Sunday, July 26, 2015

TXDoT responds to issues with I45N redevelopment plan, no Pierce Elevated Park

A while back I posted my thoughts on TXDoT's proposed plan to redevelop I45N.  Oscar Slotboom, author of Houston Freeways, shared similar concerns and recently met with TXDoT to discuss them.  I've included his summary of his key findings below from his HAIF post here, or you can find a more comprehensive issue-by-issue list and TXDoT response here.  It's important to note that nothing is final at this time, and all of this is subject to change as TXDoT goes through the process, but this is the preliminary feedback he received.

The headliner for most people is that they're intent on selling the land under the Pierce Elevated to fund other right-of-way purchases, so that disappointingly kills the idea of a Pierce Elevated Park (concepts here and here).  I'm also disappointed they're declining to connect Midtown and Memorial to the new downtown connector (or 59, in Midtown's case), which I think is a big mistake (although they are adding one for Allen Parkway, thank goodness).  They're also still not considering connecting up the managed lanes through downtown to create a more comprehensive network - instead they just terminate downtown the same as they always have.  The only benefit left I'm really excited about is fixing the inbound 59S bottleneck at Spur 527 and the elevated, and that could be done without doing the whole project.

Overall, I'm personally pretty disappointed with the response and the constraints of the new plan, and am now concerned that in some ways we may end up worse off than the current configuration (hard to imagine, I know), at least inside the Loop.  I45 actually drops from six to four lanes through downtown under the plan - not an improvement. We could end up spending six+ billion dollars and enduring years of very painful and disruptive construction only to end up with very minor benefits - and that's hard to swallow.  The downtown boosters will be happy losing the 59 and Pierce elevateds, but I think the majority of Houston drivers will see few or negative benefits inside the Loop.  As much of a supporter as I am in freeway investments, I'm now half hoping the funding doesn't come through for this one...

On to Oscar's summary:

On Monday I met with a TxDOT representatives and representatives from HNTB, the consulting firm developing the design for the project. We reviewed my points of concern, and I updated my web page with the status of these issues.

Although most of my concerns cannot or will not be addressed to the extent I would like to see, I appreciate that TxDOT took a close look at the issues and I think the ultimate design will be the best it can be within the financial limits, political constraints and traffic model results.

In most cases, issues are still under study and the any adjustments to the design won't be known until the next round of public meetings when the updated schematic is released. But it appears likely that the following items will be in the next iteration

Note that nothing below is final or officially decided for the next version of the plan until TxDOT officially releases it.
  • Eastbound Allen Parkway will get loop ramp to the northbound downtown connector, similar to the existing loop ramp
  • There will not be connections from Memorial to the downtown connector. Both the City of Houston and TxDOT are against connections. The COH and Downtown Management District are going to provide a recommendation for adjustments to the surface street design around Houston Avenue.
  • The George Brown Convention center uses the area under the US 59 elevated as a staging area, and the need to retain a staging area is expected to require changes to the proposed design and will likely preclude widening the trench for additional I-45 lanes.
  • The current proposed plan reduces Interstate 45 to two lanes in each direction through downtown. It appears TxDOT will try to add lanes, but due to GRB issue, it is uncertain to me how much relief can actually be provided.
  • The proposed design has a built-in bottleneck at I-45 and North Main (Hollywood Cemetery area) due to the right-of-way issue. They are studying ways to get more lanes through, but I'm not optimistic that the choke point can be fixed.
  • TxDOT's preference is to sell the Pierce Elevated land and use the revenue to purchase property needed for the project. Before selling on the open market, TxDOT is first obligated to offer the land to the COH, and then to adjacent land owners. It is unclear what price the COH would have to pay if it wanted the land. But I sensed no indication that the COH is interested in the land. If the COH has any money, it would likely go to a deck park over the trench near the GRB (my opinion, not a TxDOT remark). I expect a full deck park to cost in the $200-300 million range (my number, not TxDOT's).
  • Poor connections to the I-45 managed lanes in the downtown area are likely to be fixed in the next plan iteration.
  • TxDOT agrees that I-45 would perform better with five regular lanes in each direction between Loop 610 and BW8, and this is under study. I'm hopeful we'll get longer sections with five lanes, hopefully the full length from Loop 610 to BW 8.
  • TxDOT's goal is to have signature bridges wherever feasible and is looking to work with neighborhoods and districts to realize local preferences. But signature bridges will cost more and funding could be an issue.
See the web link for the status of all issues.

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At 12:17 PM, July 27, 2015, Anonymous Allen Douglas said...

So that I'm clear on the limitations posed by the TxDOT intent to sell the land beneath the Pierce Elevated, are they proposing sale without restrictions or placing restrictions upon the use of the land (such as that used by Momentum BMW) that might not interfere with the elevated structure per se? What avenues of discussion are currently available to deflect this from happening? As an active midtown resident I'd like to be involved. Appreciate your following and reporting on this. Regards, Allen Douglas

At 1:32 PM, July 27, 2015, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I assume their plan is to demolish the elevated and sell the land unrestricted to maximize the proceeds from the sale. I believe there will be another round of public meetings once they incorporate public input and release a revised plan, and that would be the place to object, as well as letting your City Councilman know.

At 2:57 PM, July 27, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding Pierce Skypark. Tx Dot stated in a panel discussion at the AIA offices with Downtown Management District present that Pierce Skypark is not a decision that needs to happen immediately as Pierce will remain open during the construction by the convention center. Tx Dot will do want the COH prefers and would likely take into consideration a discount if Tx Dot does not have to demolish Pierce. As you noted the City of Houston is going to be offered the land first. Strategic planning for Pierce Skypark is onging at this time.

At 4:45 PM, July 27, 2015, Blogger Max Concrete said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4:48 PM, July 27, 2015, Blogger Max Concrete said...

Anonymous comments regarding Pierce SkyPark is consistent with my understanding of the situation. It will be a City of Houston decision to preserve or repurpose the Pierce Elevated. COH will have the opportunity to buy the property before it can be offered to anyone else. TxDOT would like to maximize the financial value of the property to offset the huge cost of the project, but the price COH would have to pay (if it wants the property) will be a political decision, not necessarily market-based. And as anonymous mentioned, it is probably much too early to make predictions on the ultimate outcome. But I do believe Pierce Skypark will need a politically influential champion (such as the Downtown Management District or the Mayor or the Midtown Redevelopment District) if it is going to happen. Right now, I don't see a sponsor emerging. But there is plenty of time, probably 5-10 years, before a final decision must be made.

At 11:27 AM, July 28, 2015, Anonymous Mike said...

I understand not wanting a direct connection from Memorial Drive. People want this area to develop into a prime tourist and recreational gateway to downtown, so more concrete spaghetti is not desirable. We have gotten by without such a connection in the past, and it might be a good moment to ponder that Houston's drivers are blessed to have two limited-access roadways lining each side of Buffalo Bayou, one of them with direct access to I-45. It's arguably the most car-friendly area of the inner loop.


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