The Texas Department of Transportation and Harris County are funding numerous current and future projects that aim to alleviate the congestion on Spring and Klein roads, such as improvements to FM 1960 and I-45, but other measures—like an increase in public transportation options—may also be needed, experts said.
Alan Clark, Houston-Galveston Area Council’s director of transportation planning, said much of the congestion can be attributed to residential traffic, but a good portion of it is commercial traffic, which Clark said he believes is the result of a successful economy and an international port nearby.
“Our level of investment needs to be increased in everything we are doing,” Clark said. “The amount of growth we are expecting means we will have to add a lot of additional capacity.”
The Texas A&M Transportation Institute‘s 2017 list of the state’s 100 most congested roadways places the stretch of FM 1960 from Hwy. 249 to I-45 as the 34th most congested, and the stretch of I-45 from Spring Cypress Road to Beltway 8 is ranked No. 82. TTI calculates the list using TxDOT data.
David Schrank, senior research scientist of the institute’s mobility analysis program, said one key piece of data used to rank the roadways is the number of hours of delay drivers experience per mile annually. Drivers on the stretch of FM 1960 in Spring and Klein experience 330,934 hours of delay per mile annually, while the stretch of I-45 causes 191,461 hours of delay.
Another metric factored into this list is the annual cost of congestion on these roadways. Schrank said this cost includes a loss of productivity as drivers wait in traffic as well as the fuel wasted because vehicles are less efficient in stop-and-go conditions. On the aforementioned stretches of FM 1960 and I-45, this cost is about $53.38 million and $34.75 million, respectively.
While other thoroughfares studied in Spring and Klein do not fall within the top 100, they do cost drivers time and money. For example, travelers on FM 2920 from Kuykendahl Road to I-45 experienced 90,834 hours of delay per mile in 2017 with an annual congestion cost of $8.33 million.
Aside from the cost of road congestion and hours of delays, other consequences of congestion are harder to quantify, said Andrea French, executive director for Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston.
“If you have the parent that’s missing their child’s baseball [game] … everyday choices we’re making are based on how long it’s going to take to get there,” French said.
Another major consequence of traffic congestion is safety, Clark said.
“It wouldn’t be acceptable if it were trains killing people by crashing or airplanes falling out of the sky, but we don’t seem to pay attention to the fact that … in [the Greater Houston area], we had over 600 people who died of traffic-related accidents last year,” Clark said.
Although there are numerous reasons why a roadway may be congested, experts agree the Greater Houston area’s growing population is the main culprit. In the ZIP codes comprising Spring and Klein, the population has grown from 232,242 to 362,192 from 2000 to 2016—an increase of about 56 percent, according to U.S. Census data.
“I don’t think anybody could have adequately planned a transportation system to meet those demands,”
Along with the growing population, a contributing factor is how the Greater Houston area developed outward, making it necessary for individuals to own a vehicle to commute to most places, Schrank said.
In Spring and Klein, 92 percent of residents drive to work, while about 4 percent work from home, 2 percent use public transportation and 2 percent either walk, ride a bike or travel to work via different means, according to U.S. Census data.
Experts also agree a lack of investment has contributed to the area’s mobility issues. Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the majority of the county’s budget funds law enforcement and health care while the precincts are left with minimal funding for services like transportation.
The county’s budget in 2017-18 was $2.69 billion, with $67.97 million allocated to Precinct 4—$25 million of which were new funds and the rest pre-existing. In addition to its regular budget, the county funds road projects through bonds—such as a $700 million road improvement bond package approved by voters in 2015—and other sources.
At the state level, according to the 2018-19 budget passed by the state Legislature in 2017, TxDOT is funded through state general revenue, federal funds, toll revenue and taxes, including fuel taxes. According to the Texas Comptroller’s website, the state’s gas and diesel tax rates have remained at 20 cents per gallon since 1991. Three-quarters of the revenue generated from these taxes funds transportation projects, while one-quarter of it supports public education.
French said she believes raising fuel taxes to keep pace with inflation would generate a significant amount of revenue that could be used for public transportation projects.
“The value of that funding stream has been less, partially because it was never indexed to inflation … and partially because there are hybrid, electric cars and less cars using gas,” French said.
Solutions to congestion
Although the gas tax has remained unchanged since 1991, the state has increased its funding for transportation in recent years. The state’s 2018-19 budget allocated $26.6 billion to TxDOT, of which $10.49 billion came from federal funds and the rest came from other sources, according to the state’s budget. It was an increase from the $23.1 billion allocated in the 2016-17 budget.
Voters have also approved propositions in recent years to increase state funding of transportation projects. In 2014, voters approved a proposition that dedicates a portion of oil and gas tax revenue to TxDOT. And in 2015, voters approved a proposition that took effect in September which directs up to $2.5 billion to TxDOT, if state sales tax revenue exceeds $28 billion in a fiscal year.
TxDOT uses its funding to carry out projects on state-owned roads, such as FM 1960 and I-45. TxDOT Public Information Officer Danny Perez said one upcoming TxDOT project in Spring and Klein includes a $16.4 million undertaking expected to begin in January 2019 to add turn lanes on FM 1960 from Hwy. 249 to Cutten Road.
In 2020, TxDOT plans to begin work on a $7 billion expansion project on I-45 from Beltway 8 into downtown Houston, which is projected to increase average traffic speeds by over 20 miles per hour, Perez said. TxDOT is proposing the addition of one frontage road lane in each direction and replacing the single reversible high-occupancy vehicle lane with four HOV and express lanes on I-45 from Beltway 8 to Loop 610, among other improvements.
TxDOT is also partnering with Harris County to complete a $10.7 million congestion mitigation project on Spring Cypress Road and Cypresswood Drive that will include traffic lights, medians and turn lane improvements on sections of both roads, said Pamela Rocchi, director of Precinct 4’s Capital Improvement Projects Division. This project will go out for bids early this year.
Meanwhile, the county has numerous projects it is working on throughout Spring and Klein, including the $531,118 widening of Spring Stuebner near I-45, the $2.8 million widening of Riley Fuzzel Road near the Hardy Toll Road and the widening of two segments of Gosling Road from West Mossy Oaks Road to Creekside Forest Drive, totaling $15.87 million.
Aside from road projects, an increase in public transportation options could help alleviate congestion in Spring and Klein, Clark said. However, he said, because the Greater Houston area is spread out, public transportation might not work everywhere.
Tom Lambert, CEO of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, said connecting the suburban areas of Houston to its urban core is something METRO is looking at in its new long-term plan, METRO Next. METRO began gathering public feedback for this plan last year and will share its findings with its board of directors in the coming months.
New projects that emerge from this plan will be contingent on a METRO bond referendum, Lambert said. Although the timeline remains unclear, METRO board members are considering the possibility of placing a bond referendum on the November ballot, he said.
Specific future projects have not yet been chosen, but Lambert said METRO is looking into the possibility of adding bidirectional HOV lanes.
“We need to take a hard look at high capacity options,” French said. “Every person that moves here brings at least one car, but what is an option is to encourage people to start choosing