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I-45 Parkway

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.

I-45 again

I went to the open house for I-45 on Tuesday night to see what was going on, since we didn’t have much information about what the current state of TxDOT’s thinking is about this. Apparently, there isn’t a set plan yet. They’re soliciting input and have a five-year timeline before coming to a Record of Decision in 2016 for the project. What that means is that it’s important to start giving them feedback now. I would recommend you attend tonight’s open house if you didn’t make it on Tuesday, and bookmark the North Houston Highway Improvement Project website, where you can also go to give feedback. That website is still under construction, but there is supposed to be a comment form up there; you can also send email with your input.

One thing that I gleaned from talking to people, including Viula from The Heights Life: Apparently, TxDOT is saying that they do not intend to acquire any further right of way for the section of I-45 between Quitman and Cavalcade. If you go to the History section of the NHHIP website, you will see that this comes from the November 2005 final North-Hardy Planning, Alternatives Analysis Report:

As a result of public comments on the Draft report, the Draft Recommended Alternative from Downtown to Beltway 8 was revised. The Final report states:

“It is the goal of TxDOT to remain within the existing right-of-way of IH 45 as improvements to this congested freeway corridor are designed and developed. The existing right-of-way south of IH 610 is limited and multiple design options will need to be explored to remain within the existing right-of-way. Design options could include: reduced shoulder width requirements; reduced or eliminated frontage roads; cantilevered frontage roads, elevated roadway sections, and other creative engineering techniques. These options along with the feasibility to add capacity to the Hardy Toll Road will be thoroughly explored during preliminary engineering and preparation of the environmental document for this project.”

During the approval process for the Final report for the Highway Component, TxDOT agreed to the following project goals when the preliminary design and environmental document preparation phase begins:

– Stay within the existing IH 45 right of way between Quitman St. and Cavalcade St., except at intersections where turn lanes may be needed.

– Minimize effects on quality of life issues of the residents and neighborhoods in the project area.

– Study Hardy Toll Road as an alternative route for additional lanes.

– Evaluate use of tunnels as an alternative in areas of constrained right-of-way.

That’s good news for our neighborhood, but still leaves a lot of room for disruption elsewhere. To me, it remains the case that widening I-45 north of downtown is just going to result in bigger traffic jams through downtown on the Pierce Elevated. It also remains the case that there is a fair amount of underutilized capacity on the Hardy Toll Road, and that the eventual extension of the Hardy into downtown ought to help ease I-45’s woes a bit. The TxDOT folks I talked to couldn’t really address that as it’s not their project, but I note that construction for it is scheduled to start in 2013, meaning it will likely be done before there’s a ROD on I-45. Something to keep in mind. There are also freight rail tracks alongside the Hardy that I bet would make for a decent commuter rail line; if you’re going to make a comment to TxDOT – and you should – you should emphasize that, since they claim to be open to all possibilities at this point. That also apparently includes tunneling, but I didn’t see Gonzalo Camacho there, so who knows if this is still being pushed by anyone.

Since the NHHIP website is pretty bare right now, I thought I’d scan the handouts I got and post them here for your perusal:

TxDOT NHHIP handout, page 1

TxDOT NHHIP handout, page 2

TxDOT NHHIP handout, page 3

There was also a lady there representing Germantown, the little historic development nestled in between I-45, Quitman, and Houston Avenue that would have been wiped off the map if the proposal that was once floated to redirect I-45 down Houston Avenue had ever been taken seriously. While I think that was never likely to be considered, the folks in Germantown are taking no chances and are seeking historic designation from the city as an extra layer of defense. Here’s her handout:

Germantown historic designation, page 1

Germantown historic designation, page 2

Finally, on a related note, a hot idea these days among urbanist types is that cities should consider dismantling the highways that run through them. Yglesias explains the basic logic:

[T]he purpose of a highway is to make it easy to travel long distances in short periods of time. But the central fact about cities is that almost by definition they’re not far from downtown. When you build a freeway that leads from downtown, through residential areas, out to the suburbs what you’re doing is making it easier to get to stuff downtown without living in the city. If you replaced the freeway with a normal at-grade road, suddenly it would make more sense to live closer to downtown. The idea of urban freeway construction was to preserve the vitality of downtown areas at a time when more people wanted to move out to the suburbs. But trying to preserve downtown at the cost of eliminating your residential neighborhood’s core advantage — it’s easy to get downtown! — was fantastically short-sighted.

That sound you hear is heads exploding all over Texas. While I think this is an idea that deserves a fair amount of serious debate, there’s an inescapable fact about the freeways in our fair city, and that’s that they are a necessity for hurricane evacuation. As such, there really isn’t a case to be made for it here. Personally, I’d be delighted if we could just avoid building more freeways in the middle of nowhere to accommodate people who don’t live there yet and instead focused our resources on making it easier and more convenient for those who do live in the urban core to get around without having to use the freeways, thus freeing up more space on them for those who must. That would be a win-win if we ever did it.

The EaDo decade

Things are looking good for a wave of development in East Downtown, a/k/a EaDo.

Discussions are under way for a six-block-long linear park in EaDo, and there is talk, still in the early stages, of a 1,000-room convention hotel.

The area has already seen plenty of apartment complexes built in the past few years, and a music venue and bars have also popped up. But it also has its share of warehouses, vacant lots and boarded buildings.

The more residential density in the area, the greater the chance it will also produce a thriving entertainment district, [Anita Kramer, senior director of retail and mixed-use development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.] said.

“EaDo has all the potential in the world,” said David Cook, executive vice president and shareholder at the Cushman & Wakefield real estate firm.

“I see the same kind of blossoming in EaDo as we saw in Midtown.”

EaDo is a triangle-shaped area bounded by U.S. 59, the Gulf Freeway and the Union Pacific rail line running from Cullen to Congress. The soccer stadium, clubs and the planned promenade and the hotel under discussion are in the section closest to downtown.

EaDo land prices have increased dramatically recently, Cook said – to the $50-per-square-foot range, about the same as in Midtown, from around $25 to $30. By comparison, Cook said, land is about $400 per square foot downtown.

The area has already seen fairly significant growth this past decade. I believe that it will see a lot more, and will establish itself as a significant population center. Proximity to downtown is a valuable thing, and while there are still corridors close to downtown that have room for development, EaDo has the most in one place. There’s one thing that might hold it back, however.

“A complete redevelopment in EaDo is likely more long-term than short-term, but all indicators are positive,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said.

She added, “I do believe Highway 59 creates a visual and psychological barrier, and it is quite possible there will be a thriving downtown and EaDo side by side.”

The city will try to bridge that barrier with improved lighting and sidewalks and street signs to help people find their way under the overpass, she said.

Here’s a radical suggestion: Rebuild that stretch of US59 so that it’s underground instead of above it. You know, like it is from Midtown to 610, where you’ll note that neighborhood development is more continuous. It’s not a panacea – I-45 still serves as a barrier north of downtown even though it’s a trench and not an overpass; there is an alternate suggestion for that as well – but I’m willing to bet it would help. That would cost a boatload of money, of course, for which the federal government would need to pick up the tab, but why not see what support might exist for it? If it gets anywhere, maybe we can try to do the same for the Pierce Elevated next. It won’t change history, but it would still be a good idea.

Candidate interview: Gonzalo Camacho

Continuing on with the District H candidate interview series, we come now to Gonzalo Camacho, who is a transportation/traffic engineer and planner, probably best known for his concept of the I-45 Parkway, a combination tunnel/limited access thoroughfare as a replacement for the existing North Freeway. Camacho is a resident of the Woodland Heights, and previously ran in the 2003 race for District H, finishing sixth. My interview with him is here. As always, please let me know what you think.

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Rick Rodriguez
Yolanda Navarro Flores
Lupe Garcia