Exciting improvements to the new I45 plan plus the future of managed lanesFirst, 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.
Kuff has three additional updates to the plan here.
Details from Oscar Slotboom at HAIF below:
The plan analysis has been updated at http://houstonfreeways.com/analysis
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.
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.