Monday, April 21, 2014

IH-45 ramp realignments at SH 96 / FM 646

In this post, I attempt to shed some light on the well-publicized but poorly-described pending changes to our local IH-45 southbound access.
It's not going to win any graphic design awards:  TxDOT's depiction of the project area (project description page here).  Unfortunately, this is the extent of the visual aids that I've been able to locate on either their website or League City's website.  
It's a public disservice that apparently neither TxDOT nor League City can find it in their schedules to take 30 bloody minutes to create a very simple but accurate visual depiction of what changes residents can expect from this $2 million project.  A red dot and a green dot convey almost no information.  Wordy imprecise descriptions such as League City's public information release also convey very little practical detail.  People need to see pictures.  It's obvious from the comments on GCDN (paywalled) that some folks are confused about this.  Even my husband, a mechanical engineer, said, "I'd need to see a diagram before I can fully understand what you're talking about" when I tried to describe this project to him.
Given the lack of a better alternative, I gave diagram-making a shot. This is essentially what we've got right now.   

This is approximately what the end result will be, based on what I've read. 
Why is this project really necessary?

Well, to my untrained eye, the biggest existing problem is that there's now so much traffic and the existing 646 exit ramp is so close to the exchange itself that in certain conditions, traffic might be expected to back all the way up onto the mainlanes themselves.  Plus, exiting traffic interferes mightily with shopping center access.  Anyone who has ever been to HEB Bay Colony knows this.

For those of you who have lived in this area for a long time, this predicament is quite similar to what we used to see years ago at FM 518 before they pushed its southbound (SB) off-ramp further north.  During evening rush hour, traffic exiting IH-45 SB at FM 518 would back all the way up onto the mainlanes and remain stopped there, creating quite a safety hazard.  This was occurring because the original off-ramp had been situated much too close to the intersection of FM 518 and IH-45.

The new configuration at 646 strikes me as serving property interests as much as motorists, however (LC admits as much in the fourth paragraph of this press release).  In order to obligate traffic to pass by valuable commercial land (thus increasing the chances that people will stop and spend money there), the FM 646 exit will be situated such that motorists traveling southbound from SH 96 will be forced to travel all the way down the feeder (an extra distance of about a mile and a half) until they get somewhere close to 646 in order to enter the freeway.  There's probably enough room so that TxDOT could have left the existing SH 96 on-ramp alone and simply pushed the FM 646 off-ramp further north, analogous to what they did to correct the FM 518 off-ramp.  But they chose not to.

And all that wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that it imposes additional feeder negotiations that are not currently required.  Right now, people accessing IH-45 SB from SH 96 simply get on the ramp and enter the freeway with no interferences - it's an uncomplicated transaction.  Under the revised configuration, those same people will be forced to drive further south and they will be forced to jockey for freeway access with motorists who are simultaneously trying to get off the freeway.

As such, this project increases safety by reducing congestion at the FM 646 intersection, but does it optimize safety?  At first glance, it arguably optimizes property values by increasing traffic to those properties, perhaps even at partial expense of safety.

And that notion prompted me to re-access TxDOT's official mission statement because I didn't recall that "increasing the property values of a select few at the expense of the many" had been crafted into their official governmental agency mandate.

Alas, what I found when I looked it up this morning was not what I remember from a number of years ago.  I don't have a copy of the exact previous language, but I recall that it used to have a very simple and straightforward tone along the lines of "to provide safe, effective, and efficient movement of people and goods throughout the state"  (in fact, I copied that passage from the existing Wikipedia entry on TxDOT).  But as of today, TxDOT's official statement instead reads "Work with others to provide safe and reliable transportation solutions for Texas".  The Wiki entry reads as it does because it has not yet been updated.

The new "work with others" smoking gun clause certainly does open the door to a universe of additional nuances, eh?  Including the potential for factors other than maximum safety and maximum traffic efficiency to get weighted into the right-of-way design equation (factors such as property valuations, for instance).

Your tax dollars at work.  Sort of.

1 comment:

  1. I see this as a beneficial change all around. Merging traffic has to happen between the I-45 and the feeder road. Right now the merger happens on the freeway, at high speeds. As traffic volume increases, traffic must slow down to make room for cars entering the freeway. By switching the ramps, you move the merger point to the feeder, causing the merger to occur at lower (and generally safer) speeds, while causing the traffic backup to occur on the feeder, thereby reducing the slowdown in the freeway. If this change was made for every exchange along the freeway for miles, I would venture to say that it would reduce traffic noticeably.
    The fact that it provides more traffic to feeder road businesses is also a positive factor for tax revenue for the city among other reasons.


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