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roundabouts

Still waiting for a design for I-45

Pull up a chair and relax, this could take awhile.

After 15 years of discussion, study and ideas for improvements ranging from enormous tunnels to a massive circulating freeway loop, planners are still at least six months from unveiling their $7 billion plan for historic changes to I-45 and most of the downtown freeway network. Challenges remain, such as paying for it and securing stronger support from city officials who worry the region’s largest road-building project ever is too heavy on solving how to move more cars and too light on long-term public transit expansion.

“I am really concerned about the fact we are focusing solely on road expansion and highway expansion without incorporating rail and other methods,” Houston At-Large Councilwoman Amanda Edwards said last week.

Recognizing they are suggesting a once-in-a-lifetime change to Houston’s freeways, transportation officials are going to unprecedented lengths to gauge reaction. They expect months more of meetings with city and transit officials, and residents living near more than 24 miles of freeway, mostly I-45.

“We’re meeting with several groups, it seems like every week,” said Quincy Allen, head of TxDOT’s Houston office.

[…]

A draft of the final plan for the entire corridor was expected to be released for public review later this year, but that likely will not happen until early 2017, said Pat Henry, director of advanced project development for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

“We have got some contract issues that are slowing us up a little bit,” Henry said.

Transportation officials think they can host what will be the fifth round of public meetings on the pivotal freeway project early next year, secure federal approval by 2018 and start construction on the downtown segments in 2020. The portions from downtown to Loop 610 and Loop 610 to Sam Houston Tollway would come later.

“Even if there is a hitch in the funding for the other parts we’re going to start (downtown),” Allen said.

The central business district segment likely would be split into numerous projects, as the U.S. 290 widening has been, officials said.

Boy, is this ever going to be a pain in the rear end when construction begins. There have been numerous tweaks and alterations to the initial designs, in response to feedback from the public. The I-45 Coalition does yeoman’s work tracking it all – see here for their latest update. It’s just as well that there will be more opportunities for the public to weigh in, because there have been some significant alternative ideas proposed. It’s more than fine by me if we take our sweet time getting started on this.

On a related note, Streetsblog speculates on what the final design could look like.

“The impacts on walkability and urbanism are real and are a big deal,” said Jay Crossley, former director of the smart growth advocacy group Houston Tomorrow. “If they could only do those parts of the plan it would be an amazing plan.” But while TxDOT is starting to consider how its highway projects affect urban neighborhoods, said Crossley, it hasn’t quite embraced the “paradigm shift” away from highway widening that Mayor Sylvester Turner has called for. It’s still an open question whether TxDOT’s plan will result in a net increase in highway capacity, pumping more traffic into downtown. TxDOT’s current proposal calls for adding one high-occupancy toll lane in each direction on I-45. While the tolls could help manage traffic and speed up buses (if prices are set high enough — something political officials have been reluctant to do, says Crossley), the project would still increase total car traffic on the highway.

[…]

The potential highway widenings are still under negotiation, said Crossley, with TxDOT gearing up for a fifth round of public meetings on the project early next year. That will be the real test of Turner’s commitment to the new transportation policy approach he has championed. Crossley believes the city is negotiating with TxDOT over the details of the plan as part of the recently-elected mayor’s transition effort. Turner could tell TxDOT not to add additional car capacity, and the agency might listen. “If Sylvester Turner was to stand behind that, that would be revolutionary in Texas,” Crossley said.

As the story notes, last year’s constitutional amendment voting gives TxDOT a lot of incentive to spend on road-related projects, so it would be quite remarkable if I-45 through downtown wound up with no extra capacity other than the HOV lanes. We’ll see how it goes.

TxDOT reveals its I-45 plan

Wow. Just, wow.

A massive reconstruction of Interstate 45 through most of Houston would topple one of downtown’s most frustrating barriers – the Pierce Elevated – and move the freeway east of the central business district.

That’s just one of the major changes Texas Department of Transportation officials included in the $6 billion-plus plan to be unveiled Thursday. It would make I-45 practically unrecognizable to those familiar with its current downtown-area configuration.

Two managed lanes in each direction will be added to the freeway between the Sam Houston Tollway and U.S. 59 south of the city’s central business district. Planners recommend moving I-45 to the east side of the city’s core, a change that an analysis suggests could increase downtown freeway speeds. Officials called it a once-in-a-lifetime change that would increase mobility and improve the city center.

“After having those freeways in the city for the better part of 70 years, it’s challenging and exciting to have the opportunity to come back and reshape how they fit,” said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District.

The first of three public meetings this month [was] scheduled for Thursday night, when residents and businesses will get their first detailed look at the plans. In 2013, when neighborhood leaders got a look at early versions, some feared the reconstruction would leave a big, concrete scar across their communities.

“I am really looking with dreaded anticipation for what they are going to propose,” said Jim Weston, president of the I-45 coalition, a group of residents tracking the freeway project. “There’s a lot of engineering and lots of questions about the design that really, I feel, TxDOT hasn’t answered.”

Remaking I-45 will take years, with numerous public meetings and more detailed analysis remaining. Officials said it is too early to pinpoint an exact cost, but transportation officials predict all of the work will cost “north of $6 billion,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT’s Houston office.

The final cost will be determined by when officials can start construction, likely in phases starting in downtown Houston after 2017. The central business district parts of the plan alone will cost about $3 billion.

Much of that cost comes from moving the freeway. Eventually, I-45 will move from the west side of downtown and follow the same route U.S. 59 does now east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, according to the plans. The two freeways will split where they now cross near Pierce Street.

Perhaps just as importantly, transportation officials are designing segments of the new or combined freeways as depressed roadways, meaning local street traffic flows above them, similar to U.S. 59 west of Spur 527. East of the convention center and between Cavalcade and Quitman streets, the space above the freeways could be developed as open green space or a park-like setting.

See here and here for the most recent updates. The public meeting documents are here. I’m still working my way through them. I’m happy that the roundabout idea appears to be kaput, but there’s a billion details to work out, and until we really understand what this is all about, it’s impossible to say if this is good, bad, or indifferent. I’m more hopeful now than I was before, but I need to read the docs and hear what the folks who have followed this more closely than I have are saying. And – and I really cannot say this often enough – we need to know what the Mayoral candidates think about this. Forget pensions and potholes, if this project goes forward more or less as detailed here, this will be the defining issue of the next Mayor’s tenure. What is your impression of this?

A very brief I-45 update

Way at the bottom of this overview of transit projects and milestones for 2015 are these three paragraphs:

The freeway project likely to attract the most attention in the Houston area – widening Interstate 45 from the Sam Houston Tollway to the central business district – is years away from construction but will also have a busy 2015 for planning.

“Our next round of meetings will produce the single preferred alternative for the project,” [Raquelle Lewis, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Houston office] said. “In my mind that is huge.”

The project, estimated in current dollars at $1.1 billion, isn’t expected to start construction until 2025. Officials expect years of planning because some of the proposals have suggested lowering the freeway or adding elevated toll lanes, which have run into opposition from some neighborhoods.

I like that phrasing – “estimated in current dollars at $1.1 billion”. Remember how the I-10 widening was once “estimated” to be $1 billion? If the cost of this monstrosity comes in at less than double that amount, I’ll be impressed. I believe this description is for the entire North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which as you may recall “involves evaluation of the IH 45 North corridor from near downtown Houston to Beltway 8 North, Beltway 8 North from IH 45 North to the Hardy Toll Road, the Hardy Toll Road from IH 610 North Loop to Beltway 8 North, IH 610 North Loop from IH 45 North to the Hardy Toll Road, and portions of IH 10 and US 59 near downtown Houston”. Among other things, that means it includes the downtown roundabout proposal, the thought of which still makes me shudder. At least we know that 2025 is a long way off and Lord knows what could happen in the interim to divert or alter these plans. In the meantime, let’s keep working to build better transportation alternatives.

TxDOT finally publishes comments from last year’s public forum on I-45

From the Inbox:

Hello I-45 Coalition folks –

There are finally some updates regarding I-45!

As you may recall, back in mid-November 2011, TxDOT held 2 public meetings to get the public’s input on their thoughts on what should be done regarding the expansion of I-45. Comments were encouraged via email, website, comment forms, etc. TxDOT was supposed to publish those findings within 2 months after the meetings. Well 2 months came & went, 6 months and now – 10+ months after the November meetings, the results have been posted! You can find them by going to TxDOT’s website for this project at www.ih45northandmore.com. Left column at ‘NHHIP Scoping Meeting Documents’. If you made comments – make sure they are there & accurate. Many of the comments make very interesting reading!

On Sunday, 9/2/12, the Chronicle reported that I-45 between Loop 610 & Beltway 8 had the 3rd worst congestion in Texas! I-45 between I-10 heading North to 610 was the 10th most congested. I-45 heading South from I-10 to 610 was ranked #13.

A couple days later, the Chronicle reports that TxDOT is considering the concept of a downtown “roundabout” to help congestion.

TxDOT will be holding their 2nd round of public meetings to discuss I-45 soon, probably sometime this fall. No specific date has been announced yet. Please be sure that you are on the I-45 Coalition’s email list so that we can notify you when the meeting(s) will be held. If you are getting this email directly now, you are probably OK – but if you are going to change emails, perhaps adding a work email or home email or alternate email might be a good idea so that we can contact you. Please share this information with friends & neighbors – we need to be sure that TxDOT knows & understands the desires and concerns of folks that live & work in the areas that will be affected by TxDOT’s actions.

As always, for updates, you can always check our I-45 Coalition Facebook page or our website at www.I-45Coalition.org. You can also sign up on our website (email info, volunteer info, contribute $, etc) or send me your email info directly to [email protected]

If you would like to become more involved, you are welcome to attend our next (quarterly) meeting of the I-45 Coalition Steering Committee. Our next meeting will be held on October 22nd at 7 pm at the Lindale Park Clubhouse, 218 Joyce (off of Fulton in Lindale Park). Once activity on I-45 becomes more active, we will increase our meeting frequency.

This has been & will continue to be a LONG, LONG project – but the MOST important time to be involved is NOW – while TxDOT is determining what the scope of the project will be, with a LOT of input from residents & taxpayers! Please stay involved if you value your homes, your neighborhood & your city!

There are now specific dates and locations for the second scoping meetings, the details of which you can see here:

Two identical public scoping meetings will be held in the project area. An open house meeting format will allow the public to come and go at their convenience. Project team members will be available to discuss issues and answer questions regarding the proposed improvements and the EIS process. A short video regarding the project will be presented throughout the meeting. Maps of the study area and exhibits of the preliminary alternatives will be on display. The same information will be presented at both meetings. The public is encouraged to attend anytime between the hours of 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the most convenient meeting location.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Jefferson Davis High School
1101 Quitman Street
Houston, TX 77009

Thursday, October 11, 2012
Aldine Ninth Grade School
10650 North Freeway Houston, TX 77037

The purpose of this public scoping meeting is to present information about, and receive public feedback on, preliminary alternatives for highway improvements in the North Houston corridor, the process being used to evaluate these alternatives, and how community feedback has been incorporated to date in the planning process. The revised Need and Purpose Statement and Project Coordination Plan documents will be available for review. After the scoping meetings, the information presented at the meetings will be available for review and reproduction on the project website www.IH45NorthandMore.com, and at the TxDOT Houston District office, 7600 Washington Avenue, Houston, Texas 77007. The office is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., excluding state holidays.

The public will have the opportunity to provide written comments during and after the meeting. If you are unable to attend one of the public scoping meetings, you may view project information and submit comments on the project website www.IH45NorthandMore.com, or you can mail comments to: Director of Project Development, Texas Department of Transportation, P.O. Box 1386, Houston, Texas 77251-1386. You may also email comments to the address: [email protected] Comments received by email or postmarked by Friday, October 26, 2012, will be included in the public meeting record.

Here’s the direct link to the documents and comments from the first scoping meeting. Take a look through them and be sure to attend one of the meetings in October. Marty Hajovsky has more.

Roundabouts in the sky

I have three things to say about this.

The words will make you down and out

Imagine driving into downtown Houston on interstates 10 or 45, or U.S. 59, and having to merge with all other incoming traffic onto an elevated, one-way traffic circle around the cluster of skyscrapers.

If downtown isn’t your final destination, you would stay on the circle until you got to the point where your freeway picks back up. Otherwise, you would pick an off-ramp to exit.

For now, the concept – a first-of-its-kind roundabout fed by multiple major highways rather than surface streets – is one of many untested and undeveloped ideas that local transportation entities will entertain as they begin taking a more creative look at how to relieve congestion in the highly developed area inside Loop 610 in an era of declining state funding.

[…]

Ted Houghton, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, which governs TxDOT, turned heads when he described the concept as both “fascinating” and “feasible” during a breakfast address in Houston in early August.

“Believe that, or not, but that is a recommendation,” Houghton told the Houston Realty Business Coalition. “In other words, if you’re coming north on 59 to downtown and you want to get to 45, you will get on that roundabout and get spit out either north or south onto 45.”

Houghton said the fate of the concept largely would be contingent on public input – “the outcry of the folks who are going to drive that and work downtown.”

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said regardless of whether the roundabout idea is workable, it’s indicative of the creative thinking that’s been sparked by an array of challenges facing transportation leaders.

People like Clark are charged with figuring out how best to reduce crippling congestion in a highly developed area while minimizing the impact on traffic flow and the need for more land – all as the area’s population explodes and funding for transportation dwindles.

Clark also noted that Houston has multiple, major employment centers that are as spread out as its suburbs, meaning rush hour traffic doesn’t flow in just one direction. And since multiple, major freeways converge downtown, travelers headed elsewhere often get stuck in the bottleneck there.

1. I gather from Houghton’s comment that the traffic would be going counterclockwise. That would leave the flow of I-10 West, I-45 South, and US 59 North unaffected, but would mean taking a noon-to-eight equivalent detour around the circle if you’re going the other way. I think I can predict what that outcry is going to sound like.

2. The fact that funding for transportation is “declining” and “dwindling” is not the result of some natural law over which we have no control. It’s entirely the result of policy decisions, beginning with the refusal to increase the gas tax over the past 20 years, that leave us now with population growth and transportation needs that far outstrip our ability to pay for them. Rather than come up with these crazy-sounding solutions to work around our entirely self-inflicted problem of insufficient transportation funding, we could, you know, work to redesign the funding mechanism for transportation in such a way as to make it adequate and sufficient for our needs. Some people in Texas are talking about real solutions to our infrastructure problems, others don’t understand the question. Solving political problems is much harder than solving technological problems, but the former are almost always more foundational.

3. I’ll keep saying this till I’m blue in the face, but we cannot solve this problem if we are not working to provide alternatives to taking crowded freeways through downtown for people who don’t really need to be taking freeways. I speak once again of better and more extensive transit, which would make it easier for people who are just trying to get from one place inside the Loop to another to leave the highways to the suburbanites and long-haul truckers. You don’t want people like me clogging up the Pierce Elevated as I commute from the Heights to the Medical Center. There will thankfully be a transit alternative for me in a couple of years, but there needs to be a lot more of this. Highways should be for long trips, not short trips.

Roundabout

I drive through the Washinton on Westcott roundabout every now and then, and find it to be a more pleasant and efficient experience than waiting at a light or playing the “which one of us goes next?” game that you often get at a four-way stop. I’m told there are more such roundabouts in the works at some locations, with Washington at Heights and Yale being on the list. I’d driven through roundabouts elsewhere before – Tiffany and I took a trip to France just before Olivia was born, and the road from Paris to champagne country is littered with them – and find them easy to navigate, but they’re still pretty new here, and some folks may not know what to do with them.

There’s a bill related to roundabouts – HB2214 – that has passed the House and is now pending in the Senate that would require driver’s ed students to receive instructions on how to deal with circular intersections. Monica Savino, President of the WOW Roundabout Board of Directors, gave testimony to the House Transportation Committee in favor of HB2214 as follows:

Since its completion in 2006, our Roundabout has had great success in meeting our goals.

The rate of serious accidents has virtually disappeared and our rate of minor accidents is very small.

During the first full year of operation in 2006, the City of Houston documented only 10 accidents – all minor with no injuries.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has determined that the modern roundabout is significantly more safe than a standard signalized intersection.

Mobility has been very good; currently, we move approximately 34,000 cars per day through the WOW Roundabout.

And we move them; vehicles don’t idle waiting for light changes, they don’t stop and start as they inch their way through the intersection when turns are made as in a four-way stop.

As a result, auto emissions are reduced as are other negatives that traffic congestion can bring.

During the days and weeks after Hurricane Ike, the WOW Roundabout performed as it does on any other day.

I have quickly located several new Roundabouts in the State and there are many more “on the boards”, as they say.

Traffic professionals and communities are finding in some cases that this is a more appropriate solution than the old-fashioned standard intersection.

The Federal Highway Administration is endorsing roundabouts for future projects.
We expect that Texans will see and drive through more Roundabouts in the future.

When WOW is asked by the community, “what are the proper procedures when driving through the roundabout?”, all we can do is direct them to one of the other states that makes this information available for their residents: Washington, Kansas, Colorado, Florida and New York. WOW would like the State of Texas to be the definitive resource for Texans.

Seems reasonable enough, wouldn’t you say? This CTC forum thread, from which I got Savino’s testimony, is asking folks to contact the members of the Senate transportation committee, which includes Sen. Rodney Ellis and Sen. Joan Huffman, to ask for their support of HB2214. A sample letter is included if you want to email or fax their office. HB2214 passed the House on a 142-2 vote, so it shouldn’t be controversial. It just needs to come up in time. And if you need a little incentive, try this:

The power of Jon Anderson and Chris Squire compels you.