Sunday, May 03, 2015

Thoughts on TXDoT's ambitious new plan for I45N

Before getting into this week's post, just a heads up in case you missed it: my Good/Bady/Ugly MetroRail post from a couple weeks ago got refined into a Sunday feature op-ed in the Chronicle today.  They even used a few of my pictures, which was cool.  Most of the feedback on it has been quite positive.

But the real topic this week after attending the TXDoT information session at HCC is their massive $6+ billion plan to redevelop I45N, with the much publicized feature of routing it around the north and east sides of downtown and closing the Pierce Elevated (more on that later).  Much less publicized but almost as epic for many people: it also fixes the much-hated 59N bottleneck at the Spur 527 split where 5 lanes compress down to 3.  That bottleneck routinely backs up for miles at all hours of the day, not just rush hour.  As you can see below, the plan extends down to that part of 59, and includes burying the elevated as well as expanding it to 5 lanes inbound and 4 lanes outbound, a significant improvement over the 3 each direction today. (click the pics for larger versions)




My primary feedback to TXDoT at the information session involves the new westside downtown connector, which is far too downtown-centric in my opinion (see pic below).  It ignores the vast and growing populations of densifying Midtown, Montrose, and Washington Ave that need access to these freeways with connectors from Bagby/Brazos, Allen Parkway, and Memorial, respectively.  Not directly connecting Allen Parkway is an especially large oversight, IMHO.  Improving these connections will also reduce the load on I10W inside the loop, which is where many of these people drive for freeway access today.  I'd even be in favor of keeping the existing westside ramps/connectors as they are currently configured for simplicity and saving money (even without a Memorial connection).


My next big set of feedback involves the new I45 managed lanes, which simply dump downtown instead of connecting through.  Most of my readers know I've been a longtime advocate of having a comprehensive managed lane network across the city that would enable express commuter bus services from any neighborhood to any job center.  That would include communities on the northside that need express commute services to the Medical Center, UH, Greenway Plaza, or other major destinations and job centers on the southside, and vice versa.  If the lanes terminate downtown, then that's not possible.  TXDoT needs to adopt this comprehensive managed lane network philosophy now (as opposed to downtown-centric), so that these lanes all connect together over the coming decades of construction.

Since I'm sending TXDoT this blog post as official public comment/feedback, some other smaller items of feedback are...
  • I45 needs three sustained lanes both directions all the way through downtown, not two.
  • The new I10 express lanes on the north side of downtown crunch down from two lanes to one on the west end near Houston Ave, which seems like a bad bottleneck in the making.
  • Another future bottlenecks is 45 northbound where it drops from six lanes to four at the North Main exit.  At least five of those lanes need to continue through - crunch down shoulders if necessary in the very tight right-of-way.
  • Runnels in the East End needs to continue to connect directly to the feeder and the freeway entrance ramps.  Navigation (which connects to Runnels) is a growing destination street.
Immediately after TXDoT announced this plan, two separate but similar visions came forward for converting the closed Pierce Elevated into a park similar to the extremely popular High Line in NYC.  My friend Oscar Slotboom of "Houston Freeways" book fame makes this Pierce Elevated Park proposal, and another group has made this proposal for Pierce Sky Park.  As beautiful as the renderings at Pierce Sky Park are, they're a little misleading since they assume the complete closure on both the west and south sides of downtown, when TXDoT plans to keep connector ramps to the west side, including over the bayou.  It's likely only the south Pierce would be available for park development.  Lisa Gray gave both proposals a great writeup in the Chronicle, and they also received editorial board support.  I think it would be an amazing city amenity - and hope TXDoT will take them seriously and the downtown folks will keep an open mind, no matter how much they've wanted to bring down the Pierce Elevated for so long as a barrier between Downtown and Midtown.  The barrier is less the structure itself than the constant pounding of cars and trucks - converted into a quiet park along with some enhancements underneath would remove the barrier psychology.  Based on the NYC High Line, a park conversion instead of demolition could pay for itself many times over with increased land values their associated property taxes.  In fact, it could actually cost less than demolition!
"The High Line in New York City generated $500 million in tax revenue from a $150 million investment, according to John Cryer, a spokesman for Pierce Skypark."
My suggestion would be for the Midtown Management District to officially take over as the champion of this Pierce park proposal, given that they both benefit the most and can organizationally sustain the vision and the energy over the many years it would take (the earliest it might actually happen would be the early to mid 2020s after construction is complete and the Pierce is closed).

If you'd like to learn more about the project yourself, here's the official TXDoT page along with this slide presentation which includes detailed renderings (KUHF version with slide notes).  They're taking public feedback until May 31st.

UPDATE: Dug's update at the Chronicle.
UPDATE: A TXDoT visualization video of the project.

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5 Comments:

At 11:02 AM, May 05, 2015, Anonymous Mike said...

I can see where it would be helpful to connect either Allen Parkway or Memorial but I'm not sure every neighborhood where there's a growing population needs direct freeway connections. Even in the suburbs, one usually has to drive through a few traffic lights to get from one's house to one's freeway. I think they should make it a priority to minimize the amount of concrete going over the bayou, as this area has a chance to really take off as Houston's "front lawn." When you consider how Discovery Green has impacted development on that side of downtown, an uncovered bayou and Sam Houston Park would be a far greater amenity. Imagine that whole area framed by the same types of high rises that are going up around DG, full of people.

I don't get the sense reading your wishlist of freeway lanes and connections that there is any tradeoff between what is built and what is impacted around it.

 
At 3:08 PM, May 05, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The connections I'm suggesting would have extremely minimal impact vs. what TXDoT is proposing, especially near the bayou.

 
At 8:46 AM, May 11, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

$6 billion is a steep price tag for such a small area. For significantly less than that, I'd just trench or tunnel the Pierce Elevated and connect the other spur to it.

 
At 3:59 PM, May 11, 2015, Anonymous Rich said...


I wonder if these proposals would make it easier, or harder, for automated tractor trailers and hopefully even automated Metrobuses to travel about? Automated drivers are supposedly less likely to wreck than human ones (and they can be less costly too). The technology's getting seemingly unprecedented investment, as this documents:

http://venturebeat.com/2015/04/28/five-fortune-500-companies-invest-to-bring-groundbreaking-automated-truck-driving-technology-to-market/

The rubber's hittin' the roadway too:

http://www.wired.com/2015/05/worlds-first-self-driving-semi-truck-hits-road/

 
At 10:55 AM, May 12, 2015, Anonymous Darien said...

Are we looking at a decade of snarled traffic through downtown until this is finished? This is going to be a traffic nightmare if not done right. I'm curious as to what phases this will be done in.

 

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