Construction is underway and expected to be completed in September on a $12.2 million expansion to Houston's TranStar facility that is used for emergency situations such as hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, major events or ice storms.
"TranStar and the emergency operations center is a regional collaborative effort when it comes to transportation and emergency management," said Francisco Sanchez, public information officer for the Harris County Office of Emergency Management. "Those are critically essential to each other during major emergencies, so it's the perfect place for us to be together under one roof."
TranStar is a collaboration between four government agencies—Harris County, the city of Houston, Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation—that aim to provide transportation and emergency management for the Greater Houston area.
The TranStar facility off Katy Road near I-10 and Loop 610 can typically hold 125 people on a daily basis. When there is an emergency or major event, there could be between 400 and 500 people in and out of the building 24/7, TranStar spokesperson Dinah Massie said.
The expansion will add 26,000 square feet of additional new floor space and includes 11,000 square feet of renovations to the existing part of the building, making more room for the hundreds of people who need to access the facility during an emergency.
"When the building was completed in 1996, at that time no one had developed infrastructure for emergency response like what we have today," Massie said. "We built the building with the idea that it would be a transportation center."
The TranStar expansion will include the addition of a 5,200-square-foot conference and disaster support center, double the size of the existing computer room and add six new showers. The expansion will also quintuple the size of the emergency operations center from 25 to 112 seats, which will be one of the largest benefits, Massie said.
"The emergency operations center was built with the idea that people would come into a room and have a computer and see a big screen and enact whatever actions the elected officials told them to do," she said. "But having 25 seats when the building has 400 people—the math didn't work."
Eighty percent of the money for the expansion came from a federal grant, while the four partner agencies each provided 5 percent to come up with the additional money.
Funding for the project became available in 2008 as a result of Hurricane Rita's evacuation problems, which was also a learning experience for TranStar, which handles transportation management issues on a daily basis through its transportation control room. Representatives from each of the four partner agencies monitor traffic flow and speed through screens in the control room.
Before Rita hit the Texas coast in 2005, there were 21 lanes of highway in the Houston region that narrowed down to seven, creating massive gridlock during evacuation before the storm.
In the nine years since, TranStar has installed nearly 1,000 traffic cameras into its system throughout the Greater Houston area to be better prepared for the next storm, Massie said.
"If we have to evacuate, having transportation information is important," Massie said.
Overall, Massie said one of the largest benefits of the expanded facility will be having more space in which to respond better.