Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A "Purple" alternative for I-45 downtown

I actually became of Purple City’s impressive plan for the “downtown ring” – an alternative to TxDOT’s plans for completely reconstructing I-45 in and around downtown Houston – over a week ago, but haven’t had the chance to offer my two cents’ worth until now.

In a nutshell: it’s excellent.

It addresses a lot of flaws in the TxDOT plan. For example, the “managed express” (toll and high-occupancy vehicle) lanes that are discontinuous in the TxDOT plan are connected via the Pierce Elevated in the Purple City plan, meaning that buses and toll-paying vehicles traveling from Kingwood to the Texas Medical Center, or from Pearland to The Woodlands, don’t have to merge into general traffic lanes in order to get around downtown. The Purple City plan also retains the Polk Street crossing over 59/69 on the east end of downtown that the TxDOT design eliminates; a major flaw that will have an impact on car as well as transit operations between downtown and the east end.

Most importantly, the Purple City alternative asks an obvious question about the TxDOT plan: what is the logic in tearing down the Pierce Elevated, only to replace it by condemning almost 20 blocks of land on the east side of downtown to create a wide trench for 59/69 and 45?
In the East End, the 9/15 Plan demolishes the entire entertainment and nightlife district that has grown up around Saint Emanuel Street. This segment of the plan alone removes more land from the tax rolls than removal of the Pierce Elevated will add, assuming that corridor is redeveloped commercially.
The Purple City alternative hits on a variety of issues near and dear to my heart, including urban highway aesthetics. For example, can elevated highways be retrofitted to be more “urban-friendly?” The plan also reduces the need for right-of-way consuming frontage roads, eliminates confusing left-hand exists, and focuses on bicycle and transit connections in a way that the TxDOT plan does not.

I have a few quibbles with the Purple City alternative. For example, it replaces the planned University Line light rail along Richmond with a bus rapid transit line running between the University of Houston and the intersection of Westpark and Post Oak using managed lanes along 69/59. While this is a sensible transit service - it would require replacing the existing single, reversible HOV lane along 59/69 with a two-way, all-day structure, which needs to happen anyway – it would be of no benefit to the mixed-use, transit-friendly neighborhoods of Montrose and Upper Kirby that the University Line would serve. It also significantly reduces the potential for over-the-freeway deck parks that are a feature of the TxDOT plan.

All in all, however, the Purple City plan for I-45 has a lot of advantages over the TxDOT plan. Which raises the question: now that Purple City has put so much thought and effort into this alternate schematic, what's next? This plan has apparently been presented to TxDOT, which is an obvious first step, but will Purple City also be presenting this plan to area stakeholders, to the management districts in and around downtown, to decision-making bodies such as City Council, the METRO Board of Directors, and the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council?

Take a look at the report and the schematic, and stay tuned. Swamplot and Kuff have more.

On a not-entirely-unrelated note: while Houston decides what to do with their existing freeways in and around downtown, Lafayette, Louisiana is deciding if they want a new freeway to go through their downtown at all. In my grad school report about urban freeway aesthetics, I used I-49 through Lafayette as an example that urban freeway-building, for all the issues it creates, is not dead. I'll be following this story closely.

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