The Woodlands, H-GAC study transit options

Town Center focus of mobility improvements

With future commercial growth planned and the inevitable construction of high-rise residential developments in Town Center on the horizon, traffic congestion could soon make getting around Town Center a chore. However, The Woodlands Township's Transportation Ad Hoc Committee has begun discussions with the Houston-Galveston Area Council regarding a traffic study that could address transit issues.

Robert Heineman, vice president of planning for The Woodlands Development Company, said The Woodlands' current population of 105,575 is expected to increase to about 125,000 by buildout, which could take 10-20 years, with residential growth split between Town Center and Creekside Park. Town Center's 10 million office-equivalent square feet—the equivalent square footage based on traffic created by office space—will also increase to 18 million by buildout, Heineman said.

Jeff Long and Mike Bass, township directors and ad hoc committee members, said the committee has begun to understand the community's transit and mobility problems since the committee's creation in December.

"There was so much that needed to be done and [the township] was so far behind that we just absolutely had to be paying close attention to this thing," Long said. "What we're now realizing was [the committee's formation] was very wise. We indeed needed to take a leadership role on transportation issues, both in transit as well as in roadway and other kinds of issues."

Among the committee's biggest transit concerns are The Woodlands' three park and rides, which transport Woodlands residents to employment areas in Houston. Bass said the committee is concerned with the service provided by the park and rides and whether to expand them, as well as their funding.

"Part of the concern is service, but the other concern is to make sure we don't adversely affect Woodlands taxpayers," Bass said. "Those park and rides have paid for themselves up to this point, but now they've got increasing costs, aging buses, and unless you do something you could find yourself in a deficit, which we don't want to do."

Reverse commuters, or Houston area motorists who commute to The Woodlands for work, are also an area of concern. Heineman said as many as 5–10 percent more motorists are entering at major intersections in The Woodlands than are leaving at peak hours, based on traffic counts from two years ago.

"You have people who are coming up here now that employers are picking them up in vans to take them to their offices because [the employers] don't have the parking spots for them," Bass said.

The committee hopes to address the future population density of Town Center by making it easier to get around without vehicles. Long said the township's transit systems—which include the Town Center trolley service and park and rides—merely "scratch the surface." Connectivity between other high-employment and high-use centers, such as the community's hospitals and the Lone Star College campus, need to be considered, he said.

H-GAC plan

One of the Transportation Ad Hoc Committee's initial goals was to develop a mobility plan that would be integrated with H-GAC's 25-year Regional Transportation Plan and four-year Transportation Improvement Plan to give The Woodlands the best chance of securing federal funding for projects. Although H-GAC's study will focus on roadway enhancements in South Montgomery County, it will also examine transit concerns in The Woodlands.

Bass and Long said they have no preconceived notions about how best to address congestion problems, but they believe all possible solutions will be included as part of the study.

However, Long said, the availability of funding will ultimately drive what happens with transit. Bass said The Woodlands is in good shape financially and could fund mobility projects if required, whether it be through available cash or through long-term debt. The goal, he said, is to leverage as much federal funding as possible and to not impact The Woodlands' property tax rate.

The H-GAC study will help prioritize transit and transportation projects in South Montgomery County, ensuring they are ready when federal funding becomes available, Long said. The study's scope should be defined in March, at which time H-GAC will send out a Request for Qualifications to potential consultants over the next 30 to 60 days, Bass said.

The selected consultants could begin the study in June or July with a six to 12-month timeframe to complete it before fall 2014. At that point, mobility projects will be placed on H-GAC's 2040 Regional Transportation Plan.

Alan Clark, metropolitan planning organization director for H-GAC's transportation department, said projects receiving federal funding must be placed on a plan by the metropolitan planning organization.

"It's to make sure that the governments are in agreement on the projects," Clark said.

Although H-GAC's study may include mobility improvement projects and their likely costs, Clark said, it will not include detailed engineering analysis, which The Woodlands itself will likely have to provide following the study.

Transit terminal

One project that could address some mobility concerns is a proposed transit terminal and parking garage in Town Center.

Bryan Brown, vice president of projects and governmental affairs for The Goodman Corporation, a transportation consultant for the township, said the idea of a transit terminal arose from a study conducted in 2009 and has evolved over the years, resurfacing in 2012.

Brown said the project consists of three components: a transit terminal and parking facility with up to 600 spaces, pedestrian infrastructure improvements surrounding the facility, and an expansion of The Woodlands' trolley system.

The facility could serve as a transit hub, public parking garage and park and ride for the community, Brown said, although he believes reverse commuters could make transit more efficient as commuters from Houston would be shipped back and forth in addition to Woodlands commuters.

An expansion of the existing trolley service system proposed in the project would include service to offices and apartments south to Timberloch Drive, north to the Pinecroft Shopping Center, and possibly to nearby hospitals and medical offices on and around Lake Front Circle.

Pedestrian improvements in the project would include sidewalks, ADA ramps, pedestrian lighting and crosswalk enhancements, Brown said.

The initial study estimates a cost of about $12 million for the transit terminal based on a maximum of 600 parking spaces.

About $3.5 million has already been secured for the project from TxDOT, while Brown said The Goodman Corporation is pursuing another $1.7 million to $1.8 million in federal money. However, he said securing that funding is "not a slam dunk."

The Transportation Ad Hoc Committee requested the transit terminal plan be updated in January to broaden the scope of mobility and transit needs in the community.

Brown said an updated plan, in conjunction with H-GAC's regional study, will only further help the transit terminal's potential development.

"We don't want to move forward with the conversation until all stakeholders feel comfortable with it," he said. "We want to make sure the plan is as correct as it can be."

A parking lot adjacent to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion has been considered as a potential site for the terminal, although Bass and Long said its location and many pieces of the project are not close to being finalized and need to be examined as part of H-GAC's study.

"You don't start with the transit garage and then say, 'How do I justify it?,' Bass said. "You start with what is the need and then does the need drive you to the required transit garage."

Development Company plan

While growth in The Woodlands may have an effect on traffic and congestion, the Development Company has long planned for that growth with several mobility improvement projects, including the dedication of rights-of-way for lane expansion and overpasses.

"If proposed improvements are implemented, the expected growth will not affect traffic congestion," Heineman said. "The level of service should improve from what it is today."

Lane expansions and overpasses in The Woodlands are planned, but Heineman said the timeframe depends on the availability of funding.

However, some elements of the master plan are already in place to limit future traffic congestion, he said. The village centers were designed as nodes at the intersection of major thoroughfares, and the number of driveway accesses to major thoroughfares was minimized to create efficient signal synchronization and allow for higher speed limits.

"The design of major thoroughfares as parkways with forest preserves and with limited private curb cuts increases the efficiency of the roadways compared to others in the Houston area," Heineman said.



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