Building to the Grand Finale - An updated analysis of the 45N rebuildHappy Independence Day! (a bit of that theme in the post) I'm finally back from my travels. This week we have a guest post by Houston Freeways author Oscar Slotboom on plans for the 45N project, which was recently featured in the Chronicle where I was quoted.
In May TxDOT posted updated schematics for the inner loop section of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project on the official project site. This is the second update after the seriously flawed original design released in April 2015 and the first update in September 2015.
The good news is that TxDOT and their engineering consultant HNTB continue their steady progress of improving the design, and my updated analysis now contains only four serious design concerns, down from sixteen in the original release and seven in the September 2015 update. See the September 2015 issue status list for the improvements in the latest version.
For the latest project design:
- Three of the four remaining concerns are related to access to the northbound MaX (managed express) lanes from downtown, including the poorly situated proposed slip ramp, the lack of access to the MaX lanes inside the loop, and reducing northbound IH 45 to three main lanes at the Loop. TxDOT has agreed that the design in the area can be improved and is currently studying options.
- TxDOT made a huge improvement in the latest design by restoring the on-ramp to northbound IH-69 from San Jacinto, which currently exists but was removed in the first two versions of the plan. But the new design does not restore the currently-existing southbound exit to Fannin, and still requires vehicles to exit to Almeda and then proceed west through Midtown, where the streets are not designed east-west traffic. So half of this problem is solved, and I propose possible designs to fix the other half.
The MaX Lane North-South connectivity issue
TxDOT and HNTB say that their traffic model indicates that traffic will move through downtown much better, an average of 24 miles per hour faster, and touts the huge benefits for IH-69. But we all know that future traffic often exceeds projections as economic and population growth push volumes higher, and latent demand also consumes newly added capacity. In the larger perspective, north-south travel has become one of the most serious travel challenges at rush hour, with downtown, the West Loop and West Sam Houston Tollway all typically heavily congested.
With the IH-45 MaX lanes in this plan, construction soon to begin on the SH 288 managed lanes, existing HOV lanes on the Southwest, Gulf and Eastex freeways, the planned Hardy Toll Road extension into downtown, and possible future MaX lanes inside the loop on the Katy and Southwest Freeways, there will be a huge number of managed lanes converging into downtown with no dedicated path for managed lane traffic to get through downtown.
Ideally, this plan should have included a MaX lane connection through downtown on a north-south axis, both for transit and to give an option to motorists. The biggest beneficiary of the connection would be the Texas Medical Center, since downtown congestion limits their access to the workforce on the north side of the city.
While it may be too late to include a north-south connection in this plan, it is important that future options are not precluded by the project design. Within 6-9 months, it should be possible to do the following:
- Launch a short-term technical study to identify future volumes of demand for MaX lanes in all directions around and through downtown, based on current and potential future MaX corridors. Also identify possible future long-term connection corridors, which could be tunnels.
- On the section of IH 69 between Spur 527 and SH 288, consider a right-of-way set-aside for one or two managed lanes. Even if a north-south MaX lane connection is determined to be infeasible, this connection could serve as an extension of the SH 288 managed lanes to connect to the Southwest Freeway.
- Based on the study results, adjust the design so as not to preclude potential future MaX lane connections. This could mean preserving space for an additional lane on the downtown spur (on the west side of downtown), or preserving space for connections between existing HOV lanes and lanes going through downtown, for example, allowing the Eastex Freeway HOV lane to connect into the IH-69 main lanes near IH-10 to allow passage through downtown to the medical center.
The most recent cost estimate places the overall plan cost at $7 billion, with the downtown improvements costing $4 billion.
TxDOT has fully accommodated the wishes and desires of downtown and north side interests, leading to a very ambitious downtown design which is very expensive. To put things in perspective:
- The 35-mile-long US 290 project currently in progress from 2013 to 2017 has a total cost of $2.4 billion and a construction cost of $1.3 billion.
- The 25-mile-long Katy Freeway expansion built from 2003 to 2008 cost around $2.7 billion, which would probably be in the range of $3.2 to 3.5 billion in today’s money.
- At current funding levels, this project will consume virtually all funds for new construction for a period of around 10 years, or the construction could drag on for a very long time, 15 years or more
- There will probably need to be an increase in funding at the federal and/or state levels to complete this entire project in a reasonable amount of time, which I would say is seven years or less after construction begins since we don’t want downtown to be a construction zone any longer than necessary.
- Looking at the benefit/cost ratio of separate independent sections will be necessary if funding is short, rather than plunging straight into the entire costly downtown rebuild.
- Independent sections which could offer the most benefit to relieve bottlenecks include the section of IH 69 between Spur 527 and SH 288, IH 69 on the east side of downtown, and the IH 45/Loop 610 interchange and adjacent sections.
While the funding issue can be worked out in the next few years, getting the federal “record of decision” (ROD) is the top priority, since nothing can move forward until the ROD is received. Houston is a can-do city, and by getting this project done we’ll have perhaps the best, most urban-friendly downtown freeway complex in the United States.
- Make the final needed refinements to the design as soon as possible, including adjustments to ensure any future north-south MaX lane connections are not precluded.
- Get the record of decision by 2018, which is TxDOT’s stated goal
- Start work on sections with the most benefit as soon as 2020.