An extension of the I-10 managed lanes to Sealy is in preliminary design stages, although there are several key steps necessary before construction could begin and there is no immediate timeline for the project, Texas Department of Transportation officials said. The effort comes two months after a price increase from five dollars to seven dollars on the existing managed lanes successfully thinned traffic on the tollway and increased participation in vanpool, as well as the Katy area METRO Park and Ride centers.
"The proposed lanes would be similar to the existing ones," TxDOT spokesman Danny Perez said. "However, more public involvement is needed before design and construction is to begin. At this time, the managed lanes are in the planning stages."
The project calls for adding two managed lanes on each side of I-10 from Hwy. 6 to Sealy. Presently the Katy managed lanes run about 12 miles, one toll lane and one HOV lane on both sides of the divider, from Loop 610 to Hwy. 6. The proposed lanes would make the total distance about 42 miles.
With the existing HOV lanes, drivers with at least one passenger can travel for free in either direction during peak hours Monday through Friday, 5 a.m.–11 a.m. and 2 p.m.–8 p.m. Solo drivers can drive in the managed lanes for a toll—billed electronically by an EZ TAG or other interoperable Texas toll payment tag.
The Katy Managed Lanes, which opened in April 2009, were designed to siphon some traffic off of I-10 that, even since the most recent mainlane expansion in 2003, remains a headache for commuters.
So far the September toll increase has done what it was expected to do by decreasing traffic on the tollway at peak hours by about eight percent and increasing the use of alternative modes of transportation such as the Park and Ride, Harris County Toll Road Authority and METRO officials said.
In fact, increased ridership has prompted METRO to add two morning and afternoon trips to their service in January 2014 on each of its routes from the Katy area—221 Kingsland and 222 Grand Parkway, METRO officials said.
TxDOT's general guidelines for proposed road projects emphasize its preference for securing local funding when possible. Even after the plan exists and some of the early design work is done, TxDOT will likely need another entity to assist with the funding. That leaves a few possible groups, including the various counties along the stretch, other local governmental entities and federal dollars.
Adam Collett, spokesman for the HCTRA, which operates the current managed lanes said that right now HCTRA is not part of the funding solution.
"That is TxDOT's jurisdiction out there, even if the county wanted to build managed lanes there, it would have to start with TxDOT," Collett said.
HCTRA's investment in the I-10 reconstruction project that yielded the existing managed lanes was about $250 million. The funds for that project came from toll collections from its other operations and not from tax revenue, according to the agency's website.
The state still owes Harris County about $85 million for road construction projects, including for right of way and engineering on Segment E of the Grand Parkway, Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said.
"I'd like to see them pay us back first," he said. "But the reality is with Harris County growing the way it is, and the multi-county region growing, you're seeing a huge impact on the Katy Freeway. You can see the congestion, more and more people pour in on I-10 from the west."
The completion of the Grand Parkway will be interesting to watch in terms of its impact on traffic on I-10, he said. It is still unclear what kind of an impact it will have.
"It will take a lot of study," Radack said. "This [I-10 toll way expansion] was talked about five years ago, I don't know how far it's going."
At points farther west, I-10 moves across Waller County beginning around the retail center Holiday World of Houston and extending to the other side of the Brazos River bridge.
Waller County Precinct 4 Commissioner Stan Kitzman said while the county would not likely be able to assume any real financial responsibility for the project, he is optimistic that TxDOT is looking at I-10 again.
"It just stands to reason that there is going to have to be more capacity on I-10," Kitzman said.
Looming ahead is a growing list of road projects feeding I-10 in the Katy area, including an overpass at Cane Island Parkway, Fulshear Parkway extending from Hwy. 1093, and, one day, the opening of Igloo Road and the 36A Prairie Parkway, he said.
Kitzman said he understands that conflicts may arise over the idea of charging tolls for public roads in the area—the belief in Texas that public roads should be free—but he also understands that TxDOT is stretched thin across the state.
"I get on the toll lane, I'm willing to pay that little extra to do it," he said. "If it helps relieve some of that pressure that we're going to increasingly feel, then we should do it. A lot of people are pretty emotional about that though."