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US59

You should now be avoiding Buffalo Speedway

Ugh.

Road work designed to solve traffic jams at Buffalo Speedway and U.S. 59 is scheduled to get under way Tuesday, Feb. 15.

Work will begin on the east side of Buffalo Speedway between Bissonnet Drive and U.S. 59, with all traffic shifted to the west side.

For the next five to six months, there will be one lane of traffic in each direction, with a “continuous” turn lane between them, on the west side of Buffalo, said Travis Younkin, director of Capital Projects for the Upper Kirby Management District.

When the east side is repaired, traffic will be shifted to one lane in each direction on the east side.

The work entails burying utility lines and improving drainage, but the primary objective is enhancing mobility, Younkin said.

And in the meantime, it’s going to be hell. I drove by this on Monday and saw the prep work going on but was too in denial about it to realize what it meant. According to the latest Upper Kirby Weekly Construction Update, the “goal for completion of the entire reconstruction of Buffalo Speedway is November 2011”. You have been warned.

Those road congestion blues

I’m more interested in the methodology used to determine the list of Texas’ most congested roads than I am in the roads themselves, since most of us could have named the roads on that list without doing any work.

Like the Dallas freeway, many of the roads on the list aren’t a surprise. But TxDOT officials believe the rankings will help focus public understanding on the state’s transportation problems.

“This is a good tool for us to use, for the public to use, for our planning organizations and professionals to use — for the Legislature to use — to help us focus on our problems,” says John Barton, the agency’s assistant executive director for engineering services. “This helps us understand the magnitude of the issues and helps all of us as a society to determine if we’re able to and willing to continue to fund solutions for them.”

This is the second year the agency conducted the study, which was managed by Tim Lomax, a researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute. Last year, the study relied largely on traffic count totals — an incomplete measure, officials say. This year, though, the agency spent $27,500 to purchase state-of-the art traffic speed data from a private company.

The company, Washington-based Inrix, collects massive amounts of real-time traffic data by tracking travel direction and speeds of more than 2.5 million vehicles in its network, which consists of commercial partners — taxis, delivery trucks and tractor-trailer rigs, among others — that have agreed to share global positioning system details on their fleets.

Inrix also uses data collected by traditional freeway traffic sensors and consumers using traffic-related GPS devices and applications. It analyzes all the records while keeping in mind outside variables like weather, sporting events, holidays and other factors.

“We get a very detailed view into what traffic looks like that extends into city streets and arterials, not just major interstates and highways, so you get a more complete picture,” says company spokesman Jim Bak.

The full list is here, which includes non-highways as well. Clever stuff, and I look forward to seeing how they build on it. If it winds up driving sensible policy, so much the better.

Despite the opening paragraph of this piece, I really am interested in the roads themselves, though for the most part not because I have any interest in seeing them get widened. Take a look at the map of the Houston area. Note that the vast majority of congested roads as listed here are inside Beltway 8, with more than half of them inside Loop 610. Every single highway segment inside Loop 610 west of I-45 inclusive is on this list. I trust nobody at all is surprised by this, but it’s still a bit jarring to see it displayed so starkly.

There are two points to be made about this, and neither of them should be a surprise, either. One is that our ability to ameliorate any of this by increasing lane capacity is very limited. We are never going to widen the Pierce Elevated, which is the main bottleneck on I-45. We will never add lanes to 59 at I-45 and through downtown, which is the reason why nobody who has a choice ever takes the Southwest Freeway northbound past Greenbriar. The Katy Freeway west of the Beltway isn’t a Top 100 Most Congested Road any more, but I-10 still narrows to two lanes as it passes I-45, and there’s still only one lane that exits onto I-45, so from my perspective all of that extra far-western throughput has done nothing but make a huge mess in my neighborhood.

And two, the only hope to change any of this dynamic is to recognize that transit is the most viable way to add capacity in the dense inner core. In particular, rail transit, especially rail transit that has its own right of way, can help ease the burden on these overcrowded roads and interchanges. An awful lot of this traffic is from short local trips, people who live in the area doing their home/work/school/lunch/errands thing. More and better local transit options means the choice to do more of that without the car. It also means that the folks who live in the burbs and who commute in to work have non-driving options to get around once they arrive, which in turn may make the park and ride look more appealing. You can still have more capacity even if you can’t build more lanes, and in the end even the folks who stay in their cars can benefit from it.

Gandhi Street

Hillcroft Street may get another name.

Lined with international shops and restaurants, Hillcroft is known for its vast diversity. Now the India Culture Center wants to rename Hillcroft as Mahatma Gandhi Street, to honor the late spiritual leader.

Indian business owner Vimla Patel said, “It is good for Indian people. It is good for our country.”

[…]

Houston city council member MJ Khan said, “I think everybody should be part of being Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy.”

Khan says he will support changing Hillcroft’s name to Mahatma Gandhi Avenue, if that’s what the community wants.

“Our city is a very international city so I think it will help if we start branding that area,” Khan explained.

I think that’s a perfectly rational reason for wanting to change the name, though as others mentioned in the story, there are plenty of other cultures represented in the area as well. Hillcroft, which changes names several times as you go north, starting with Voss just past Westheimer, doesn’t need that many more names. That said, I think KJB434’s comment on Swamplot to make it a dual name, adding a sign on top as they do in areas like Little Saigon and Chinatown, is quite sensible and could also be used to address the matter of the other cultures. We do this in some other places – US59 is subtitled the Senator Lloyd Bentsen Highway, after all – so why not on Hillcroft? If you’re going to make a change, I’d prefer the addition to the substitution. Not making any changes is fine by me, too. Hair Balls has more.

What next for Wilshire Village?

Nancy Sarnoff runs an obituary for the Wilshire Village apartments, which are slated for demolition now that they have been officially declared a fire hazard.

A historic Inner Loop apartment complex, once slated for a high-rise redevelopment, was shut down last week after city officials ordered residents to vacate the property.

[…]

The complex is the 1940s Wilshire Village apartments at the corner of West Alabama and Dunlavy, one of three Federal Housing Administration-insured garden apartment complexes built here and the only one still in existence, according to architectural historian Stephen Fox.

In 2005, the owner announced plans to tear it down and possibly build an upscale tower in its place.

Matt Dilick, a commercial real estate developer who controls the partnership that owns Wilshire Village, said the demolition process will start “relatively soon.”

“The buildings are unsafe, and for numerous years prior groups have not kept the buildings maintained or the property up to city code,” he said. “The dilapidated buildings are an eyesore to the public and to the numerous homeowners and businesses in the area.”

[…]

As far the property’s redevelopment, “plans have not been released,” said Dilick, adding that the prime site is best suited for apartments, shops and a hotel.

Okay, an apartment is obvious; one hopes this one will be better maintained than the Wilshire ultimately was. Shops I can see, as long as they figure out how to incorporate parking. The other side of Dunlavy is a strip center anchored by a Fiesta, so more shops would fit in just fine. But a hotel? And was this really considered a good spot for a high-rise? I can’t see it. Dunlavy is a narrow little street. It’s not particularly close to an entrance or exit on 59, which would seem to be a negative for a hotel. It’s not far from Greenway Plaza or the Museum District, but as far as I know there’s no shortage of hotels in those areas, certainly not one acute enough that it would need to be relieved by new construction there. It’s all bungalows in the immediate area, so anything over three stories would stick out like a sore thumb. Basically, it’s analogous to the Ashby Highrise, with slightly better vehicular throughput potential and probably less political clout. I don’t see how a hotel makes sense, and I don’t even see how a developer might see how a hotel makes sense. Am I missing something?

Actually, there is one possibility: The Universities line will have a stop at Dunlavy, so the area will have very easy access to light rail. Maybe that figures in to the calculation. Whether that’s the case or not, I hope whoever redevelops the property includes improvements to the sidewalk, as that will make getting to that rail stop much more pleasant. And hopefully whatever does get built there will be at least mostly done before the U-line is in place, so that stretch won’t be all torn up while people are trying to get to the station. Swamplot has more.

We’ll always have bottlenecks

Andrew Burleson points out an ugly fact.

Has anyone else noticed that traffic on I-10 is still not great?

I have a ‘reverse’ commute on I-10 every day. Before the expansion traffic was fine inside the loop outbound in the morning, slow outside the loop. Inbound in the evening it was slow outside the loop, fine inside, except near the 10-45 interchange.

Now things are much smoother outbound, no delay at all. Inbound, however, is a nightmare. Traffic comes to nearly a complete stop approaching the 10-45 interchange, and is usually very slow all the way back to Shepherd / Durham.

Observing the ‘regular’ commuters across the median, things are of course worse. In the mornings the backup to get onto the loop or through the 10-45 interchange is insane, it’s bad in the evenings as well.

The reason for this is pretty simple. The interchange from I-10 to I-45 is one lane for each direction. It’s the exit to I-45 south, which is the way into downtown and points south like the Medical Center (via 288) and Greenway Plaza (via 59), that’s the biggest mess, and with more traffic being brought in thanks to the out expansion of the freeway, the bottleneck is that much worse at this point. I can confirm Andrew’s observation, because one way I have to get to work after I drop the girls off at preschool is I-10 to I-45 to SH-288. In theory, it’s the fastest way for me to get to where I work by the Astrodome, even though it’s a longer-distance drive. But just about every day as I approach I-10 from Height Blvd, and I can see that traffic is basically at a crawl from before there onward, I say the hell with it, and I take my chances on the surface roads instead. It’s not really any faster, but I find it to be less stressful, and it offers me the chance to take an alternate route if it turns out there’s a real obstruction beyond just the sheer number of vehicles.

That’s kind of the dirty secret of all the highway construction we’ve had in Houston over the past two decades or so. We can spend billions of dollars to improve the drive out to the burbs – and we have! – but driving in town is still hell. This is just one example. The others I have in mind are no doubt familiar to you:

– US 59, northbound from roughly Kirby through downtown. It’s truly amazing just how unutterably horrible traffic is on that stretch of highway. I’ve been southbound on 59 coming from downtown a couple of times in recent weeks at around 2 PM on a weekday, and it’s all clogged up. I can only imagine how much worse it must be during rush hour; actually, I don’t have to imagine it, as I recently experienced it. The reason for this is simple: Five lanes of northbound traffic squeezes down into three lanes that go past the downtown spur, then into only two lanes as one peels off for the ramp to I-45. You do the math.

– I-45 on the Pierce Elevated, both directions. It’s the same problem as above: Multiple lanes of traffic coming in narrow down to two lanes at the interchange with 59 and 288. I’ve hammered on this point many times during the longstanding discussion about widening I-45 north of downtown, because as long as the Pierce is this way, you’ll just be pouring an ever bigger bucket of water into the same size funnel, with predictable results.

I should note that I-10 at the I-45 interchange also slims down to two lanes passing through, with one lane going to 45 South and another going into downtown via Smith Street, but unlike the other two examples above, I don’t think most of the traffic is continuing on – in my experience, things flow a lot better once you get past the exit for 45, despite the paucity of bandwidth. That may change some day, if there’s a reason for more traffic to keep going east at that point, but for now it’s not a big deal.

What all of these choke points have in common is that there’s not a damn thing we can do to add capacity. We can’t widen the Pierce Elevated. We can’t widen 59 entering downtown. Remember, we just spent a chunk of money renovating the Pierce, and redoing 59 in that area, which included putting all of it beneath street level. There’s simply no room to widen them. Because we can’t widen the Pierce, we can’t improve the interchange from I-10, for the same reason: no room to add capacity. If your daily routine includes any of these routes, it will never get any better for you. In all likelihood, it will just get worse. It’s no wonder to me that the plans for the I-69 part of the Trans Texas Corridor bypassed Houston altogether. Why would you want your long-haul truckers getting stuck in this mess when they don’t need to?

So what can we do about this? We can do what I’ve been agitating for over and over again around here, which is to create transportation alternatives for the inside-the-loop traveller that gets them where they need to be without the need for these hot spots. Yes, I’m talking about more light rail. In particular, I say my Kirby Drive route would do a lot to keep the 59/45 problems from getting even worse, since it would provide a north-south alternative for a very dense part of town. I proposed that route mostly because I think it’s the best answer to the increasing congestion on the surface roads, but let’s face it, one reason for that increasing congestion on the surface roads is because of people like me who are turning to them as alternate routes to the highways. It may not be an alternative for that guy who needs to get from Greenway to the Woodlands or Humble, but if it keeps a few Greenway to Heights commuters off the road he’s traveling, it still benefits him.

The bottom line is simply this: We cannot add capacity to the highways inside the Loop the way we can outside it. Just as we cannot add capacity to the surface roads, our only viable option for ameliorating the greater volume of traffic in Houston’s inner core is to add transit. I’ve made these points before, and I’ll keep making them because it’s everywhere you look. Either we add transit, or we’re doomed to lousy mobility in Houston’s densest areas.