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Contraflow!

The state’s plan for handling contraflow lanes in the event of a hurricane evacuation have been released.

Carol Dawson, deputy director of traffic operations of the Texas Department of Transportation, said the plan is “much more detailed” than the spur-of-the-moment plan utilized during Rita. The department, she said, has eliminated bottlenecks along the route, found ways to smooth the contraflow conversion and tested its plans in mock evacuation drills.

In the plan announced by [Harris County Judge Robert] Eckels, incident coordinator for the 13-county evacuation region, threatened residents would flee the metro area on Interstates 10 and 45 and U.S. highways 290 and 59.

Dawson said the interstate routes – I-10 would be one-way from Brookshire to San Antonio, I-45 from near Conroe to Ennis – would be activated first. U.S. 290 would be one-way from FM 1960 to Burton.

U.S. 59, whose frequent intersections outside the urban area pose access problems, would be activated if needed.

An earlier version of this story gave the specifics:

Details of the contraflow plan for the major highways include:

— I-10: Contraflow lanes will begin east of Farm-to-Market Road 359 at Brookshire, and end at Loop 1604 in San Antonio.

— I-45: Contraflow lanes will begin at State Highway 242 south of Conroe, and end at U.S. 247 near Ennis, about 40 miles south of Dallas.

— U.S. 59: Contraflow lanes will begin south of Kingwood Drive and continue to Nacogdoches.

— U.S. 290: Contraflow lanes will begin west of Farm-to-Market Road 1960 and continue to Farm-to-Market Road 1948 east of Brenham. Northbound traffic on State Highway 6 can turn west into contraflow lanes at U.S. 290.

The press release (PDF) contains a map. I’m a little concerned in that it looks from this like I-45 has already narrowed down to two lanes before SH242. I could be wrong about this, but if not, I’d be worried that traffic would be backed up because of that narrowing, which would partially defeat the purpose of the contraflow lanes. During the Rita evacuation, contraflow lanes were (eventually) opened as far south as Spring. Especially given that I-45 is the evacuation route for Galveston and other points south, I hope an effort will be made to start the contraflow lanes earlier than that.

Gov. Rick Perry’s state fuel coordinator, Valero Energy executive Wade Upton, said coastal residents will be encouraged to keep their gas tanks half-filled during hurricane season.

As a storm approaches, electronic highway signs and broadcast public service announcements will urge them to keep tanks totally filled.

Scott Fisher, an executive with the Austin-based Texas Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said gasoline tanks at service stations along the escape routes will be totally filled. Usually, he said, economic factors dictate that the tanks, which can hold up to 12,000 gallons of fuel, are only partially filled.

Fisher, who was a member of the governor’s fuel team, said a communications system would be activated to keep station operators current on a hurricane’s advance.

This part sounds good. I hope there’s enough supply to keep all those service station tanks full, but that may be beyond anyone’s control.

One more piece of good news: Experts are now predicting that this year’s hurricane season won’t be as bad as they had first predicted.

“The probability of another Katrina-like event is very small,” said Phillip Klotzbach, lead forecaster for the hurricane research team at Colorado State University in Denver.

The researchers reduced the number of likely hurricanes to seven from nine and intense hurricanes to three from five.

There is, however, a considerably higher-than-average probability of at least one intense hurricane making landfall in the United States this year, 73 percent. The average is 52 percent.

Researcher William Gray said Atlantic Ocean surface temperatures are not quite as warm and surface pressure is not quite as low, both factors in the decision to revise the forecast.

“Overall, we think the 2006 Atlantic basin tropical storm season will be somewhat active,” Klotzbach said. “This year it looks like the East Coast is more likely to be targeted by Atlantic basin hurricanes than the Gulf Coast, although the possibility exists that any point along the U.S. coast could be affected.”

Gray and his team say hurricane activity will continue to be above average for another 15 to 20 years.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami in May predicted 16 named storms in the Atlantic, six of them major hurricanes. As of last Thursday, there have been three named storms.

“Our next update is Tuesday. They are still noodling the numbers. It is more likely than not that it will be an above-average season,” said Frank Lepore, the center’s spokesman.

I’ll look for that update later today. For now, I’ll take good news where I can get it.

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