Commute time grows for area residents

Woodlands residents are facing longer commute times on I-45.

Woodlands residents are facing longer commute times on I-45.

Drivers commuting between The Woodlands and Houston every day on I-45 continue to experience slower speeds and longer commute times with a nearly 10 percent increase in travel time between Beltway 8 and FM 1488 since 2012, according to data from Houston TranStar.

As a result, Houston transportation officials have started looking at solutions to congestion, and employers in the area are looking at alternative commute options so employees can have easier and faster access to their jobs and homes in both The Woodlands and the Greater Houston area.

Traffic has become more of a problem between The Woodlands and Houston as both destinations have continued to grow. The Woodlands now has a population of 109,679—an increase from 105,000 residents in 2012. As of 2013, Houston had a population of 2.196 million, up from 2.075 million residents in 2005.

WDL-2016-02-01-9“Traveling on I-45 is not going to be different than other areas of the region,” said Alan Clark, director of transportation planning WDL-2016-02-01-8at the Houston-
Galveston Area Council. “There’s been a rapid increase of population and employment since 2010. Probably 1.5 million people have moved here since then, and the amount of road that is available is not enough for the population.”

The traffic gridlock on the major highway is the cause of 524,701 annual hours of delay per mile between the Sam Houston Tollway and Loop 610 N. and 202,551 annual hours of delay per mile between FM 2920 and Sam Houston Tollway in 2015, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. The annual hours of delay are computed by subtracting the estimated vehicle hours traveled if traffic on the highway was at a “free-flow speed” from the adjusted vehicle hours traveled.

Existing traffic problems

Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research with the Greater Houston Partnership, said the influx of new residents to both the suburban and metro areas also created a loss of mobility and a problem of roadway undercapacity.

“There’s more people on the road between 7-9 a.m. and 4-7 p.m. than the road can support,” Jankowski said. “The solution is no longer building more freeways, it’s about having more flex time.”

Jankowski said I-10 westbound is a good example of an expansion that was initially a beneficial outcome to ease traffic. However, once the freeway expanded, so did traffic.

“Even if you expand I-45 to have more lanes, those lanes will be full as well,” he said. “However, traffic would be worse without communities like The Woodlands. It’s possible to not have to go through all the traffic because you don’t have to go downtown.”

Jankowski said problems arise economically around traffic as well, with companies in Houston having a harder time recruiting employees and people less willing to drive for a job.

“There’s no one simple solution: traffic has always been what it is in any metro area,” he said.

Clark also said there is not one main solution to addressing traffic problems on I-45. He said there are things that could be done in the future to start the process of easing the undercapacity of roads and enabling better mobility.

“We’re well aware of the traffic congestion in this region,” Clark said. “We not only need to fix congestion, but also monitor traffic incidents and certain conditions. Traffic accidents and construction are also a major cause of extreme delay on roads.”

Economic effects

Although higher traffic counts are resulting in longer commute times and making the drive to work slower and more challenging, The Woodlands economy should not be hindered, according to officials from The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership.

Gil Staley, CEO of The Woodlands EDP, said with The Woodlands offering jobs that are sought after in the Greater Houston area, job growth in the area will remain the same even with the long commute times.

“We’re continuing to face woes of commute time in and out of the community,” Staley said. “The commute time to The Woodlands is especially hard because of the jobs that are here for the region. There’s about 10 percent more cars going into The Woodlands every morning than out of it.”

Staley said a bright light in the commute situation is the November successful Montgomery County road bond referendum. Staley said with the road bond will come projects that will alleviate congestion, which is something to look forward to in the future.

“Let’s be honest, the overall traffic pattern of this area is minor,” he said. “Compared to the west side of Houston, it’s an easy commute. It’s not hindering the large businesses here. But still, it can be better.”

WDL-2016-02-01-7Alternative solutions

With the problems of traffic accidents, construction and undercapacity of road space on I-45 N. and the rest of the Houston region, employers and officials have been looking at a number of ways to get cars moving faster.

Employees who commute to some large corporations in The Woodlands, such as Anadarko Petroleum and ExxonMobil, are having an easier time getting to their jobs as a result of a vanpool service. The van goes directly to the company from multiple areas in Houston, allowing more Houston residents to apply and accept jobs in The Woodlands area.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County STAR vanpool program started eight years ago and is part of the METRO public transportation service serving eight counties in the Greater Houston area.

Beverly Elam, commuter services manager for METRO STAR, said the vanpool is a great way to reduce congestion, save money and save commuters time.

“We do outreach to thousands of commuters,” Elam said. “There’s over 700 daily routes, and we cover eight counties, including Harris and Montgomery.”

Mead Turner, an operations geology supervisor at Anadarko, coordinates the METRO STAR vanpool from the Montrose area in Houston to Anadarko with other Anadarko employees.

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“Anadarko has probably seven different vanpools in parts of Houston,” Turner said. “The best thing about it is that it’s convenient—you can relax on the way to work or get work done on the way. You save money on your personal vehicle and gas. This is beneficial to both big and small companies; I think it’s good for everyone.”

Clark said options, such as The Woodlands Park and Ride system, Harris County Toll Road facilities and a proposition recently passed by voters in Texas to increase funding on road improvements, are all beneficial in restoring mobility to highways.

“The Legislature has taken steps and, fortunately, voters also approved a proposition [last] fall that will enable better planning and using more resources to come up with solutions,” Clark said. “The  [H-GAC] Transportation Policy Council has also adopted a 10-year transportation plan with a number of projects important to our region.”

Clark said future solutions could also have authorities besides toll road officials monitor traffic, with improvements made to freeway interchanges and making better use of facilities. Also, Clark said people could remember to take advantage of transit options such as METRO STAR vanpool or the park and ride system.

Park and ride, which is available in The Woodlands and will also soon be implemented in Conroe, is a commute option for residents with destinations that include the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza and the Central Business District of Houston. There are three park and ride lot locations in The Woodlands.

In addition to  residents using services offered by the city of Houston and The Woodlands, working with the toll authorities, taking advantage of the new Grand Parkway segments and monitoring traffic conditions would all act as factors to achieving a faster and more efficient commute time.

“There are other ways to better the freeway, such as making improvements on freeway interchanges and making better use of the facilities we have,” he said. “We want to help transit users—there are some options people don’t remember.”