The Texas Department of Transportation is planning how to improve I-45 from Beltway 8 north to South Loop 336 in Conroe as the corridor sees more traffic.

Discussion began with a series of public meetings that started in 2019 on how to improve safety and mobility along the corridor. The Planning and Environmental Linkages Study is in Phase 2, which includes conducting a series of public community meetings—including an initial meeting held Jan. 17 at Oak Ridge High School in south Montgomery County.

Based on the feedback received from the public, TxDOT will then identify and develop more concrete plans. The report is expected to be finalized by the fall. A series of final public hearings are anticipated to begin in early 2024, according to TxDOT officials.

“The [PEL] Study for I-45 North in the Houston area enables the community to participate in the transportation decision-making process,” Emily Black, public information officer for TxDOT’s Houston region, said in an email. “The PEL process represents an approach to transportation decision-making that considers environmental, community and economic goals early in the planning stage and carries them through project development, design and construction.”

Studying the corridor

Spanning 24 miles from Houston to Conroe, TxDOT has come up with three primary alternatives to the current structure of I-45, which were presented by TxDOT officials at public meetings Jan. 17 and 19.

The first proposal suggests using the existing paved roadway and restriping it to create one high-occupancy vehicle lane and five main lanes in both directions. The second proposal would widen the freeway and make way for two HOV lanes as well as four to five main lanes north and south. The third proposal would create two elevated HOV lanes going north and south.

“The volume on I-45 is growing exponentially, and there’s still more and more people coming,” Bruce Berger, Montgomery County Precinct 2 chief of staff, said in an interview. “We also have the people commuting to and from our community from the north and the south. So the most important question is, how do we keep ahead of that or at least nose to nose with it?”

Additional suggestions given during Phase 1 of the study includes building six additional direct connectors going from Hwy. 242 to I-45.

A new direct-connect flyover from northbound on I-45 to eastbound on Hwy. 242 is already in the works. The $14.9 million project is part of Montgomery County’s 2021-24 improvement plan.

Berger said the project is nearing the end of the design phase, but TxDOT will need to approve the plan before construction begins.

Safety concerns

TxDOT officials said safety concerns are a major driver for the study.

According to data collected by TxDOT, there were 16,581 total crashes on I-45 between South Loop 336 and Beltway 8 from 2017-21. Of those crashes, 339 were fatal or incapacitating, and 3,962 involved some kind of serious injury.

Montgomery County Sheriff Rand Henderson said in an interview the sheriff’s office recorded 997 accidents on I-45, including one fatality, in 2022.

“Traffic congestion is one of the most frequently contributing factors to aggressive driving,” he said in an email.

Henderson said he has offered his support and knowledge concerning mobility to Montgomery County Commissioners Court and is regularly in contact with TxDOT to conduct traffic surveys to better assist with the expansion and safety of I-45.

Alleviating congestion

Increasing travel times have also been an issue along the corridor.

The I-45 segment between Lake Front Circle and Spring Cypress Road, located south of The Woodlands, ranked 98 out of 100 in the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s 2022 ranking of Texas’ most congested roadways. The congestion caused 115,324 hours of delay per mile in 2022 for this segment of I-45.

The portion of I-45 between North Loop 336 West and FM 1488, and the section of the highway between FM 1097 and South Loop 336 were further down on the congestion list, ranking at 679 and 1,728, respectively. Together, the two sections caused a total of 30,590 hours of delay per mile on I-45 in 2022.

Debby Mormino, a 15-year resident of Conroe, said she has watched traffic on I-45 area roadways get worse over the years.

“The traffic on South [Loop] 336 has gotten really bad,” she said in a Nextdoor thread. “With all the expansion and growth in this area the last few years, the roads have not kept up.”

The baseline freeflow—which is how long it should take an average vehicle at 50-65 mph to travel the 24 miles within the study area on I-45—is 22 minutes, according to TxDOT. If no improvements are made to I-45, the travel time for that same stretch of road is projected to be 52 minutes by 2045, according to the study.

However, expanding new lanes or creating elevated HOV lanes is expected to reduce the peak travel times to 32-43 minutes, according to TxDOT data.

Looking ahead

As it stands, the proposed alternatives are in the study phase. The proposal is separate from the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, a $9 billion improvement plan for I-45 from downtown Houston to Beltway 8.

The findings from the PEL Study are expected to be complete by the end of 2023.

“TxDOT will select, with public input, a project or projects to be evaluated, designed and built,” Black said. “This means we are years from any potential construction starting, so this was the best way to get a good idea of what would benefit the area as growth in the area continues to increase.”