October 28, 2008
The Katy's grand re-opening

There will be a ceremony today to mark the official end of the Katy Freeway construction project.

Gov. Rick Perry, officials with the Texas Department of Transportation and Harris County Toll Road Authority, as well as local leaders, will celebrate the freeway's completion with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. today on the Beltway 8 northbound flyover.

Starting Wednesday, the four managed lanes will be available to motorists as High Occupancy Vehicle lanes and to those riding Metro or school buses. By the end of next year, they also will be used as toll lanes for vehicles with a single occupant.

"That's going to be a great benefit to drivers, particularly those who do ride-share, because now they will have two lanes in each direction," said Tanya McWashington, a Katy Freeway Project spokeswoman.


Construction on the Katy Freeway, expanding it from an 11-lane to 18-lane roadway, began in June 2003 and was expected to take at least 10 years. The Harris County Toll Road Authority's infusion of $250 million to the project helped cut the construction time in half.

The cost of the project stands at $2.8 billion, although some final details such as landscaping and painting aren't finished. More than half of that was covered by federal funds.

There's no truth to the rumor that the celebration will include a bonfire made entirely of $100 bills to commemorate the cost overruns from the original $1 billion estimate. As far as I know, anyway.

During an initial phase through spring, Metro, school buses, motorcyclists and cars with two or more occupants will be allowed to use managed lanes for free. Commuters will be able to use the lanes from 5 to 11 a.m. and 2 to 8 p.m. on weekdays.

After the initial phase, the lanes will be turned into toll lanes during nonpeak hours using an all-electronic tollway system, requiring users who do not have another passenger to have toll tags.

I presume this means that the managed lanes will only be open during what was the normal HOV lane times through the end of next year, and after that they will be open 24/7. I also presume in the meantime, they'll be enforcing the HOV part of these lanes as they did before.

Toll fees have not yet been set.

Harris County Commissioners Court will set toll rates for nonpeak hours and for possible use by solo drivers during peak hours. Congestion pricing, in which toll rates would change based on traffic volumes in the managed lanes to maintain a minimum speed of 45 mph, is expected to be a part of the fee system, said Lawanda Howse, a Toll Road Authority spokeswoman.

Earlier this year, the Harris County Toll Road Authority recommended that passenger vehicles pay $1.25 to travel between Texas 6 and the West Loop during nonpeak hours and that the price double during peak hours and other times when the traffic is moving slower than 45 mph.

"For us, this is about carpoolers and putting more people in vehicles and having less traffic on the freeways," Howse said."It's more about that than a revenue generator for us."

I still don't know how they plan to differentiate between multi-passenger vehicles, which will be allowed free passage, and single-occupancy ones, which will need to cough up a toll. I know there were some public meetings about this, but if their results were reported, I missed it. I also think that given the much higher cost of the Westpark toll road, people will see a buck and a quarter as a bargain, and may quickly overwhelm the two HOV lanes. Expect that price to go up quickly.

The question is whether any of that will ultimately make a difference.

"When the (managed) lanes open, we'll see even more improvement in travel time, but the question is, how long will it last?" said Pat Waskowiak, transportation program manager for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

The council, a regional planning group comprising local governments, predicts that commute times will increase as the populations in Katy, Sugar Land and other areas of Fort Bend County continue to grow.

The managed lanes will "end up being just as fast as the other lanes, or either end up being underused because all the traffic gets pushed to the other lanes," said Aaron Quinn, spokesman for the National Motorists Association, a Wisconsin-based advocacy group opposed to HOV lanes, contending that all motorists who contribute taxes should get full use of freeways.

A California State University study of HOV lanes in the San Francisco Bay Area used data from 2001 to 2005 to conclude that those lanes exacerbated the congestion problem there and did not encourage carpooling.

I don't have a problem with the concept of HOV lanes, and I don't really have an issue with adding in the HOT option. But I also think that it won't take long for the new Katy to start being as congested as the old Katy. And when that happens, maybe we'll finally give some thought as to what a real, scalable solution to this problem might be.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 28, 2008 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
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