TxDOT's I-45 expansion rendering. Source: TxDOT

This post is part of a series on the I-45 project, published every Monday and Wednesday throughout June.

When thinking outside of the box we – the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) - have devised an innovative and exciting plan to address the current and future growth in the Houston area. Through the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP), we are bringing to Houston a transformational project that will create exciting opportunities and replace an aging transportation system that is about a half a century old and has required numerous costly repairs over the years.

This Texas-sized initiative will move highway infrastructure in the core of the city into the future while reconnecting neighborhoods and creating opportunities for economic growth and new development. While motorists will have a more efficient transportation system to utilize, we are incorporating ways to improve opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists. This includes paths along our frontage roads and links to adjacent bikeways. 

TxDOT does not undertake a project like this in a vacuum.  In fact, TxDOT does not act on a proposed project until the local transportation planning authority, Houston–Galveston Area Council (HGAC) in this instance, approves such actions.  HGAC is the planning entity which provides policy guidance and overall coordination of the transportation planning activities within the metropolitan planning organization’s eight county region. TxDOT is just one of the implementing agencies.  More specifically, TxDOT has been actively studying the transportation needs of the North Houston and Downtown Houston areas for more than 10 years.  We have assembled a dynamic team of TxDOT employees and a group of well-versed and talented consultants to help launch this project, which reimagines the downtown loop and the way the Central Business District and adjacent communities are connected. 

During this process we have developed a project that has incorporated innovative engineering techniques to produce a sound transportation system that reduces congestion, enhances safety and significantly improves connectivity between the three major freeways that encompass the downtown area (Interstate 10, Interstate 45 and Interstate 69). Moreover, these efforts will give us the flexibility to incorporate various elements to significantly reduce air pollution in the area from vehicle emissions – even as future traffic volumes rise.

In addition to the resources TxDOT has dedicated to this project, we are fortunate to have the support of many important partners, including the City of Houston, Harris County and the Harris County Flood Control District, Houston METRO and many others. These partners have contributed technically and, in some cases, financially to bring this project to fruition. 

We are excited that our work on the environmental document is approaching closure. The document (the Final Environmental Impact Statement - FEIS) will afford us a record of decision to proceed to final design and implementation.  Once approved, we will be able to advance toward the beginning of project construction.  This, however, is by no means the end of public involvement. We will be working diligently well beyond initial construction to involve, engage, listen and work toward win/win solutions for the public.

When we move forward with construction we want to minimize the impacts on the traveling public by implementing a highly advanced traffic control plan that will keep motorists moving and accommodate the volume of traffic that will come through this corridor. This will take careful planning and working closely with the project team, consultants and project contractors. 

I’m thankful for the public’s role in our process. The public involvement has helped shape this project into a plan that will take us well into the future. As we move forward, the city will see just how great the North Houston Highway Improvement Project will be for the city and the state.

NHHIP is Not A Highway vs Transit Solution

Given that the object of our affection, in this case, is an interstate highway, TxDOT's charge is to look at highway infrastructure and operations solutions.  That being said, it is NOT based on a debate whether Houston needs more highways or transit or cars & buses over bike and pedestrian facilities. Houston needs it all.  

Despite what some think, TxDOT is not only concerned with highways and making way for single occupant drivers to move faster.  While providing additional capacity for motorists is important, it is also important to note that highway improvements are central to the scope of the NHHIP project.  As a reminder, this project began with a joint Major Investment Study (MIS) conducted by TxDOT, METRO and HGAC in the early 2000s.  Recognizing that the city needed a multimodal approach for future demand, the public involvement helped to define both the transit and highway improvements for this corridor.  The public prioritized advancing the transit solutions and that is now reflected in what we know today as the METRORail Red Line.  

The next phase of improvements identified from the results of the MIS focused on the implementation of the highway improvements to incorporate added capacity and enhance safety along I-45, but with a caveat to do it smartly with managed lanes that would incentivize ridesharing and transit.  This is precisely the plan we are advancing to construction.  

While it is understandable that people don't always know the history and/or processes that yield major investments in transportation, it is noteworthy to help provide context to the decisions on the table.  Also, key to the conversation is the fact that TxDOT advances projects to construction with Federal and State highway funds.  Accordingly, TxDOT's funding is NOT transferable to build and/or expand mass transit or high capacity transit (HCT) services.  What we can and are doing is partner with transit providers to look for innovative ways to leverage the resources available for highways to optimize efficient use of highway capacity, leverage highway investments to incentivize travel demand management and work collaboratively to assure highway improvements avoid the preclusion of future transit expansion options.

To be clear, the funding allocated to delivering the I-45 improvements cannot be made available for transit expenditures.  If Houston decides they don't want the highway improvements, the funding will ultimately be re-allocated to highway improvements in other areas of our region or the state.  Imagine where that would leave Houston in addressing congestion in the nation's fourth-largest city.  For more information on the project, to view designs details and renderings or connect with the project team please visit www.IH45Northandmore.com

Quincy D. Allen, P.E., is the TxDOT Houston District Engineer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.