Wednesday, June 24, 2009

SH 242 - make it a part of The Woodlands

Here in The Woodlands, mobility is the primary concern of most residents, according to The Woodlands Association survey for 2009. If you want to put one finger on one related mobility issue, it would be traffic congestion. "Traffic congestion: Traffic is an inherent problem with growth and the Associations need to continue to help alleviate this issue. Encouraging telecommuting, carpooling, or flexible work schedules among Woodlands businesses may be options."1 For years the master plan of The Woodlands has modeled the community with the intent on regional traffic passing on the fringes of the community, not through the community. For years, those responsible for improving traffic flow and reducing congestion have relied on traffic counts as a primary trigger for change. The recent proposal by TxDOT is no different. A high volume of traffic equates to a need for more lanes, not only for the present time but for the future as well.

As we consider the scope of the proposed TxDOT project, there is certain information we need to consider. We are told that 242 (SH 242) already has the third largest volume of traffic in The Woodlands. However, at least 50% of that traffic is absorbed back into the community road system. The section from Greenbridge to 1488 has only half of the traffic volume as its eastern sister from Greenbridge to I45. Other information we need to assimilate is the prior planning by the master minds of our community.

To relieve the traffic congestion during peak traffic hours is on the minds of TxDOT. Their solution is to widen the road and provide a larger capacity for automobiles, sort of a parking lot solution. Give the cars more space to move, and you can get them to move faster and off the road in less time. But this is a bit simplistic. This proposed solution is a response to the vehicle counts made a couple of years ago and the predicted doubling of traffic count in 25 years. An estimated price tag for the project, expanding the highway to six lanes from I-45 to 1488 (FM 1488), is $6 million. On the surface, this appears to be logical.

Several issues to the TxDOT plan have been raised by residents. (1) What is the source of the predicted growth? Currently, the area development plan has nearly been completed. Growth is anticipated on 1488 over the next 25 years as new developments occur towards the west of the 242/1488 intersection and probably on the east of I45 as well. Some will say that the growth of Lone Star College located on 242 will continue at a fast pace, and we can expect much higher traffic counts by that alone. Today, there are serious issues at the college for expansion. The assumption is that parking and classroom facilities can be expanded to provide a functional campus with a much larger student population. Continued expansion of this campus may not be the solution to the education of those contributing to the growth of the county west and north of The Woodlands. Fortunately, the college system has just purchased facilities for a new campus for the areas north of the city of Houston at the Dell/Compaq center near 1960 and SH 249. This may reduce pressure for any large expansion on the campus located in The Woodlands by providing more sufficient resources south of The Woodlands. There are possibly other solutions for educating our youth as well. I do not believe the growth of this college is sufficient reason to expand to six lanes from Greenbridge to 1488. Another issue is the noise. Increase speed of vehicles and increase the road surface by 30% translates to much more noise. Those residing next to the roadway don't want traffic any closer to their homes. They also don't want loud motorcycles and trucks passing close to their homes. They do want to be able to get to where they need to go in a reasonable time.

Let's take a look at this from 10000 feet instead of from tree top level. The Woodlands is bounded by four major highways. On the north is 1488. In the master plan of The Woodlands, the vision has been and continues to be one where east/west traffic would circumvent The Woodlands via 1488 on its northern perimeter, where The state forest prevents northern expansion of The Woodlands.

There should be no reason to have truck traffic passing through The Woodlands, nor should there be any reason for 242 to be a thoroughfare for traffic passing through The Woodlands. There will be sufficient capacity on 1488 for years to come, and it is actually a slightly shorter distance via 242 than via 1488 to the 242/1488 intersection from I45, with fewer traffic lights. North/South traffic should circumvent The Woodlands via FM 2978 and IH45. On the western fringe of The Woodlands, the capacity of 2978 needs to be raised soon. If it has congestion, regional traffic will be encouraged to cut through via Woodlands Parkway. FM 2920 is perceived to be the southern route to bypass The Woodlands, but now we expect the new parkway to form a much better option for county commuters and truck traffic by 2015. On the east, we have I45. Fortunately we had a lot to do with expanding that section of road long before TxDOT got involved in expansions and upgraded I45 in the Spring area.

It would be a mistake, possibly a grave mistake to support this expansion project as it is currently defined all the way to FM1488. The reason is that it would encourage pass-through traffic to utilize the highway as an alternate to FM1488. Then it could even be eventually expanded to 8 lanes based on traffic counts! It is designed to accommodate as many as 8 lanes. But it is a dead end. It stops at the state forest.

Then what should be the scope of the SH242 TxDOT project?
I would like to suggest a different scope. We do not need six lanes from Greenbridge to FM 1488! We need six lanes only from I45 to Greenbridge.

The problem is primarily congestion at Gosling and Greenbridge. There are peak times now when the traffic is moderately congested. I have never seen the problem on this road as bad as Woodlands Parkway. SH 242 needs more east-to-west turning lane capacity to Gosling. Lanes are often constricted in peak traffic times by traffic backed up at the light to turn left, blocking one lane that moves straight through. Greenbridge traffic has an issue entering onto SH 242, turning east in the morning. I am unaware of any issue in the evening but would bet there is a turning issue onto Greenbridge also. This entire SH 242 section needs traffic light synchronization in order to improve the use of existing lanes. Much of the congestion is actually in the area already having six lanes.

So the new objective should be to move traffic efficiently between I45 and Greenbridge and to provide fast exits from the roadway at major intersections. The solution would probably be to make the improvements below:

  • Expand the roadway between I45 and Greenbridge to six lanes and decrease the noise level generated by traffic. It is preferable, almost mandatory, to cover the existing roadway with a noise reduction material. Residents need more than this, but this is all the state could do for us.
  • Reduce the speed of traffic to a safer velocity - suggestion - 45 MPH.
  • Enable the roadway to have trees between the two sides of the highway so that the road has the look and feel of The Woodlands. It would be best if TxDOT beautified the roadway if funds could be obtained; otherwise, the community would support funding that part of the project.
  • Synchronize the timing of traffic lights using the county system already in place. Use state capital money to do that, but turn over its operation to the county. We need efficient movement of traffic onto the freeway and off of the freeway. Unfortunately, the flyover project is a separate project. It has its own issues and the state should coordinate with the toll road authority to make sure the two projects provide a good solution to the area, not cuase additional problems.
  • Limit the project scope to the section from I45 to Greenbridge. Do nothing to the section from Greenbridge to FM 1488, except possibly enable trees to be planted in the median.
This plan should decrease the cost of the project considerably. It should mitigate the problems and address the issues of the residents living next to the highway and/or using the highway. This solution would continue to encourage the movement of traffic according to the master plan of The Woodlands, utilizing 242 for residents and 1488 for regional traffic, encouraging external traffic to stay on the fringes of The Woodlands and not move their vehicles through the community. SH 242 from SH 1488 to I45 is perceived to be a commute zone for residents. It would continue to support traffic for local businesses. That has not and is not perceived to be a problem in the future. Peak time congestion will likely remain an issue on the eastern side of the segment between I45 and Greenbridge, close to I45.

Out of scope is SH 242 east of I45. That would be another project, as it is now. Fortunately residents are making their issues known to TxDOT. I hope the message comes through. There was not one resident I talked to who supports the current proposal.

1 The Woodlands Association 2008 Resident Study


goingcrazy said...

Thank you for your writing. I do not support the 242 expansion all the way to FM 1488. I take issue with the design to make it a major cut-thru route for "projected" population increases OUTSIDE The Woodlands. However, I do believe that the traffic/congestion does not carry PAST Gosling from I-45; not to Greenbridge as you stated. The dedicated left turn lane to Greenbridge does need to be lengthened in order to avoid traffic spill-over onto the through lanes during peak traffic times.

Note: Just read in the Chronicle today that the Woodlands Association "plans to adopt a resolution in support of a proposed project to widen Texas 242 from Interstate 45 to FM 1488".
Will consider the resolution at its June 25 meeting. (today!)

goingcrazy said...

sorry all-meant to say the Associations meeting was yesterday--only reported in today!