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The Katy Freeway cautionary tale on addressing congestion

Turns out that throwing more lanes at the Katy Freeway hasn’t helped all that much.

Several years ago, the Katy Freeway in Houston was a major traffic bottleneck. It was so bad that in 2004 the American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA) called one of its interchanges the second worst bottleneck in the nation wasting 25 million hours a year of commuter time. (The Katy Freeway, Interstate 10, connects downtown Houston to the city’s growing suburbs almost 30 miles to the west).

Obviously, when a highway is too congested, you need to add capacity: make it wider! Add more lanes! So the state of Texas pumped more than $2.8 billion into widening the Katy; by the end, it had 23 lanes, good enough for widest freeway in the world.

It was a triumph of traffic engineering. In a report entitled Unclogging America’s Arteries, released last month on the eve of congressional action to pump more money into the nearly bankrupt Highway Trust Fund, the AHUA highlighted the Katy widening as one of three major “success stories,” noting that the widening “addressed” the problem and, “as a result, [it was] not included in the rankings” of the nation’s worst traffic chokepoints.

There’s just one problem: congestion on the Katy has actually gotten worse since its expansion.

Sure, right after the project opened, travel times at rush hour declined, and the AHUA cites a three-year old article in the Houston Chronicle as evidence that the $2.8 billion investment paid off. But it hasn’t been 2012 for a while, so we were curious about what had happened since then. Why didn’t the AHUA find more recent data?

Well, because it turns out that more recent data turns their “success story” on its head.

Go read the rest for yourself. Speaking from my own experience, the Katy Freeway between 610 and downtown is clogged pretty much all the time, something that was almost never the case pre-widening. I’ve discussed this many times, how it’s not only the freeway itself but the cross streets at the freeway where people are getting on and off as well. I don’t know how much of this is people going far out on the freeway and how much is just because there’s more people in the Heights area and thanks to the bayou I-10 is the easiest way to get from Sawyer/Studemont to Durham/Shepherd, but I’m sure some of it is the “induced demand” that this story talks about. You can see it with your own eyes, not just inside the Loop but well beyond it. We got maybe a couple of years of smoother traffic, and now it’s a lot like it was before. All for $2.8 billion, with no obvious next step to take. Keep this in mind when you hear promises of this expansion proposal or that bringing relief to 610, 288, 45, wherever.

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One Comment

  1. Tory says:

    Sorry, gotta call BS on this, as Dug Begley from the Chronicle did. The project was finished in 2009, so the graph doesn’t include pre-construction congestion. And we just went through the biggest economic boom this city has ever seen – can you imagine what the traffic would look like *without* the widening? It would be even more insane – like Austin on steroids. On top of that, without that widening, I think many of the big oil and gas employers would have given up on the city and gone out to Sugar Land, Katy, and The Woodlands rather than the Energy Corridor, Uptown, or Downtown. That freeway moves way, way more people than it did before as well as offering the congestion tolled lanes which didn’t exist before. Bottom line: the government invested in a piece of infrastructure that has proven extremely popular and highly utilized – isn’t that what we want from government investments of tax dollars?