TxDOT's plans for renovating I-45 have undergone some revision since the big town hall meeting at Jeff Davis High School in August, but due to a request from the I-45 Coalition for more time to study data on arterial road traffic, the latest version will be delayed for three more weeks.
At an Oct. 28 meeting of the Houston-Galveston Area Council's Transportation Policy Council, TxDOT withdrew from the agenda a vote that would have likely allowed it to move forward with the next stage of its plan.
The withdrawal came after the community group the I-45 Coalition asked for three weeks to study data about the feasibility of making improvements to arterial roads near I-45 that may lessen the impact of the freeway expansion.
The item, which was withdrawn after lengthy debate by council member and TxDOT district engineer Gary Trietsch, will now be placed on the council's Nov. 18 agenda.
State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, addressed the council on behalf of the I-45 Coalition, stating that — given the rocky relationship between TxDOT and the community regarding the expansion — the request to put off the vote for three more weeks was a valid one as citizens try to gather all of the possible data regarding the project.
"The relationship between the I-45 Coalition and TxDOT expands back several years," Farrar said. "This year marked a serious breakdown in communication and trust. Suspicions began to arrive about TxDOT's motives, because we felt that TxDOT was trying to go around the community with this.
"TxDOT did not engage in direct and ongoing dialogue. There have been hurt feelings."
At last week's meeting, Janet Kennison of Carter-Burgess, TxDOT's consultant in the project, presented changes that were made to the revised report following discussions with community members.
Among those changes was a new cost estimate of $2.1 billion for the preferred plan. TxDOT has also agreed to consider a number of alternatives that could ease the burden on residents who live near I-45, including adding lanes to the Hardy Toll Road along with or instead of I-45, and the possible implementation of a tunnel for portions of the freeway.
TxDOT also agreed to consider improvements to arterial roads like Fulton, Harper and Yale to take some pressure off the main highway, and has agreed not to consider any alternatives that would expand the freeway beyond 12 lanes.
The I-45 Coalition's request at last week's meeting was for data regarding potential improvements to arterial roads and how they fit into the overall plan to expand the freeway.
The coalition requested delaying the H-GAC vote on the TxDOT report so it can analyze data on those arterial roads.
The Transportation Policy Council has the authority to approve proposals for federal road projects in the area. The council was initially expected to vote on TxDOT's preferred alternative in July, but that vote was delayed after public outcry at the July I-45 Coalition meeting.
On Oct. 21, TxDOT's preferred alternative was approved by another arm of the H-GAC, the Technical Advisory Committee.
TxDOT officials at the TPC meeting said that while they have worked with the I-45 Coalition and other community members regarding issues with the preliminary report, it's now time to let the council make its decision.
"Due to the significant community objection at that (July) meeting, we've put this off," said Pat Henry, director of project development for TxDOT. "I think we've agreed to everything that's been requested. I think it's time to let us move on."
TPC member Art Storey, executive director of Harris County Public Infrastructure, agreed with the delay.
"A delay of 30 days at the behest of elected officials is a recognition of how important this is," Storey said. "I'm for it. I think the end result is going to be the same, and I don't see how waiting three more weeks hurts."
Farrar assured the council that come Nov. 18, the I-45 Coalition will not seek any further delays in the TPC's vote.
Following TPC approval of its plan, the next stage of the I-45 project will be a feasibility study to determine exactly what can be done along the I-45 corridor, a process that is expected to take at least three years and that Trietsch said would involve significant community input.
For example, I have a relatively frequent need to drive to places on or near the North Loop - to the Lowes and Home Depots up there, to a branch of my bank, etc. I can take I-45 to the Loop, or I can jog over to Yale of Shepherd and take them to the Loop. The latter is more direct, since I have to go east to get to I-45, then head back west to my destination, but outside of normal crunch times the former is usually faster. I'm sure there are others like me who do this sort of thing; the question is how many and what might make us choose the local route more consistently. That's what the Coalition wants more time for - to finish analyzing that data.
The reasons why this is important are twofold. One thing that greatly affects traffic on I-45 (and on I-10) is that a lot of it comes not from commuters but from area residents making short trips. That's why these roads are never really empty during the day - they're always in demand because they're almost always the fastest route to wherever you're going, even if they're not the most direct route. Having better non-highway alternatives will surely ease the pressure on them.
Also, roads like Yale and Shepherd provide fairly direct access from points north of 610 to downtown, with alternatives like I-10, Memorial Drive, Allen Parkway, and West Dallas as the last step. We know some people already use these routes when they commute each day. How many more might do so if these roads were better suited for that purpose?
So the question is, would improving arterial roads be enough to mitigate the need for as many extra lanes that are being proposed? And if it is, is there enough trust to believe that TxDOT will do that as an alternative, or would they improve those roads while pushing I-45 out to 12 lanes anyway? As Anne notes, there are still plenty of reasons for anyone to be suspicious of TxDOT. Hopefully, we'll learn the answers on November 18.
All that said, TxDOT deserves praise for working with the I-45 Coalition and other stakeholders on this process. I feel a lot better about the likelihood of a result that won't be detrimental to my neighborhood now than I did last year. I'm also pleased to see that they've recognized reality regarding the price tag of this sucker. If anything will dampen enthusiasm for wielding eminent domain powers, that ought to.Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 05, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack