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24 lanes urged for Katy Freeway (Things are bigger in Texas!)

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  • Ronald Dawson
    ... day. From http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/story.hts/metropolitan/870107 Dawson (P.S. There is an interesting graphic link at the site.) 24 lanes urged for Katy
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 6, 2001
      Doug Salzmann wrote:
      >We've spent untold billions of dollars, devoted decades of research and the
      >entire professional lives of thousands of researchers, crafted model after
      >model and tested innumerable permutations of possible solutions to the
      >problem of congested urban auto traffic.
      >
      >Total progress? None. At all. It's been getting steadily worse every
      day.

      From http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/story.hts/metropolitan/870107 Dawson
      (P.S. There is an interesting graphic link at the site.)

      24 lanes urged for Katy Freeway
      By STEVE BREWER and RAD SALLEE
      Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle April 6, 2001, 10:15AM

      Faced with the prospect of waiting years for the state to ease traffic
      congestion on the west side, Harris County officials are pushing a plan to
      turn the Katy Freeway into a mega 24-lane roadway with a toll road down the
      middle.

      The plan has been discussed for years, County Judge Robert Eckels said
      Thursday. But the county is now ready to gauge the Texas Department of
      Transportation's interest in joining the Harris County Toll Road Authority
      to finish the entire project by 2006 -- years before the state's $1 billion
      Katy Freeway expansion would be complete.

      RESOURCES
      • Graphic: Katy Freeway widening

      The county's plan is still a murky concept with a myriad of factors to
      address. But, on Tuesday, Commissioners Court gave toll road officials the
      green light to start talks with the state.

      "This is an important project," Eckels said. "I'm not going to say it's
      going to solve forever the congestion problems on the west side, but it will
      make a big dent in the problem today and give us time to work on additional
      development strategies."

      Some of those strategies, said Eckels, might include a rail line. But first,
      he added, the freeway problems must be tackled because they cause safety
      hazards and disrupt businesses.

      The Katy, considered one of the most congested stretches of freeway in the
      state, costs commuters, residents and businesses an estimated $85 million a
      year because of traffic delays, Eckels said.

      On large portions of the Katy Freeway, there are three general use lanes
      going each direction, one reversible high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lane in
      the middle, and two frontage lanes on each side of the freeway.

      The Transportation Department's expansion project will reach from the West
      Loop to Texas 6. It's expected to start in 2003 and take 10 years to
      complete. It calls for four general use lanes in each direction, one
      barrier-separated HOV with lanes going in each direction and two diamond
      lanes. The frontage roads would increase from two to three lanes.

      The plan formulated by the Toll Road Authority, which would extend about the
      same distance, calls for five general use lanes in each direction, two
      diamond lanes, four frontage lanes on each side and four toll lanes in the
      middle, two going each direction.

      Toll Road Authority Executive Director Bernard Koudelka said the plan for
      now doesn't include any barrier-separated HOV lanes.

      "This is just a preliminary proposal," he said. "With this, we're just
      trying to open the doors to discussions. We'd be open to any suggestions. We
      haven't finalized anything."

      There has been no financing plan worked out, no hard examination of what
      would be involved in acquiring land and no discussion of the roles each
      agency would take, Koudelka said.

      In addition, officials will need to get federal approval to put toll roads
      on the Katy Freeway.

      County officials have had positive preliminary meetings with the
      Transportation Department, Koudelka said. But, he added, a timetable for
      putting together a deal is unclear.

      "We think we can work out agreements and do our studies and everybody can
      come to some understanding to finalize an agreement, probably by the end of
      the year," he said.

      Eckels said the cost of the project would probably still be around $1
      billion.

      Eckels said the authority would be solely responsible for building the toll
      lanes. That would give the state Transportation Department the flexibility
      to expand and focus on other areas.

      County officials hope the authority's involvement will get the entire
      project started and finished sooner because the authority has a reputation
      of bringing in road projects quickly and under budget. As a general rule,
      they said, roads that produce revenue are always built faster.

      When the state builds a road, Eckels said, delays happen because money is
      spent at a slower pace so the Transportation Department doesn't run out of
      funding.

      There are other factors Eckels said could drive the deal -- the authority
      can bring its own financing to the table by issuing bonds and it has already
      worked well with the state on other projects, like co-ownership of the Sam
      Houston Tollway and connections to the Hardy Toll Road and Beltway 8.

      Koudelka and county officials also pointed out that the authority can
      generally move faster on dealing with utilities and acquiring right-of-way
      than the state can.

      If the project is completed ahead of schedule, Eckels said, that could save
      an estimated $65 million, not to mention how much money it would save
      commuters and businesses.

      Eckels said he's already talked to community leaders and others about it and
      will schedule several town hall meetings to discuss the plan. He expects
      resistance from environmentalists.

      Transportation Department spokesman Norm Wigington said the Texas
      Transportation Commission will consider an item April 26 similar to what the
      court approved. It would authorize local transportation officials to discuss
      the plan with the county.

      Wigington said any change in the plan would not widen the "footprint" for
      the freeway's expansion that has been worked out and discussed in public
      meetings over the years.

      Until more is known about the new plan, Wigington said, "we are pursuing our
      current plans."

      "If the Toll Road Authority would like to participate in the expansion," he
      said, "that might help us accelerate construction as well as help us pay for
      it."

      Julie Gilbert, Metropolitan Transit Authority vice president and
      spokeswoman, said the authority had no knowledge of the county's new plan.

      However, she said state officials have discussed some kind of congestion
      pricing mechanism for "special use" lanes to be included in plans for the
      widened Katy Freeway.

      Local environmental leaders reacted negatively to the super-size freeway
      plan.

      "If this is what they envision for Houston's transportation future, I am
      appalled," said Frank Blake, chairman of the Houston Sierra Club.

      "Our big concern is this -- they keep depending on building roads for our
      transportation needs," Blake said. "They really need to switch gears and
      look seriously and quickly at a rail network."

      Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental attorney, said he is troubled that
      the new Katy Freeway plan does not incorporate a rail line in its wider
      corridor.

      "This would be a wonderful opportunity to design some right-of-way for rail
      transit into the long-term plan," Blackburn said.

      He represents two local environmental groups in continuing legal
      negotiations with government officials over environmentalists' allegation
      that local road-building plans do not conform with the state's new
      smog-reduction plan for Houston, as federal law requires. The negotiations
      were scheduled to resume today in Austin.

      Eckels said the county plan will conform with air quality standards and, he
      argued, it will improve air quality because commuters will be moving, as
      opposed to sitting in traffic with their engines running.

      Roger Hord, president of the West Houston Association, said the group began
      talking with county representatives about the freeway plan in November.

      "We had been concerned for some time over the pace of the I-10 development,"
      Hord said. "The schedule, to us, seemed to be slipping. The earliest
      construction seemed to be 2003, and it could take as much as 10 years to
      build.

      "We just felt that was not acceptable. We began casting around for some ways
      to accelerate the process, and one way was to infuse it with some cash."

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      Chronicle environment writer Bill Dawson contributed to this story.
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