June 24, 2016 Updated: June 25, 2016 2:33pm
Houston’s downtown freeway system creates a teardrop-shaped border around downtown via Interstates 45 and 10 and U.S. 59. It moves hundreds of thousands of vehicles a day yet the inefficiency is enough to make a lot of commuters cry.
“I dread it,” said Susie Gorman, 56, who endures the I-45 split with U.S. 59 five days a week.
The problem isn’t new to transportation officials, city leaders, downtown businesses or pretty much anyone with a driver’s license who travels inside Loop 610. 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.
Radical freeway redesign
The project, if built as tentatively planned, would widen I-45 from the Sam Houston Tollway north of downtown through the city’s central business district where the freeway crosses U.S. 59. Split into three phases, the project’s downtown segment is expected to cost $4 billion alone, much of that related to an unprecedented relocation, burial and redesign of most of the urban core’s freeway system.
Though less complex, the segments north of the central business district also would benefit. Most of the relief, however, would come from adding managed lanes so HOV users and public transit could speed past in both directions, as opposed to the current single reversible lane.
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.
Core changes involving downtown streets
The ambitious proposal is a total rethinking of how I-45, U.S. 59 and I-10 connect to downtown streets, and what effects the freeways have on the area. The alteration that’s received the most attention is the plan to re-route I-45 to run parallel to U.S. 59 on the east side of downtown and eliminate the elevated portion along Pierce Street. The segment south of I-10 to Dallas Street would remain, but would act essentially as a local access route similar to Spur 527 in Midtown.
What to do with the eliminated freeway portion remains a source of controversy. TxDOT has said the freeway would be declared surplus property, and the city would have first crack at acquiring it if it wanted to use it. Adjacent landowners would have the next option to acquire the land. Though a source of discussion, the freeway project is expected to proceed before any decision on tearing down the Pierce Street overhead portion or creating an elevated park, as some have proposed.
“The Pierce Elevated will be the last piece of the puzzle to be removed,” Henry said, noting the new freeway lanes would have to be open for TxDOT to abandon it.
Additional funding also would be needed beyond what TxDOT will spend to cap the freeway where it is buried near North Main, east of the convention center and in a small area of Midtown.
The confluence of I-45, I-10 and U.S. 59 is one of the most challenging bottlenecks in the region. Each carries more than 200,000 vehicles on a normal work day where they meet near Buffalo Bayou. Connections between the freeways are common, as they are the main modes of entry into and out of the city center.
“All of the segments are within the top 35 for most congested segments in the state and some are within the top ten,” Henry said.
Redesigning where and how the freeways connect makes those transitions smoother, Henry told Houston City Council members last week.
“The big benefit from this is we are eliminating the weaving,” he said, noting how some exits from the left side of the freeway slow down lanes meant for vehicles passing through.
The same benefit occurs by redesigning how I-45, U.S. 59 and Texas 288 connect in Midtown, transportation officials said.
Based on a traffic analysis by HNTB, the engineering firm working on the plans for TxDOT, traffic speeds along the downtown freeway system would increase by 24 mph with the proposed changes, meaning the entire network moves more people faster.
“In our business that is a huge number,” Henry said of the anticipated traffic speed increase.
Since the proposal to revamp the city’s freeways was unveiled in April 2015, transportation officials have made some minor changes, some based on comments they received during public meetings last year about better entrance and exit ramps. Redevelopment of the Cheek-Neal Coffee building east of U.S. 59 also required a rethinking of how much property the wider parallel freeway could use south of I-10.
Stakeholders, many of whom have faulted TxDOT in the past for strong-arming communities and not heeding public sentiment, praised the planning process so far.
“They are listening to a degree I’ve never seen,” said Tory Gattis, a local blogger who has been critical of downtown public transit and freeway plans in the past, following a March 24 meeting with TxDOT and HNTB to discuss various right-of-way and design changes since mid-2015. “This is the center of the city and it is going to direct the city for the next 50 years, and I think everyone knows that and is taking some care.”
Shifting priorities to expand public transit
The proposal for widening I-45, one of Houston’s core freeways, comes at a time when city officials – notably Mayor Sylvester Turner – are arguing for more public transit and fewer freeway lanes.
“It just seems like we are headed down the same road,” District I Councilman Robert Gallegos said.
Gallegos and others urged TxDOT to consider how the managed lanes planned along the freeway could one day be converted to some form of mass transit, particularly rail.
Metropolitan Transit Authority officials meet with TxDOT about twice monthly on the I-45 project, Allen said. Transit officials thus far have cheered the project as greatly improving park-and-ride bus service because it would allow buses to travel both directions in HOV lanes, making roundtrips faster.
In a city choking on traffic congestion, however, council members worry building for buses might not be enough.
“This is going to be your toughest audience because they are very concerned about what the city will look like in ten years,” At-Large City Councilman Jack Christie told Henry during a presentation to the council’s Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure committee.