Local entities agree to conduct, fund additional independent study along corridor
In hopes of addressing mobility and safety concerns at Research Forest Drive and Grogans Mill Road, officials in south Montgomery County are working to determine the most cost-effective, long-lasting solution while appeasing residents.
The intersection was first identified as in need of improvement in 2015 when the Houston-Galveston Area Council and Brown & Gay Engineers Inc. completed the South County Mobility Plan, which determined existing and future transportation needs within south Montgomery County.
According to BGE, the Research Forest Drive and Grogans Mill Road intersection has an average daily traffic count of 62,450 motorists in 2018—up from 52,241 motorists recorded by The Woodlands Road Utility District No. 1 in 2013. That count is expected to reach 79,986 motorists by 2025 and 98,117 motorists by 2045. During peak travel time the intersection has traffic delays as high as 55 seconds in the morning and 85 seconds in the afternoon.
This high volume of traffic combined with extensive delays and four separate interchanges make for a dangerous corridor, officials and residents said. Between Sept. 1, 2017, and Aug. 30, 2018, 21 accidents occurred at the intersection, according to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, the second most of any intersection in the county.
Larry Neil, a resident of The Woodlands who lives near the intersection, spoke of the dangers of the intersection during the township’s Sept. 26 meeting.
“The number of accidents that take place there are staggering,” Neil said. “We constantly hear cars hitting each other and run out to help people. The intersection is flawed significantly, no matter what anybody says. I hear it firsthand.”
BGE proposed an underpass as a solution for the intersection. However, following Montgomery County’s announcement Nov. 1 that Precinct 3 opted not to submit the underpass to H-GAC’s Transportation Improvement Program, the intersection’s fate remains unknown. The proposed underpass received mixed feedback from nearby communities in recent months.
“We don’t have the consensus on the underpass from the people immediately adjacent to it,” The Woodlands Township Chairman Gordy Bunch said.
Understanding the underpass
BGE’s proposed solution would construct a six-lane underpass on Research Forest Drive beneath Grogans Mill Road, converting the existing four interchanges into two, which Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack said in a statement Oct. 25 would increase safety for motorists. The design keeps the existing at-grade lanes and is projected to help reduce the intersection delays to 0-20 seconds by 2025 and 2045, according to BGE.
Along with being recommended by BGE and The Woodlands Development Company, the underpass proposal has received letters of support from The WRUD, Precinct 3, the city of Shenandoah and The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce.
However, those letters of support were approved before BGE released designs for alternative at-grade—or street-level—solutions Oct. 24.
The intersection is just beyond Shenandoah city limits and is split between Montgomery County precincts 2 and 3. Although it resides within The Woodlands Township, as a special-purpose district, the township has no authority over its roads.
The cost associated with the underpass and flooding concerns have caused some residents and elected officials to oppose the project.
“You think about [Hurricane] Harvey, [and] I can’t imagine if you put an underpass there, the flooding that would take place,” Neil said.
However, BGE and The Woodlands Development Company officials assure that pumps would be in place in the event of the underpass flooding. Motorists could also use the intersection’s existing at-grade lanes.
If the underpass had been submitted to H-GAC and selected, the project would have cost $24.06 million—including $16.84 million in state and federal funding plus $7.22 million from Montgomery County and the WRUD, which levies a commercial property tax to fund thoroughfares and collector streets in The Woodlands.
“For one intersection ... that’s a very high cost,” Bunch said. “I understand that only $7 million is coming from local dollars, and the rest is coming from federal dollars—but it’s still taxpayer funds.”
Additionally, residents have said they believe other intersections should be addressed first.
“Issues should be addressed at I-45 and Research [Forest Drive] … and I-45 and Lake Woodlands [Drive],” Shenandoah resident Janeau Houston said. “Those are the places that are creating choke points further back into our community.”
As of early November more than 500 residents had signed an online petition against the proposed underpass. Bunch and township Director Bruce Reiser, who serves on the WRUD, held a special meeting for residents to learn more about the project Oct. 23.
The Woodlands Township board of directors opted not to approve a resolution of support for the project Oct. 24.
Another proposed solution for the intersection is an at-grade widening, which would cost about $4 million, said Robert Heineman, vice president of planning for The Woodlands Development Company. Proposed in conjunction with this project is a second at-grade widening at Lake Woodlands Drive and Grogans Mill Road, which would cost roughly $3 million—meaning both intersections could be addressed for the cost of the local match for the proposed underpass.
The intersection of Lake Woodlands Drive and Grogans Mill Road has an average daily traffic count of 52,000 motorists in 2018, according to BGE. This figure is expected to increase to 80,729 motorists by 2025 and to 95,978 motorists by 2045.
The project—favored by The Woodlands Township—would leave the existing configuration of the intersection, allowing officials the option to construct an underpass in the future if they so choose.
However, the project has been criticized by BGE and The Woodlands Development Company, as the delays at one of the points of the Research Forest Drive and Grogans Mill Road intersection would be projected to rise to more than 85 seconds by 2045.
“I think it comes down to, ‘Do you want to think short-range or long-range?’” Heineman said. “I would rather spend money and fix a problem for the duration rather than a piecemeal [project] that lasts a few years and has to be torn up.”
BGE and The Woodlands Development Company officials claim the at-grade widening solution would be a short-term solution that would leave the intersection as a four-point interchange—or four locations at which motorists moving in different directions meet—leaving safety concerns unaddressed.
Also considered is an at-grade, single-point intersection alternative that would tear out the existing lanes and reconfigure the intersection to one interchange at a cost of $7 million. However, Heineman and BGE officials said they believe the project would not do much to improve service levels as delays would rise to 54 seconds by 2025 and 88 seconds by 2045.
Shenandoah Mayor Ritch Wheeler said while Shenandoah City Council did not support a previously proposed overpass included in the South County Mobility Study, it did support the proposed underpass and at-grade, single-point intersection.
“I personally do not support widening the at-grade four-point intersection,” Wheeler said. “It will be less appealing visually, does very little to address traffic issues since you will still have to go through three lights to turn left, and does not address safety at all.”
An independent study
Considering the mixed feedback the proposed underpass has received in recent months, Noack announced Nov. 1 that local officials opted not to submit the project for funding consideration through H-GAC. The deadline for submissions was Oct. 31.
Instead elected officials agreed to an independent study to further identify mobility challenges and solutions based on updated traffic projections.
“Noack, [Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie] Riley, Wheeler and Bunch are committed to projects that not only improve mobility in Montgomery County, but also protect quality of life of our residents,” a Precinct 3 press release stated. “That is why they have agreed to hold off on submitting the WRUD’s underpass proposal to the H-GAC’s TIP call for projects to ensure the best solution moving forward.”
The independent study will look at travel patterns and congestion along the corridor between Gosling Road and I-45. The study will also analyze the Lake Woodlands Drive and Grogans Mill Road intersection.
According to Noack, the study will be funded by Montgomery County precincts 2 and 3 and will be conducted by Strand Associates Inc., an engineering firm based out of Brenham. While a cost estimate and timeline have not yet been determined, Noack said the study will begin once the entities receive updated traffic counts, which are expected to be conducted in November.
“To best serve our constituents, we want a new study conducted by an independent engineering firm that has not performed contracted work for any of the entities involved,” Noack said. “It is important to get a fresh set of eyes and possible new ideas for improvement plans at the Research Forest Drive [and] Lake Woodlands Drive [at] Grogans Mill Road intersections.”