Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Interstate 69 traffic could choke Houston

Last week, I noticed that recently-begun reclassification of US Highway 59 as Interstate 69 will likely bring an increase of traffic - especially truck traffic - through the Houston area. Now, the Chronicle provides some actual numbers:
Click to expand. Source: Houston Chronicle
Houston's segment, which already experiences traffic pileups and is not scheduled for any expansion under the plan, would be hit with the largest increase in traffic volume on Texas' interstate route.

"But that traffic is coming to us no matter what we do. We are going to see a huge increase in freight — more than 300 percent in a little over a decade," said a committee member, Ashby Johnson, the Houston-Galveston Area Council's deputy transportation director. "Some of it is coming from NAFTA and some of it's from the widening of the Panama Canal."

Besides increased trade, the Houston region must grapple with rapid population growth. The area is expected to reach 8.8 million by 2035 - a 51 percent increase.
That same year, traffic is expected to leap 60 percent to 350,000 vehicles daily, including 24,000 trucks, in the stretch of 59 that wraps around downtown Houston.
That stretch, of course, includes the trench between Shepherd and Spur 527, which is easily the city's worst bottleneck (especially in the northbound/westbound direction) in spite of the fact that it was completely rebuilt just a few years ago. And then just east of that there's the trench separating Midtown from Third Ward, which also tends to back up as traffic getting on or off 45 and 288 intermingles with through traffic on 59. I can't imagine how either of these stretches of soon-to-be Interstate 69 will be able to cope with the increased traffic volumes being projected.
Nonetheless, the report does not call for expansion of that stretch of roadway. It does recommend exploring traffic relief options such as a bypass around the city for those traveling long distances.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a grass-roots committee member, said developing a plan to deal with the traffic is critical.

"Everyone agreed a bypass needs to be done," he said. "It's something that's been talked about for years, but it all costs money."

He would like to see a bypass on the county's east side that connects to the new interstate south of Wharton and reconnects north of Cleveland. Others, like Sierra Club transportation expert Dick Kallerman, would like to see tracks added to rail lines along this route so it could handle more freight.
At first I thought Judge Emmett might be referring to the southern and eastern segments of the Grand Parkway, but that highway is not proposed to reach either Wharton or Cleveland so he's probably talking about something completely new. I'm not sure exactly what route Emmett's new bypass would follow (or if it would even be necessary given that the Grand Parkway is already in the works). Kallerman's idea to double-track rail lines running through Houston is also worth exploring, but that's probably not going to help unless the yards, switches and interlockings in and around the city are upgraded as well. Then there's the obvious question of where the money will come from to do these things, which aren't included in I-69's estimated $16.5 billion price tag. 
"The Legislature has got to start adequately funding transportation. Within a couple of years, we'll only be able to maintain existing roads," Emmett said. "Then if goods can't be moved around adequately, that economic miracle we've seen in Texas will come to a grinding halt."
I'm not getting my hopes up. Raising the state gas tax, replacing it with a miles-traveled tax, or putting tolls on roads that were once free are not options that are within the realm of political possibility. Lawmakers are going to have to come up with something completely different in order to fund I-69 and other state highways, and I don't know if they are up to the task. It may fall upon local and regional leaders like Emmett to take the lead in finding funding solutions.

Interstate 69 will likely come into being in slow, piecemeal fashion, over the course of many years and as state and federal highway revenue streams permit. The new highway's effects on local traffic, likewise, will also be gradual but will nevertheless be real. The remedies required to handle and mitigate these projected traffic increases will need to be creative. Finding ways to pay for them will require even more creativity.

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