In Sugar Land’s quest to become a tourism and entertainment destination, Sugar Land Town Square is a focal point. Its location at the city’s busiest intersection gives the mixed-use complex visibility, but it also contributes to traffic congestion around Hwy. 59 and Hwy. 6.
“It’s one of the most-congested [areas in Sugar Land],” city engineer Chris Steubing said.
According to traffic counts from the Texas Department of Transportation, traffic at the intersection has increased by between 9 to 37 percent from 2011 and 2015, depending on the direction of traffic.
The largest increases were counted on Hwy. 59 immediately south of the intersection—a 37.1 percent increase—and on Hwy. 6 between Hwy. 59 and Town Center Boulevard—a 26.5 percent increase. By 2035, TxDOT predicts traffic will increase between 12 and 86 percent at the intersection for each of TxDOT's traffic counters at the interesection.
Six years ago, Sugar Land’s comprehensive mobility study called the intersection a critical corridor for filling gaps in the city’s transportation infrastructure. One of those gaps was the lack of transit services between Town Square and other entertainment destinations in Sugar Land.
“Transportation infrastructure and services are not available to support Sugar Land as an entertainment destination,” the 2011 study said.
Jennifer May, Sugar Land’s executive director of business and government affairs, said more transit options could come now that attractions, such as Smart Financial Centre, the festival site in Brazos River Park and Constellation Field, have opened.
“Some of it’s happening, but it’s a little bit of the chicken and the egg [in terms] of what comes first,” May said. “I think it’s more likely you have the venue drive transportation [needs].”
Road work ahead
To increase roadway capacity, the intersections with Hwy. 59 and Town Center Boulevard North near Town Square will be included in a nearly 1.5-mile widening of Hwy. 6 from three to four lanes in either direction by the city of Sugar Land. The $7 million project is expected to go out for bids in November.
Construction was originally slated to begin in August and take 150 days to complete, however, the city was delayed due to the cost of acquiring rights of way for the land needed to add lanes. Additional funding from Houston-Galveston Area Council and TxDOT for the project was approved by the city in November to acquire the remaining rights of way.
“All of it’s just trying to promote better mobility,” Steubing said. “It’s a double-edged sword. We’re kind of lucky that we have the level of traffic because it supports our commercial side, but [it] also causes congestion.”
Meanwhile, a new crosswalk on Town Center Boulevard North leading to Sugar Land City Hall was built to ease pedestrian and bicycle traffic in and out of Town Square.
Steubing and May said the city is looking to combine its next mobility study with comprehensive thoroughfare and bike and pedestrian plans by 2020. Steubing said signs on the Hwy. 59 frontage roads directing motorists to different entrances of Town Square have helped.
“All of it’s just trying to promote better mobility,” he said.
Relieving congestion along Sugar Land’s major arteries is difficult because of limited options for new or widened roads, according to Alan Clark, H-GAC director of transportation planning.
“They’ve really maxxed out what they can do in that [Hwy. 59 corridor],” he said. “What their project would do is try to provide a bottleneck relief.”
Public transit gets slow start
Since the city’s mobility needs were identified, the first step toward filling that gap was launched in January by Town Square’s owner, Planned Community Developers: a shuttle service from Town Square to Smart Financial Centre.
It was created as a convenience to concertgoers at the new venue and as a way to bring visitors into Town Square before a show. Les Newton, principal of Planned Community Developers Ltd. which owns Town Square, said it has the parking capacity in the evenings to accommodate shuttle riders.
Town Square has three free parking garages with a combined 2,864 spaces that range from 75 to 95 percent full in the peak hours of weekday afternoons, Newton said.
“I think people are really appreciating the service,” he said. “I think the shuttle bus is a good concept that we could expand.”
No city-run public transportation options have been proposed to date, May said. Sugar Land has park & ride locations for Fort Bend County’s shuttle services to Houston and participates in the county's Demand Response Service, a shuttle service that residents can take by making reservations.
However, Tennille Jones, county deputy director of public transportation, said no discussions of additional services have occurred.
Steady funding needed
Using public transit services for high-volume shopping and entertainment areas is not uncommon in the Greater Houston area, said Clark and David Wurdlow, H-GAC program manager. The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County is creating a bus service for the Galleria shopping district along Post Oak Road, and The Woodlands runs a trolley to its Town Center shopping development during the holidays.
“If you have a dedicated revenue source like a [tax increment reinvestment zone], it can be beneficial to the long-term sustainability of the service,” Wurdlow said.
Town Square is part of TIRZ No. 1 for Sugar Land, which means Planned Community Developers is able to keep some property tax revenue for “public enhancements” in Town Square that would otherwise go to the city, county and Fort Bend County Levee Improvement District No. 2, said Phil Wagner, Sugar Land's assistant director of economic development for private-public partnerships, tourism and cultural arts.
Planned Community Developers’ private-public partnership with the city defines public enhancements as almost anything within Town Square. TIRZ No. 1 revenue increased from $1.1 million in fiscal year 2013-14 to $1.4 million in FY 2015-16, according to the city’s economic update.
Wagner said mobility and parking were the developer’s responsibility, and Newton said his company had no immediate plans to alter traffic patterns within Town Square.
“It can be quite a big expense on the front end,” Clark said. “One thing can kind of be leveraged off of another if there were, say, a rail link from Sugar Land into Houston. That’d probably mean that there would be transit services to connect people to that.”