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Westheimer

Reimagining Lower Westheimer

This ought to be interesting.

Lower Westheimer is one of Houston’s most well-known streets, but on some fronts its reputation isn’t a positive one. Narrow and bumpy, the street is both a hub of retail and recreation activity and also a harrowing bike or automobile trip from time to time.

Everyone has a story or a suggestion of how to make it better – and next week the city is going to carve out time to listen to them in hopes of improving one of Houston’s premier streets.

“That is one of the most economically vibrant, critical corridors in the city,” said Geoff Carleton, principal at Traffic Engineers Inc., a local transportation planning and consulting firm. “The priority there should be the place-making and developing walkability where it helps keep that tax base in place.”

As part of ReBuild Houston, officials are considering design changes for the street, a months-long process started by an advisory committee, moving to public comment on Monday evening. Officials guiding the process said while no final designs will be shown for what Westheimer should look like from Shepherd to Main. Westheimer turns into Elgin at Bagby.

“We will be presenting background material and existing conditions information and asking the public for their preferences and priorities,” said Matthew Seubert, a senior planner with the Houston Planning and Development Department.

Swamplot has a map of the area in question. One of the things hampering transit in the area is the curve in the street between Mandell and Commonwealth, combined with the narrow lanes that make it impossible for one of the articulated (i.e., longer and higher-capacity) buses to run on Westheimer. That’s a problem, given how busy that bus line is. Seems to me the obvious solution is to reduce Westheimer to one lane each way for that stretch. It’s functionally one lane each way between Hazard and Mandell anyway, thanks to there being on-street parking. I’m sure the subject will come up, and you can make your own voice heard at that public meeting. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of this.

Can you ever truly “fix” the 59/610 interchange?

I kind of think the answer is “No”, but they’re going to try anyway.

With Houston choking on traffic congestion from Clear Lake to Jersey Village, an infusion of $447 million in state funds promises relief sooner than expected at three notorious freeway bottlenecks.

That sum amounts to more than one-third of $1.3 billion allocated to relieve congestion in major Texas cities where officials announced targeted projects Wednesday. As a result, major upgrades to the Loop 610 interchange with U.S. 59 near Uptown and widening of Interstate 45 south of Houston and Interstate 10 west of Katy will happen years before initially predicted.

“The sooner you can get it constructed … chances are it will be a lower price as opposed to a higher price,” Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said. “And the faster drivers receive relief.” Construction will stretch from 2017 to 2021.

Tasked in September by Gov. Greg Abbott to address congestion in the state’s five largest metro areas, state transportation officials directed $1.3 billion to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth. The spending plan requires approval by the Texas Transportation Commission, likely next month.

Commissioner Bruce Bugg led various sessions in the five metro areas, consulting with local TxDOT officials and others to find projects that could get the state the most bang for its buck now.

[…]

At peak times, some segments of Houston freeways have average speeds slower than most cyclists. Along southbound Loop 610 from Interstate 10 to Post Oak in the Uptown area, the average speed between 4:45 p.m. and 6 p.m. dipped below 12 mph in 2015, down from about 15 mph in 2014 and 18 mph in 2013.

The difference in evening northbound traffic is greater, with average speeds between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. below 20 mph, compared with about 45 mph or more in 2013 and 2014.

Initially, Lewis said, TxDOT planned to rebuild the 610-59 interchange in phases as funding allowed.

The focus on congestion, and voter approval in 2014 and 2015 of new road spending, changed that strategy. The congestion-relief money includes $132 million for this project, making it possible to rebuild the entire interchange at once.

That means new lanes and more effective ramp designs will arrive sooner, although congestion is likely to be even worse during construction.

The three projects were selected because they can provide substantial relief for drivers and were planned and approved so that construction could start in a few months.

I’m pretty sure George Orwell’s actual vision of the future was a human foot stomping on a brake pedal forever, but I could be wrong about that. In any event, my skepticism about this is based on the fact that you can only have so many lanes exiting the first freeway, and only so many lanes entering the second freeway. The 59/610 interchange backs up in all directions because you have multiple lanes of cars trying to cram themselves into one exit lane. TxDOT could certainly add a second exit lane, like it has for I-10 at 610, but that only helps so much if there’s room on 610 for twice as many cars to enter at one time. There’s only so much water you can pour into a bucket, you know? And all of this is before you take into account induced demand or complicating factors like people wanting to enter and exit at Richmond and Westheimer. I’ve no doubt that TxDOT can do things to make this interchange better, though honestly I think they’ve already done a lot with the dedicated flyway to Westheimer and the separation of traffic there. I don’t think they can “solve” it in any meaningful sense, and when you add in the four years of pain from the construction, you have to wonder just what the return on this investment will be. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong. Ask me again in 2021 and we’ll see.

Petition to bring back WestFest

Those of you who remember the old Westheimer Street Festival may be interested to know there’s a petition to start it up again.

For twenty years, the Westheimer Art Festival / Westheimer Street Festival served as an essential shared community experience within the Montrose neighborhood, brought welcome revenue to Lower Westheimer merchants, and put forth a fun and welcoming face for the community to Greater Houston at large.

It has been a decade since poor management brought the festival to a close. Now, a new coalition of community organizers and business operators want to bring it back–but they need your help, and your voice in support of their efforts.

Click the links to learn more, and sign up if you’re interested.