Montgomery County, local officials work to bridge mobility funding gaps in The Woodlands area

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Officials in The Woodlands area are attempting to keep pace with population and economic growth through transportation planning while working within the limited funding available from local, state and federal sources.

Montgomery County Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack is finishing up projects from his office’s share of a $280 million county road bond passed by voters in 2015, which is nearly depleted. Also instrumental is the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which directs federal dollars to select area projects but does not include any The Woodlands-area projects this year. And while the Texas Department of Transportation plans to improve highways such as I-45, the completion of its design studies and large-scale change to The Woodlands-area thoroughfares are still years away.

Even as these entities further their plans and work to secure necessary funding, rapid growth—the county could double in size by 2050, according to H-GAC estimates—demands future infrastructure work as well. Officials within the county have responded with partnerships across jurisdictions and even the suggestion of a new mobility bond to respond to that need.

“One thing we can all agree on is the county is growing,” Noack said at a Feb. 26 Commissioners Court meeting. “We need to continue to invest in our mobility solutions that make sense, and as we go forward, the court should really work together to pay attention to not just individual precincts, but crossing the precinct boundaries.”

Road bond progress

Results from a 2018 community survey released earlier this year showed more than a third of The Woodlands residents rank transportation and traffic as the township’s biggest issue—more than the combined number who listed incorporation, overdevelopment and overpopulation as their priorities.

“They’re very concerned about the levels of traffic congestion on some of the principal roadways, and there’s almost none of those significant roadways now that aren’t experiencing that,” H-GAC Director of Transportation Planning Alan Clark said.

In The Woodlands Township, which does not have maintenance responsibility for its roads, county bond money is the primary funding source. Precinct 3 is using more than $80 million in 2015 bond money for major projects, including the expansion of The Woodlands area’s heavily traveled roads, such as Woodlands Parkway and Rayford Road. The precinct is also participating in redesigns of critically congested crossroads, such as the I-45 interchange at Woodlands Parkway and Robinson Road.

Four county bond projects remain in the design and development stages, including the $4.7 million widening of Gosling Road between Flintridge Drive and Creekside Forest Drive. The project, which requires collaboration between Noack’s office and Harris County Precinct 4 as it crosses the county line, is expected to go out for bid in 2020, said Andrew DuBois, the Precinct 3 projects and logistics manager.

The crossing at I-45 between Woodlands Parkway and Robinson Road, rated as “severely overcapacity” by H-GAC, is another of Precinct 3’s upcoming road bond projects. The $5 million interchange improvement project is cleared to break ground pending right of way acquisitions by Oak Ridge North and will likely go out for bid this summer, DuBois said. The realignment of Robinson Road to the east will follow its completion.

An estimated $30 million in major widening projects is also planned by Precinct 3 on Sawdust Road west of I-45 and on Grogan’s Mill Road through The Woodlands Town Center. Those road improvements were also listed in the 2015 H-GAC South County Mobility Plan, which has guided many recent county and township initiatives, but the projects do not yet have a funding source or timelines, according to Precinct 3 project listings.

The junction of Research Forest Drive and Grogan’s Mill Road in The Woodlands, which features four intersections handling more than 60,000 cars daily, is also a possible redesign candidate. Several local entities initially supported construction of a proposed $24 million underpass there in late 2018 before a new study was commissioned to examine alternative redesign options.

An updated recommendation from the engineering firm Strand Associates Inc. is expected this year, DuBois said. Funding and a potential timeline would be set after a final plan is approved.

Commissioners are also looking to a potential next round of funding. At the February Commissioners Court meeting, a project list outlining work on major county corridors was presented, and could provide the basis for another mobility bond.

“Commissioners have discussed the possibility of a future road bond referendum, but there is no timeframe or year targeted at this time for the bond,” DuBois said in an email.

Hwy. 242 flyovers

County commissioners are also considering more immediate relief at a specific county junction. County Judge Mark Keough suggested eliminating tolls on the two flyover roads at Hwy. 242 and I-45 during an early April Commissioners Court meeting, pushing an item long desired by Noack and county residents.

Keough said a majority of drivers there now bypass the tolled flyovers in favor of the adjacent service roads, causing frequent backups on both thoroughfares and the surrounding hospital campuses. The tolls were also expected to help fund future county mobility projects.

In an April 18 news release, Noack announced “a clear path to removal” of the tolls after consulting with TxDOT, which manages all state roads.

TxDOT said in late April that removal discussions were ongoing, but no decision has been made at this point, according to spokesperson Emily Black.

The $34 million ramps, which opened in 2015, are the product of a pass-through road bond program approved by voters in 2005 in which the county initially paid for the state-owned flyovers. TxDOT has since reimbursed almost all of the nearly $118 million in total program dollars including the flyover costs, and will pay an additional $56.47 million in the coming years through the second phase of the pass-through program, according to Precinct 3. Those funds will be used for future projects agreed upon by the county and TxDOT.

Keough said the tolls generate an estimated $1.3 million annually for the county toll authority. Going forward, he said that state and federal road work in the county should be paid by state and federal agencies, rather than the county and its residents.

“The revenue generated from the flyovers generates a fraction of what is needed to solve our mobility problem,” he said. “However we get there, the removal of the tolls at [Hwy.] 242 is a victory for the citizens of Montgomery County.”

Regional strategy

Traffic-alleviating improvements within The Woodlands Township remain a facet of the local transportation strategy, but most long-term planning in south Montgomery County is now targeted at major arteries that surround the area and connect The Woodlands to Conroe and Houston.

“The improvements that we see [in our planning]are more around the periphery of The Woodlands than within it, in terms of major road projects,” Clark said. “We had a lot of projects in the south county in the last five years, … and there’s still going to be a need to improve [thoroughfares such as]I-45.”

Agencies with regional influence and funding potential, such as TxDOT and the H-GAC, continue to focus on mobility-related concerns in and around The Woodlands. In April, TxDOT embarked on Phase 2 of its I-45 Planning and Environmental Linkage study, examining the pressing needs of the interstate corridor from Beltway 8 North to South Loop 336 in Conroe that could result in long-term changes to the artery that carries well over 200,000 cars daily.

TxDOT is now working to widen FM 2978 by 2021 and Hwy. 242 and FM 1488 within a decade. The department also developed several new highway outlines that would increase connectivity to the north and west of The Woodlands based on recommendations produced by H-GAC’s 2015 area mobility plan and 2016 South County Thoroughfare Plan, although many of these long-term projects still lack a funding source to move ahead.

Alternative transportation

In a region designed for mass vehicle travel, officials and transportation experts are increasingly considering mobility options other than personal automobiles to get more cars off the road.

“We are a car-centric place, and we are a road-centric place, and that has resulted in us building more and more roads,” said Kyle Shelton, director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “No one’s saying we’re not doing cars anymore, no one’s saying we’re not going to do highways anymore, but … how do you add other pieces in there that complement one another and give people options?”

The township’s commuter bus program, The Woodlands Express Park and Ride, carried nearly 550,000 riders from last April through this March. And its Town Center Trolley line has averaged well over 100,000 annual riders over the past three years. With frequent use by riders coming from throughout the region, the township is evaluating possible expansions to transit systems.

The Woodlands Township board of directors voted to continue an 8 a.m. pilot run from the Sterling Ridge Park and Ride lot in April, and in May it will consider requests for three-year trial routes for both the Energy Corridor and Springwoods Village’s corporate center.

If approved, the township would fund 20% of both park and ride programs with the remaining 80% coming from federal funding through H-GAC. The Energy Corridor pilot would cost around $2.19 million, and the Springwoods Village pilot would cost around $2.73 million in total through the pilot years. A timeline for the programs has yet to be decided, pending the board’s decision to implement one or both plans.

“We are entertaining those two areas,” township Chairman Gordy Bunch said. “I think we’ll be responding to those requests, looking at financial liability where it makes sense, and where we have private partnerships, to make sure it makes financial sense.”

Additional reporting by Vanessa Holt and Jules Rogers

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