Sunday, September 13, 2015

Exciting improvements to the new I45 plan plus the future of managed lanes

First, a quick event announcement: Please join me at Zillow’s housing forum on Wednesday, September 16th, 8:30-11:00am, at the Hilton Americas-Houston downtown (1600 Lamar St).  I (along with other local experts) will discuss how Houston - one of America’s fastest growing cities - is planning for its future growth while keeping Houston’s housing market affordable.  See the full agenda and register for the event here.  First time I've ever had to share the stage with another Tory, which is definitely going to be confusing!

Moving on to the subject of this week's post, Oscar Slotboom of Houston Freeways fame and myself were able to meet with TXDoT representatives Sept 4th to discuss the new I45 plan (sincere thanks to Commissioner Jeff Moseley for making the meeting arrangements).  I was really impressed with how seriously they've taken our input and feedback (as well as others') and excited about some new directions.  Oscar's details of the new developments are included farther below (including the Pierce Elevated Park), but first here are some big takeaways I came away with:
  • They fixed a lot of the problems I previously described here and here.
  • The net average speed increase is predicted to be +24mph, which is a really big improvement!  Also, it may make substantial progress at helping Houston reach clean air attainment goals, which is nothing to sneeze at (pun intended ;-).
  • I pitched them on a new vision for TXDoT in an era of declining resources and limited ability to widen freeways: a comprehensive network of managed lanes in urban areas always providing a high-speed option, primarily for express buses but also HOVs and dynamic toll-payers.  These lane networks are critical to keeping commutes tolerable, employers from fleeing to the suburbs, and maintaining the vitality and tax base of our core cities.
  • They realize they have a bit of a branding problem with managed lanes, and seemed genuinely excited about my own proposal from way back: MaX Lanes (Managed eXpress Lanes) moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed.  They may use different strategies that change over time to reach that goal, such as dynamic tolling, high-occupancy requirements, or eventually even driverless vehicle restrictions, but the overall goal of these lanes never changes: move as many people as possible at high speed.
  • Discussion ensued about how these managed lane networks might be connected without creating a completely unmanageable tangle of ramps, like, for example, if managed lanes on 45N needed to connect to (hypothetical) ones on 610N to connect people over to Uptown.  My own suggestion came from watching True Detective season 1, which includes this image from the opening credits showing a traffic circle connecting two freeways in Metairie, LA (see Google satellite map here).  It's called a three-level stacked roundabout.  Evidently these were used long ago when freeways were much smaller, but they bog down once they are wider and carry more traffic.  But they're perfect for easily connecting a small set of 1/2/4 managed lanes to another small set of 1/2/4 managed lanes. I really hope TXDoT takes a serious look at this option for connecting up our managed lane network.
  • And the really big news: They're actually considering my old idea of connecting the 59/527 spur to I45 through Midtown with cut-and-cover tunnels under Bagby and Brazos! In fact, it might even be something they consider before construction, so they can act as a reliever during the massive I45 rebuild!  Totally speculative right now, but they seemed genuinely interested in exploring it, especially after starting to think of it as a much cheaper/easier cut-and-cover trench project rather than boring deep, expensive tunnels.
Overall, I'd say my feelings on the project have evolved from mild supporter to mildly opposed and now back to strong support as TXDoT continues to make improvements to the plan.

Kuff has three additional updates to the plan here.

Details from Oscar Slotboom at HAIF below:


I attended a meeting at TxDOT on September 4 where TxDOT provided an update on the status of the plan. Overall the news is good. The items which are my most serious concerns are being fixed. Numerous other issues are still under review, and some items won't be changed to the extent I would like to see. But overall, I'm pleased.

The plan analysis has been updated at


Good news on expected modifications
1. Interstate 45 will have at least three continuous lanes through downtown. This fixes my most serious design concern of the entire project, although details on the merging and transition zones need to be verified to be sufficient in the next official release.

2. Interstate 45 will have five regular lanes in each direction under North Main, and five regular lanes in each direction between Loop 610 and downtown. A long northbound collector lane from downtown functioning like a long on-ramp will help minimize the risk of a bottleneck in this area. There will also be numerous other improvements in the area addressing neighborhood concerns. No additional right-of-way is needed except for maybe a minor impact to the fuel station on the northwest corner at North Main. This design looks like it will be the best is can be given the constraints, and fixes my second most serious design concern.

3. A ramp from westbound I-10 to the southbound downtown spur is expected to be added, solving the problem of downtown access from westbound I-10.

Promising modifications under study

In order to maintain a staging area for the GRB center, they are looking at placing the staging area on a deck over the freeway trench and then swerving Hamilton toward the east, away from the GRB, so that the staging area is immediately adjacent to the GRB. Hamilton would be above the freeway trench in this area, rather than on the ground on the west side of the trench as shown in the original plan.

Observation on the Pierce Elevated

HNTB mentioned that the price of downtown land around the Pierce Elevated is around $100 per square foot, with a net to TxDOT after legal and professional fees around $65. Since the Pierce Elevated uses around 14 half blocks, with each half block around 250x125 feet (31,250 square feet), that translates to $3.1 million per half block or $43 million overall, with a net around $28 million. Of course, those numbers are rough ballpark numbers and real estate prices fluctuate.

It seems feasible and reasonable that the City of Houston could afford $28 million for Pierce Skypark land. In comparison, the proposed park on a deck over the freeway near the GRB will be far more expensive, at least $100 million just for the deck and a total cost between $150 and $300 million, depending on the size and amount of features.

Items still under review

For eastbound Allen Parkway into downtown, it originally appeared that a loop on-ramp would be added (similar to the existing loop ramp), but now more options are being considered, including adding a northbound on-ramp at West Dallas which Allen Parkway traffic would also use.

For the downtown spur section south of Allen Parkway, the configuration with Heiner Street (currently side-by-side) is under review and could be changed to a configuration with frontage roads.

Previously reported

Access to the I-45 managed lanes in the downtown area will be improved, and some access points are still being studied.

Better connections between the I-45 managed lanes and Loop 610, although details were not available.

No connections between Memorial and the downtown spur.

Items of Concern which TxDOT says do not need changes, or cannot be changed 

No additional regular lane capacity on I-45 is expected between Loop 610 and Beltway 8. As of July this was under consideration, but appears to be rejected. I'm still hoping for a longer section of five regular lanes each way north of Loop 610.

Changes to the access between downtown and SH 288 will be minimal, with only a potential minor improvement to the southbound ramp at downtown entrance.

In the south Midtown area, changes to the on/off ramps to/from US 59 are also expected to be minor, but this area is still under review with a meeting planned in Midtown later this month.

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At 11:44 PM, September 14, 2015, Anonymous Rich said...

Meanwhile, of potential interest, Houston Metro's proposed 2016 budget's up for debate:

An interesting reform proposal directly quotes HoustonStrategies:

At 7:05 AM, September 15, 2015, Anonymous dj said...

Many people in houston are shocked when the local media do stories that a condo or house close to downtown that cost $300k-$400k is considered affordable.since the population of houston will grow by the millions for many decades and there isn't much land close to downtown,home values are really gonna get expensive.the poor and middle-class are already being pushed out in these areas.traffic is bad in the suburbs and thats making hoods close to downtown very desirable,since you're close to every Lucky i bought early,these areas are becoming playgrounds for the upper class and rich.all these new high rises and other properties they are building is caterd to people who are well off.i think since the rents are going up fast,the poor and middle-class will move out of this city or go to the suburbs.i read in 2020 houston will add a million people,houston is on it's way of being expensive just like los angeles.

At 7:23 AM, September 15, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Can't find the direct quote of Houston Strategies - can you point to its specific location, Rich?

At 12:20 PM, September 15, 2015, Anonymous Rich said...

There's a direct link to a blog post from HoustonStrategies, which one can find here by searching for "HoustonStrategies":

Meanwhile the same post is also at Metro's relevant Facebook page here:

Much of that post (at either locale) is directly influenced by your teachings in fact, Tory. And it's repeatedly getting posted elsewhere at Metro's FB page too. For example:

Care to join in? :-)

At 12:39 PM, September 15, 2015, Anonymous Rich said...

Meanwhile, there's this recent coverage of Houston Strategies' & Tory's fine work at the Houston Metro Rail Development Facebook page:

That post also includes relevant links to mayoral candidates' Facebook pages...

"We get the govt. that we deserve." -Ben Franklin (as paraphrased by Jay Leno). :-)

At 2:26 PM, September 15, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Awesome - thanks Rich. I also posted Bill King's position here:

At 4:23 PM, September 15, 2015, Anonymous Rich said...

Nice gong, Tory. With mayoral elections underway in a few weeks, and Metro's budget up for grabs amidst the pressure of pension funding problems, the audience for your reform-oriented, pro-entrepreneurial teachings may be the most attentive that it has been in quite a while, if not ever.

At 4:50 PM, September 15, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Let's hope so! Thanks for the kind words, Rich :-)

At 3:14 AM, September 17, 2015, Blogger VMel said...

Side note: Thank you for pointing me to a good description of the interchange pictured in True Detective. My wife poked fun at me saying, "you're probably the only person who notices that road." Now I know I'm not :-)

At 4:44 PM, September 17, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Definitely not! I remember pausing the video when I got to that scene - I was fascinated by that connection!

At 10:42 PM, September 18, 2015, Anonymous Mike said...

May be missing something, but how will the Midtown tunnels connect to I-45 if I-45 is not there anymore?

At 10:57 PM, September 18, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The will connect to the downtown connector on the west side, same as it exists now. Long-term, the part that will be torn down is the Pierce Elevated, which is everything east of Bagby. I think the west side connector will get rebuilt though - not sure about that.

At 2:27 PM, September 21, 2015, Anonymous Rich said...

As a sidenote, is this the future of collective transportation?

"The WEpod [electric van / bus] can be booked using an app which will allow passengers to reserve a seat and specify their starting points and their destinations. Vehicles are expected to select their itineraries independently."

At 2:41 PM, September 21, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Very cool! The future is coming!

At 10:57 PM, September 21, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't mean to be negative but I am respectfully against this plan.

TxDot can't be trusted with any more of our funds. They don't even keep freeway lighting maintained, multiple areas where the tower lights are mostly/totally burned out, and lasts for months.

They're a top down beaurocracy and they work where they want when they want, vis, they work on multiple freeways at the same time, with very little signage and I feel they have no respect for the public. They just do what they want and to heck with us the tax paying public, for whom they should work and serve.

I feel like this project will be Houston's version of Boston's "big dig", by the time it's finished, all these large employers will have relocated to one of the ring roads. It will literally take employees 3 hrs. to get downtown.

This will take forever, forget trying to get to IAH from West U./Braes Hts./Bellaire/Southampton, etc. Going anywhere within 5 miles of downtown will be gridlock. I foresee the only way will be Westpark toll rd., to Beltway 8 West, then all the way around the Beltway to the airport. Seems like 35 mi?

That will effectively kill this city, with our existing poor infrastructure and streets we will become Detroit and fast. Especially if this takes more than 5 years to complete.

Keep up the good work Tory!


PS: I don't think it's right for govt. officials to have grand plans and ambitions, they should put it to a vote or have submittals, someone's bucking for a promotion at TxDot and it's not their money. If they want to take risk, go start a business and raise your own capital, don't use ours! Sorry

At 8:50 AM, September 22, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I like the ultimate plan, but I agree with you - the construction could be massively painful. I live in Midtown and shudder just thinking about it. From a personal standpoint, it's hard to say the benefits are worth the pain, but from a city/metro standpoint, they probably are. What I would hope is that they do it in stages so the worst can be avoided, especially making sure inside the loop that 59 and 45 are not worked on at the same time, so that one is always clear as a through-path (that would mean leaving 45 alone as the 59 piece is completely done first, then starting on 45).

At 11:21 AM, December 24, 2015, Blogger John Augusto said...

I'm new to this blog. I may have missed where this was a topic... But my main complaint is improving the HOV lane access on all our freeways... They should all be accessible from the main lanes (example Katy Tollway). Currently its confusing and difficult to know where all the park and ride entrances are. Unless you're starting in the burbs, and traveling to downtown, the HOV lanes are useless.

Similarly, there needs to be a plan to make all the HOV lanes travel in both directions simultaneously. The days of the majority of Houston working downtown are gone. Many of us go "against" traffic and would benefit from a Katy Tollway style HOV system.

Lastly, the toll authorities need to get with it and consolidate their signage branding, and their toll policies. Purple signs on the West Park, white on the Hot Lanes, yellow on the Hardy, TxTag on 99. Pick consistent branding. Even more inconsistent when we look across the state. And policies... Free to vets if HCTRA, not free on Metro Hot Lanes. Pay by Mail outside of Houston.

At 11:28 AM, December 24, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Pretty much total agreement, John, although I will say I prefer more reversible lanes over two-way when the rush hour is clearly unidirectional, like 59N, 290, 288, or others. The main two-way rush hour in the city is I10W, with the Energy Corridor and Westchase out there, as well as the loop freeways like 610 and BW8.


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