Hint - write this provision into the contract prior to award.) Prepositition materials and machinery to create crossovers in the medians. The military has rapid runway repair team that can get bombed out airstrips functional for jet traffic in 12 hours or less. Check with them to see how they do it. Lastly, law enforcement needs to keep an eye on the big picture - public safety. I have heard more than one report where people who safely navigated across the median from regular to contraflow lanes were forced back across the median into the congested lanes because they had made an illegal crossing. YGSM.

Posted by: patrick on September 26, 2005 8:55 AM

This event showed how quickly motorists could overrun highway capacity, leaving people vulnerable in the wake of natural or manmade disasters.

It seems reasonable to expect the state of Texas to be able to convert the contraflow lanes within 5-6 hours (especially when they knew a hurricane disaster was possible). On another note, people needed significantly better reporting about traffic situations.

They should have had webcams every 5 miles or so with real-time traffic updates. Local reporters were doing their best, but I remember watching about 30-35 minutes of crappy local coverage before I found out how congested I-10 was, and how far the congestion extended. Unnecessary and unacceptable.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on September 26, 2005 1:52 PM

Put Governor Goodhair against the wall and let everyone stuck on 10 or 290 or 59 or 45 pull the trigger. That might solve some problems.

Posted by: johnr on September 26, 2005 5:45 PM

Well, the Gov sure didn't do himself any favors with his absolutely insane statement on Thursday. Paraphrasing when asked about all the cars running out of gas on the freeways during the "evacuation" he said that two days before he had warned residents to fill their gas tanks and obviously that call had gone unheeded. Had he been there I'd have punched him in the mouth.

Posted by: Patrick on September 27, 2005 7:25 AM