The Texas Department of Transportation is looking for long-term solutions to mitigate traffic congestion on the I-45 corridor in The Woodlands area. The agency is under contract negotiations to conduct a Planning and Environmental Linkage study, which looks at transportation, environmental, community and economic goals of a specific corridor and takes those findings into consideration when planning for the future. The study is expected to begin in 2017 and could take up to two years.
In the meantime, Montgomery County, TxDOT and the city of Shenandoah are working on projects that could bring temporary relief for drivers.
The Houston-Galveston Area Council released the South Montgomery County Mobility Study in September 2015, which found the I-45 corridor between Hwy. 242 and the Hardy Toll Road is severely over its capacity, carrying more than 250,000 vehicles on a daily basis. The eight-lane interstate is only designed to carry 160,000 vehicles per day, while its volume is expected to grow to roughly 380,000 vehicles per day by 2040, according to the study.
“I-45 is one of the most important economic engines for our region,” said Alan Clark, H-GAC’s director of transportation planning. “It also carries a tremendous amount of trade and is one of the most important evacuation routes in our area. Our goal is to make sure that I-45 can fulfill those very different functions effectively, every day of the week.”
As a result, H-GAC recommended last year that TxDOT and its Montgomery County partners conduct a Major Investment Study on the corridor to further investigate possible solutions.
“Our ultimate goals and plans for I-45 aren’t any different from any other freeways in our system,” TxDOT spokesperson Deidrea George said. “[We want to] continue to look for ways to mitigate congestion, enhance connectivity and mobility to address the current and future needs of the traveling public, and to safely and efficiently continue to deliver projects to our district.”
Three of I-45’s biggest problems are excessive congestion, severe crash experience and a lack of liability, meaning drivers must allow extra time for unforeseeable road conditions, Clark said.
The PEL study will look at the necessity of adding capacity and operational improvements to meet future needs along the corridor between Beltway 8 and South Loop 336, according to TxDOT.
“[The biggest mobility problem in The Woodlands right now] is that continuous rise in traffic volume and congestion during peak travel times and the increase in what ‘peak travel times’ actually means now,” George said. “Years ago, we were limited to ‘rush hour’ being a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening—that is certainly not the case now.”
Contributing factors to the congestion on I-45, as identified by the H-GAC mobility study, include inadequate north-south route alternatives to I-45, limited access to I-45 from the east side and insufficient roadway capacity for several roads west of the interstate. Other factors include a shortage of I-45 overpasses to provide adequate local circulation and the absence of adequate grade separations over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks east of I-45.
One of the biggest limitations TxDOT will face when considering improvement projects will be acquiring right of way, Clark said.
“Since we are so developed already along our major freeway corridors, purchasing a large amount of additional right of way is not only extremely expensive, but it’s extremely disruptive,” Clark said. “TxDOT will naturally be very cautious about alternatives that would require major additional right of way acquisitions.”
Since the mobility study was released last September, a few projects are already underway or planned in The Woodlands area.
One H-GAC recommendation was to convert the intersection of I-45 and Woodlands Parkway/Robinson Road into a diamond interchange, which would assist with the transformation of south Montgomery County from a rural area to an urban area. The diamond interchange would also preserve access to the southeast quadrant of the interchange where a new development is planned, allow for U-turns on the frontage roads, allow access to the east and mitigate weaving issues on the I-45 frontage roads, according to the study.
Although the project is in the study phase, Megan Siercks, a representative of Brown & Gay Engineers, gave an update at an Oak Ridge North City Council meeting Sept. 26. Siercks referred to the intersection as “one of the worst in the area.”
In addition to supporting the diamond interchange, Siercks recommended additional lanes that would take full advantage of the width of the bridge, creating the capacity needed to accommodate the area’s growth.
“We have modeled this and we are showing a significant improvement in level of service, which is how we gauge how well a roadway or intersection is functioning with the diamond design,” Siercks said. “Now, this is not a 20-year solution; this is a 10-year solution that would get us through the interim point where TxDOT could complete their corridor study and figure out what they want to do for a final improvement with this intersection.”
Another possible source of I-45 relief is the David Memorial Drive extension project, which is underway by the Shenandoah Municipal Development District. The project will extend the road where it dead ends at Shenandoah Park to Hwy. 242, providing an adequate north-south alternate to I-45.
“One of the problems that was identified in the South Montgomery County Mobility Study was that I-45 was being used for local travel because we don’t have ample north-south connectors in the area,” Shenandoah City Administrator Greg Smith said. “This extension will be a new north-south connector that will provide relief for residents traveling north from the east side of I-45 in Shenandoah and in Oak Ridge North.”
Harris County Toll Road Authority has also made plans to create a direct connection on the Hardy Toll Road to downtown Houston, which could take some of the burden off of I-45.
“Although it’s not I-45, it means that more people will find the Hardy to be an attractive alternative to I-45,” Clark said. “I think that providing that alternate corridor and giving it the ability to carry more people will be a benefit to I-45.”
H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council has also developed a program to more efficiently tow stalled vehicles off freeways at no charge to the motorists through Houston TranStar that should be implemented in 2017. If successful, the program should mitigate traffic delays due to crashes, Clark said. Crashes make up 40 percent of all delays, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.
TxDOT is also in the process of opening north- and southbound high occupancy vehicle lanes on I-45 stretching 17.6 miles between South Loop 336 and FM 1960.
“[The HOV lanes] seem like a small project, but it’s actually going to be very significant to commuters who are now going to be able to have a better, faster, more reliable trip,” Clark said.
The opening of the southbound HOV lane, which was initially expected to happen in September, has been backdated to late October due to inclement weather delaying the lane striping. There was no projected opening date for the northbound lane as of press time Oct. 7.
“There needs to be better integrated planning with the county, H-GAC and TxDOT,” said Bruce Cunningham, vice president of the Grogan’s Mill Village Association. “Not only has The Woodlands grown, but it has been a spur to rapid growth throughout the area since it has become a focal point [for]most aspects of life. I-45 has made this growth possible; as is often the case, when you build a good road it attracts more traffic.”
During these long- and short-term improvement project plans, transportation entities will need to consider what technology, such as vehicle automation, might look like in the next decade, Clark said. He also urged the “unpaid experts” who drive I-45 on a daily basis to become active participants in the future of the corridor.
“There’s never a bad time to let us know about your ideas, issues and problems, and I’m sure TxDOT will be making a real effort to solicit that input when they get started on their work in south Montgomery County,” Clark said.
Additional reporting by Abigail Loop