Houston’s Big Chance to Turn Back the Tide of Car Traffic

TxDOT's $7 billion proposal for downtown Houston highways is not terrible, say advocates, but it could be better. Image: TxDOT via Swamplot
TxDOT’s $7 billion plan for downtown Houston may tear down the Pierce Elevated Freeway while expanding I-45. Some civic leaders question why more resources won’t be devoted to transit. Image: TxDOT via Swamplot

There’s a lot riding on Texas DOT’s $7 billion plan for downtown Houston freeways.

TxDOT has been working for more than a decade on a plan for the three highways that roughly form a circle around the city — I-45, I-10, and U.S. 59. Last April, the agency revealed a draft version of the plan, and another revision is expected to come out as soon as six months from now.

Advocates for a walkable Houston see a lot of promise in TxDOT’s willingness to rethink the city’s freeways, but the plan might still make traffic worse by adding lanes.

On the bright side, TxDOT is proposing to tear down the Pierce Elevated Freeway, which could open up 20 to 50 blocks of downtown for walkable development. The plan also calls for aligning I-45 with U.S. 59 to the east of the city, burying the roads in a trench capped with a park.

“The impacts on walkability and urbanism are real and are a big deal,” said Jay Crossley, former director of the smart growth advocacy group Houston Tomorrow. “If they could only do those parts of the plan it would be an amazing plan.”

But while TxDOT is starting to consider how its highway projects affect urban neighborhoods, said Crossley, it hasn’t quite embraced the “paradigm shift” away from highway widening that Mayor Sylvester Turner has called for.

It’s still an open question whether TxDOT’s plan will result in a net increase in highway capacity, pumping more traffic into downtown.

TxDOT’s current proposal calls for adding one high-occupancy toll lane in each direction on I-45. While the tolls could help manage traffic and speed up buses (if prices are set high enough — something political officials have been reluctant to do, says Crossley), the project would still increase total car traffic on the highway.

Some civic leaders are questioning TxDOT’s focus on highways instead of improving transit options.

“I am really concerned about the fact we are focusing solely on road expansion and highway expansion without incorporating rail and other methods,” Council Member Amanda Edwards recently told the Houston Chronicle.

Another council member, Robert Gallegos, told the paper that “it just seems like we are headed down the same road.”

The potential highway widenings are still under negotiation, said Crossley, with TxDOT gearing up for a fifth round of public meetings on the project early next year.

That will be the real test of Turner’s commitment to the new transportation policy approach he has championed. Crossley believes the city is negotiating with TxDOT over the details of the plan as part of the recently-elected mayor’s transition effort. Turner could tell TxDOT not to add additional car capacity, and the agency might listen.

“If Sylvester Turner was to stand behind that, that would be revolutionary in Texas,” Crossley said.

TxDOT, however, is flush with cash coming off a voter referendum last year authorizing the state to spend sales tax revenue on highways. That law made new funds available only for roads, not transit, which may explain why TxDOT seems to be working at cross purposes. On one hand, it’s getting the message from political leaders it needs to provide transportation options besides highway commutes, while on the other hand it’s been handed a bunch of money that can only be spent on highways.

TxDOT hopes to receive federal approval for the Houston highway plans in 2018 and start construction in 2020, the Chronicle reports.

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