Study: Legacy-area employment spike to strain Plano roads

Traffic backs up on Legacy Drive as drivers wait for the light to turn green at SH 121 frontage road. Nearby, a number of corporate office buildings are scheduled to open in 2017, compounding congestion on the area's roadways.

Traffic backs up on Legacy Drive as drivers wait for the light to turn green at SH 121 frontage road. Nearby, a number of corporate office buildings are scheduled to open in 2017, compounding congestion on the area's roadways.

Plano officials are working with corporate leaders in the Legacy business area to develop unconventional solutions to the city’s traffic woes, bracing for a new wave of congestion starting this year that will test the city’s already crowded road network.


PLN-2017-02-01-1As the first businesses in Legacy West open in April and new corporate offices flock to the surrounding area in the months and years to follow, the city’s roads will be inadequately prepared to meet the resulting travel demand, according to a study the city of Plano commissioned last year.


The result? An even more packed network of roads on the city’s northwest corner with limited opportunities for substantial infrastructure improvements, said Caleb Thornhill, engineering director for the city of Plano.


“We’re not going to be able to build our way out of it,” Thornhill said.


Although the developments opening this year in the Legacy area are expected to bring tens of thousands of jobs, the long-term outlook projects an even denser region. By 2027, projections say, employment in the study area is expected to increase by 60 percent. By 2040, employment in the Legacy business area on the city's northwest corner could nearly double.


The study, performed by consulting firm Kimley-Horn, concluded that alleviating the projected traffic would require a series of smaller infrastructure projects—many of which are already underway—and more creative proposals to divert single-occupant vehicles from the roadways.


But city officials acknowledge implementing these creative proposals would lie mostly outside of their sphere of control. The most promising such proposals include setting staggered commute times and promoting rail and bus usage. But these proposals would rely on cooperation with local employers and buy-in from a commuting public that, according to a survey, has bemoaned the city’s congested roadways while maintaining a strong preference for driving to work.


As part of the study, the city-commissioned consulting firm suggested forming a group of stakeholder companies in the study area, which is bounded by SH 121 to the north, Preston Road to the east and Spring Creek Parkway to the south and west.


This group of companies, referred to as a transportation management association, would collaborate on ways to encourage their respective employees to avoid commuting to work in single-occupant vehicles.


The association, a key cog in the study’s suggested course of action, has yet to be formed, and corporate membership would be voluntary.


“The [transportation management association] is really going to be key to getting the collaboration of those companies,” City Manager Bruce Glasscock told Plano City Council members in November. “The city can’t require employers to adjust the hours of their employees. It’s going to take a commitment on their part.”


In the meantime, crews are working to optimize the existing roadways and intersections in time for the new surges of traffic expected to arrive in the coming months.


‘The stakes are high’


The study, based in part on the North Central Texas Council of Governments’ travel demand model, paints a portrait of a packed Legacy corridor during evening commutes a decade from now.


The eastbound traffic on Legacy Drive, the study says, could back up for nearly a half-mile from the Dallas North Tollway as drivers begin their trek home from the various corporate offices soon to open in the area—including the headquarters for Toyota Motor North America and corporate offices for JPMorgan Chase and Liberty Mutual Insurance, which are all expected to open this year near Legacy West.


The traffic near Plano’s northern boundary is expected to cause operational issues at intersections along Legacy, resulting in gridlock at times. Roadways to the east like Preston Road—long an object of frustration for Plano residents—could become more congested than ever as traffic spills over from the new developments.


PLN-2017-02-01-2


Mayor Harry LaRosiliere said he believes the city’s projected traffic congestion is a quality-of-life issue for residents, and a factor for corporations considering moving to Plano.


“The stakes are high,” LaRosiliere said. “Part of the reason that we’ve been successful at competing and winning business—not necessarily only in Plano, but in North Texas—is [the] quality-of-life component. I think we can all agree that if you spend more time in your car, your quality of life goes down.”


Construction underway


A series of infrastructure improvements is underway to account for the projected traffic increases, including a major expansion of the Dallas North Tollway and a planned project to add a lane in each direction to SH 121.


On the arterial roadways that make up the bulk of the Legacy area’s street network, however, road improvement projects are limited mostly to lower-profile work on medians and intersections. Most of the area’s major roadways, Thornhill said, are already six-lane divided thoroughfares and therefore not prime candidates for expansion.


“The challenge you have when you have a six-lane divided roadway and you widen it to anything more, it becomes more like a freeway,” Thornhill said. “That’s not something we really want to encourage for this area, or really anywhere in Plano.”


Priority projects include adding or extending turn lanes that connect Legacy Drive to frontage roads along the Dallas North Tollway and SH 121. The turn lanes would alleviate some traffic blockage on the road’s primary through-lanes.


PLN-2017-02-01-4Changing commuting habits


The limitations of expanding the road network have prompted city officials to pursue a multipronged approach to reducing Legacy-area employees’ reliance on single-occupant vehicles.


Proposals to manage the area’s traffic demand range from promoting increased bus and rail usage and ride-sharing to encouraging companies to stagger their work hours.


The problem, as city officials like Thornhill have observed, is commuters have a strong preference for driving their own cars to work. In an unscientific survey of 672 people who live or work in the Legacy study area, less than 2 percent of respondents use public transit for commuting and nearly 59 percent said they would always prefer to drive their own vehicles to work.


This leaves much of the success of these proposals reliant on the proposed transportation management association, which officials would like to see form in earnest later this year. City officials cannot require Legacy businesses to join the association, but Tom Grant, the study’s project director for Kimley-Horn, said he believes it will be in the companies’ mutual interest to collaborate on solutions.


“I’d say there’s a lot that they can be doing, and right now is the time to try to implement it before all these new businesses start to come online,” Grant said.

By Daniel Houston
Daniel Houston covers Plano city government, transportation, business and education for Community Impact Newspaper. A Fort Worth native and Baylor University graduate, Daniel reported previously for The Associated Press in Oklahoma City and The Dallas Morning News.


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