9/2/14, Doug Begley

Researchers used a massive amount of data to come to the conclusion, as reported last week, that Loop 610 in Uptown is the state’s most congested road.

There are a lot of ways to look at the numbers Texas A&M Transportation Institute researchers amassed, but any way you slice them Houston area drivers contend with challenges no matter where they are.
Take Spencer Road between Texas 6 and the Sam Houston Tollway. Sure, it’s only the 288th most congested road in the state when judged by annual hours of delay per-mile. But it’s No. 1 in the Houston area, and fourth statewide, in a category called planning time index. The index measures the predictability of travel time compared to free-flow conditions.

Let’s say your trip down a four-mile stretch of road takes 10 minutes in no traffic, but the road has a planning time index of 4.5. That would mean you need to plan on it taking 45 minutes to be assured of getting there on time if traffic is at its worst.

Because of all the construction along U.S. 290 and Loop 610, which is near the eastern end of this segment of Spencer Road, the stretch has a planning time index of 29.16. In other words, if you leave when traffic is at its worst, you should have left the day before.
While that stat is a wild extreme because of the effect the construction has on the road, it’s still something Houston drivers must contend with in a lot of places. Moving away from the U.S. 290 corridor, Aldine Bender Road from Interstate 45 to U.S. 59 has a planning time index of 26.01.

The problem of predictable trips might be more extreme on local roads, but the routes doing the region’s heavy lifting in terms of traffic — the freeways — also suffer. I-45 from the northern end of the Sam Houston Tollway to Loop 610 North carries 15 times as many vehicles daily as Spencer Road, and has a planning time index of 6.87.

Let’s say that again: On the road segment that carries more vehicles per day than any other in Houston, people have to plan on trips taking almost seven times longer because of traffic at peak times.

Fixing that is not going to be a matter of adding elevated lanes or building light rail, officials and many observers agree.
“It’s not a question of this or that,” said Tim Lomax, one of the researchers that amassed the congestion list. “It’s a matter of this and that.”

Local officials and observers say regional transportation is hamstrung by a lack of available funds.

“We can’t be afraid to ask ourselves to pay what we need,” said Jack Drake, chairman of Transportation Advocacy Group Houston Region, which argues for transportation investments.

Relief, at least so far, has been slow in meeting the additional demand economic growth is putting on the transportation system. Officials are gauging short-term fixes along U.S. 59, seeing what can be done to relieve congestion in the next few years without spending hundreds of millions of dollars. The big projects are planned, but right now, officials are working with what they have in a lot of spots, forming what they call a “toolbox” of traffic relief options.

The reality, however, is the job might be bigger than what a box full of tolls can do. Along of lot of these routes, hammering away at congestion isn’t going to do the job.