Woodlands Township, Montgomery County working to alleviate Town Center holiday trafficCombined with bustling offices and holiday season festivities, the convergence of commuters to The Woodlands Town Center has often created transportation, parking and traffic dilemmas around the holidays.

“Town Center is one of the most popular retail districts in the area,” said Charles Cobb, Montgomery County Precinct 3 traffic operations manager. “When you combine this type of commercial or entertainment activity with our daily population, it creates a unique traffic pattern.”

Market Street Marketing Director Noemi Gonzalez said she has seen an increase in Town Center traffic this holiday season beginning the week of Thanksgiving.

“When people come to Town Center, they kind of already know they’re going to have to wait for parking and that traffic is going to be bad,” Gonzalez said. “But people have to get their holiday shopping done, so I really don’t think the traffic has a negative impact on our businesses.”

However, Montgomery County and The Woodlands Township officials said this holiday season may be different as both entities have implemented projects in hopes of alleviating Town Center transportation woes of the past.

“For anybody who might have been challenged in the past to shop at the mall or Market Street, this is a great year to re-engage with our retailers,” board Chairman Gordy Bunch said.

Town Center enhancements

To combat the unusual transportation issues in Town Center, such as atypical bottlenecks and a lack of available parking, several projects have already been completed within the tourist-heavy district.

In the past 12 months, The Woodlands Mall has constructed two new parking garages that have added 300 spaces to accommodate shoppers. In addition to being free, both garages also have external signage indicating available parking spaces inside.

“One of the biggest issues we had during the holiday season last year was parking,” Bunch said. “Since then, two parking garages have been constructed and opened, so I don’t know that we’re going to have as significant of a congestion [and] parking challenge as we’ve had in the past.”

In September, The Woodlands Township board of directors also approved trolley system enhancements, which will add a second trolley to the Town Center transportation schedule during off-peak service and a third trolley during peak service hours.

“The idea is to have fewer people making several short trips between destinations in Town Center and use the trolley to make those trips,” said Chris LaRue, The Woodlands Township transit program manager. “The enhanced service was originally slated to begin in January 2017. However, realizing that the holidays bring extra congestion to Town Center, the township board of directors approved beginning the service early.”

The free transportation service will also have extended hours during the holiday season with a goal of reducing wait times to less than 10 minutes, officials said.

“This is just a test year for us on the enhanced trolley service around the holiday season,” Bunch said. “As we go into the holiday season, we’re going to capture data and find what times were most efficient and what worked. We’ll likely adjust [the trolley schedule] next year to accommodate what is actually beneficial.”

Another change from the 2015 holiday season is the location of the ice-skating rink. Previously, the rink’s temporary two-month home was the surfaced parking area in Town Center. However, the township relocated the ice rink in November to a multipurpose, permanent facility adjacent to The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.

The $5.5 million project not only frees up the parking area the ice-skating rink formerly called home, but it will also encourage skaters to use The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel & Convention Center parking garage off Six Pines Drive, which is free.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how the parking garages, the ice skating rink being moved, the utilization of the convention center garage and the enhanced trolley system will impact this holiday season—I think it’s going to be a positive,” Bunch said.

Woodlands Township, Montgomery County working to alleviate Town Center holiday trafficTraffic response initiative

In addition to the township’s projects, Montgomery County Precinct 3 has already applied new traffic signal coordination in Town Center, added left -turn lanes at key intersections and upgraded traffic signal hardware at several intersections over the past few months, Cobb said.

Further enhancing the projects that have already been implemented in Town Center, Montgomery County Precinct 3 will introduce a new real-time traffic response initiative this holiday season, Cobb said.

To make traffic signal coordination more efficient in Town Center during one of the busiest times of the year, 20 sensors have been placed at major corridors in the area, which can see traffic up to 500 feet away. When a queue begins to form at a particular intersection, the sensors will notify the controller, who can adjust the coordination of surrounding traffic signals to keep traffic flowing. 

“In real time, the controllers will have the ability to change the traffic signal coordination pattern to accommodate for the increased demand while maintaining existing coordination on the roadways,” Cobb said. “Depending on the location of the event, the controllers will be programmed to allow for ingress or egress of that specific event based on real-time demand.”

The project’s boundaries will extend north to Lake Woodlands Drive, east to I-45, south to Woodlands Parkway and west to Grogans Mill Road. If the project proves to be successful, Cobb said it could be applied to other areas of Montgomery County, such as the growing corridor of Rayford and Sawdust roads. 

“Our office is committed to enhancing the mobility in and around Precinct 3,” Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack said. “We will continue to apply new technology at a minimal cost to enhance the mobility of our residents.” 

Nick Wolda, The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau president, said although Town Center traffic can be a burden to residents and visitors, he is confident that the new projects will bring relief to the entertainment, shopping and dining epicenter.

“The Woodlands Town Center is a holiday headquarters, so to speak, for the region,” Wolda said. “We know there are peak times, like weekends, that could be frustrating for residents and visitors, [so] we would encourage residents and visitors to find the time to visit during non-peak times. With millions of square feet of shopping, dining, hospitality and entertainment, it’s important to make sure traffic flow is smooth [in Town Center].”