Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Some thoughts about TxDOT's plans for I-45 North

Last night I attended an open house at the HCC Central Campus regarding the Texas Department of Transportation's grand plans for Interstate 45 around and north of downtown Houston. This ambitious endeavor would re-route I-45 to the east and north of downtown, demolish the Pierce Elevated, put the freeway in a trench (possibly topped by green space) between downtown and 610, and massively widen the freeway between 610 and Beltway 8. Some thoughts:

This project, if it happens, will be the biggest single public works project in Houston's history. Dredging the ship channel, building the Astrodome, creating the NASA Johnson Space Center... Those are all iconic public works milestones in this city's history. But in terms of sheer cost and impact, they won't compare to this one. The cost - last night a TxDOT engineer told me that the estimated price tag for the entire project is "over six billion dollars" - dwarfs the cost of recent freeway rebuilds like the Katy or the Northwest. And the project will completely alter Houston's urban landscape around, and to the north of, downtown.

                                                                   Texas Department of Transportation
The reconstruction of I-45 won't just affect I-45. The project's limits extend all the way past downtown to I-69/US-59 in the Montrose area, where the Spur 527 split occurs. As anybody who has traveled through the "Montrose Trench" knows, this is a huge bottleneck in the eastbound/northbound direction at all hours of the day, as six lanes of traffic are forced down to three. This project would extend the trench to 288 and add lanes, thereby easing the bottleneck. The 69/59 intersection with 288 will also be completely rebuilt, as will the entirely of 69/59 east of downtown and I-10 north of it.

The over-the-freeway parks being proposed for 45 between downtown and the loop and for 45 east of downtown (where it would run concurrently with 69/59) need to happen. They are currently not included in project cost, but they would be wonderful urban amenities that would reconnect neighborhoods, boost surrounding property values and enhance the city's quality of life. For a good idea of what these green spaces could look like and how they could be used, take a look at Margaret T. Hance Park over I-10 in Phoenix, Freeway Park over I-5 in Seattle, Lake Place and Leif Erikson Parks over I-35 in Duluth, or the new Klyde Warren Park over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway in Dallas.

The fact that below-grade freeways sometimes flood is a feature, not a bug. Yes, this project is going to put a big chunk of Houston's inside-the-loop freeway network below grade. And yes, these freeway trenches will occasionally flood. However, by acting as temporary floodwater retention, these trenches will help to prevent surrounding neighborhoods from flooding during major rain events. Sure, there is the inconvenience of these freeways being closed (and the cost of a few cars being flooded out, for people dumb enough to drive into rising water), but it is exponentially less disruptive or costly than entire neighborhoods, houses, businesses, etc. being destroyed by floodwater. This is something I wish more people would understand. 

I admit it: I'll miss the Pierce Elevated. Sure, it's constantly congested and it serves as a physical as well as psychological barrier between downtown and Midtown. But I'll miss the views it provides as it swoops past all those skyscrapers on its west and south ends. Oh, and while I love the idea of the Pierce Sky Park - Houston's answer to New York City's High Line - I think pressure from real estate and developer interests to convert what is now the Pierce Elevated into developable property is going to prevent that from becoming a reality.

Right-of-way requirements are going to cause significant residential and business displacement. On the east side of downtown alone, popular restaurants like Kim Son and Huynh, Dynamo fan hangouts like Little Woodrow's, and residential complexes like the Lofts at the Ballpark and the Clayton Homes housing project will have to be demolished. And don't even get me started on all the businesses that will need to be taken in order to widen I-45 between 610 and Beltway 8. Obviously, a huge percentage of the "over six billion dollar" cost of this project will be dedicated to right-of-way acquisition, as the demand for land is so enormous. TxDOT will provide relocation assistance, but this project is still going to cause a lot of inconvenience for a lot of people.

Oh, and it's going to take many, many years for the entire project to be completed, as well.  I'm thinking a decade, give or take a few years. Construction will likely occur in stages, so that only one area of town is torn up and rebuilt at a time. I think it will be worth it once it's all complete, but there's a lot of aggravating and disrupting construction between now and then.

This project still has a few missing pieces, especially in terms of transit connectivity. There needs to be a connection from the 288 managed lanes (that are supposed to get underway soon) to the I-45 managed lanes proposed as part of this project, so that people who live in The Woodlands can get to their jobs in the Texas Medical Center or people who live in Pearland can get to their jobs at ExxonMobil's Springwoods campus. Right now, all of these managed lanes lead directly into downtown, even though a significant number of commuters (be they in cars, vanpools, or METRO and Woodlands Express buses) would likely want to use these hybrid HOV/toll lanes to go to destinations other than downtown. Also, the reconstruction of I-69/US-59 from the spur to 288 is a perfect opportunity to incorporate a portion of the fabled University Line light rail which would connect midtown with The University of Houston: since there is going to be right-of-way acquisition and construction in that corridor anyway, why not lay down tracks parallel to 69/59 between Main Street and the Alabama Street bridge?

A lot of work has gone into the current design, but it is not final. This project is not yet set in stone concrete; there's still a lot of design work to be done, and then of course there is the small detail as to where to find the "over six billion dollars" to pay for this. It's probably going to be at least five years before construction begins in earnest, so there's still time to get things right. TxDOT is soliciting comments until May 31st, 2015. Feel free to add your voice to the discussion.

The project website (including massive schematic drawings in all their take-forever-to-download glory) is here. Kuff and Swamplot have further discussion.

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