Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Master Plan for Mobility in The Woodlands Texas

Master planning takes into account residential and commercial properties and related amenities. It also has to forecast the volume of vehicle traffic for commuting to work and school, as well as establishing a safe and comfortable place to live and work. This and much more went into the planning of The Woodlands. Along the way, the school district issues had to be solved. That played a major roll in opening up the back part of The Woodlands to development. It impacted the master plan since the timing of school bond approvals played a very significant role in determining how development would unfold and where schools would be zoned. So today, the thin and long Indian Springs Village area is served by public schools outside of the village, and there are no provisions for safe access by foot or bike to some schools.

We do have congestion on major streets here in The Woodlands, which I often call "highways". Some people want me to be technically correct in how I use that the word "highway", because they want that word to be used only for Texas roads and national roads, so in this article I will refrain from using the word "highway" for a local high speed road. People who live here are fairly content with a speed limit of 45 MPH, even though it is less safe than 35 MPH and the actual speed of many people is 5-10 MPH over the limit. For the plan's sakes, 45 mph means 45 mph, not 55! But off of that and on to the real subject!

Yes, there is a master plan for vehicle transportation in The Woodlands, and it can be articulated in a simple basic way. The plan exists and is maintained by the Woodlands Development Company. For this article, we are only interested in part of the master plan, that which is the framework for moving volumes of traffic through The Woodlands. Micro mobility issues are not part of our concern at the moment.

In the master development plan of The Woodlands, several major roads were designed to move the majority of our traffic. Wide roadbeds were planned for the predicted 125000 population that would use them after build-out, but we must remember, that is a difficult task to predict at best. At the onset of development, the major roads were to be constructed as needed, not as final build-out implementations. So the development company constructed roadbed segments incrementally as the community grew. The build-out timing was impacted by the division of The Woodlands into two independent school districts. The back part of The Woodlands was part of the Magnolia ISD until an agreement was finally negotiated and merged into the Conroe ISD in 1992. That agreement opened the doors to the development of Alden Bridge and Sterling Ridge villages. As a cost control and practical measure, the development process had to be divided into phases, as The Woodlands expanded from east to west. So as an example, the four lane Woodlands Parkway provided sufficient capacity for many years while Indian Springs, and later when Sterling Ridge was being built. We know the rest of the story as residential and commercial development kept piling on more automobile traffic in the Grogan's Mill area and Town Center, now into Panther Creek and Indian Springs as well, as the result of westward development. In foresight, the right-of-way on these roads were generally designed for six lanes and the extra land was deeded over to the county for future growth after the roads were initially developed. It is no accident that the master planners had this foresight to provide sufficient right-of-way for additional lanes. In hindsight, the expansion has just gone too slow, then came hurricane Ike to slow it down even more. Residents continue to struggle with the traffic - wait time on the road and the noise resultant from the volume of traffic. This is a more popular subject than the weather.

History of road development
The Woodlands Development Company has been executing the master plan for years. It is financially contributing to the lane expansion on Woodlands Parkway and Research Blvd. The state and county have contributed what is logically their responsible portion as well, but financially the cost burden has been much higher in recent years to provide sufficient transportation arteries for the growing area. Now however, with the economic downturn, the cost of construction has turned lower. Obtaining state or county funds for our community has been exceedingly slow during the construction phase of our community. I-45 was initially too narrow to support transportation within the community and did not provide residents with sufficient capacity to commute to Houston. Therefore, we have the Hardy Toll Road. To access the toll road and to enable traffic movement from SH-242 to Sawdust Rd, we needed additional lanes on I-45. The county helped with this by forming the Road Utility District #1 (RUD#1) and sponsored a bond to expand the freeway. This was completed before the I-45 widening in Spring, and I think even before the I-45 widening from FM-1960 to Spring. Only one bond passed for this road district. Two other bonds subsequently failed, so that ended the role of RUD#1.

Therefore, a second utility district, The Woodlands RUD, was formed by the development company. This time, a tax levied on the commercial communities in The Woodlands would fund solutions for our mobility expansion issues. That seemed fair enough but more important, and to be noted, is that this community along with outside communities are also paying a share of these improvements. Not withstanding, because the funds are collected from commercial interests, residents have little to say on how it is spent. Our associations do have representation in the closed monthly mobility meetings of the Chamber of Commerce, where the local business community debates our mobility issues. This tax has funded bond payments for the flyover from Woodlands Parkway and the expansion of the parkway from I-45 to Grogan's Mill. Residents will be happy to see widening of roads, but at the same time, are concerned about resultant noise closer to their homes, especially if they live in the noise corridor adjacent to these roads. Some are also concerned about the effects on pedestrians and maintaining the quality of life expected here. Traffic congestion affects the air quality, so there must be a balance between traffic volume capacity and the volume of traffic on our roads, such as noise.

The Woodlands RUD administered by The Woodlands Development Company is helping as a partner with the county to fund the Woodlands Parkway lane expansion to Kuykendahl and is funding the Research Forest expansion to Shadowbend. Montgomery County funded the Gosling bridge over Spring Creek in partnership with Harris County. That project was absolutely necessary to develop Creekside Park Village. So you can see various public and private enterprises sharing the responsibility to improve our roads. It is often partnerships that get the job done.

Master Plan from 10000 feet
The Woodlands Parkway is the aorta of the master plan, moving some 60000 automobiles per day. You and I realize the high volume of cars very well when we are on the parkway headed west from 5pm to 7pm on a weekday. From I-45 to Kuykendahl, sufficient right-of-way was given to the county for six lanes and a median on the parkway. West of Kuykendahl, there would be no need for any more than four lanes, but the space is available if it is ever required. Research Forest is defined as a six lane road from I-45 to Shadow Bend to supplement the load on the Woodlands Parkway and thereby reduce east/west congestion. It would be defined as four lanes on to 2978 but would have the space to eventually have six lanes, if required. A smaller east/west artery to support the traffic load from Town Center would be Lake Woodlands, a four lane road.

Today we are about to realize the master plan configuration, a little later than hoped, but realized nevertheless. This is the primary reason for our east/west congestion issues at peak traffic times. We simply do not have our master plan capacity deployed yet.

Main arteries for intra- and inter- north/south traffic flow is provided by Kuykendahl and Gosling inside The Woodlands. Gosling has sufficient space for six lanes on the south of Flintridge, but only four are thought to be required in the foreseeable future. The same to the north of Flintridge. Gosling should be at its final configuration now, unless traffic generated by new development is higher than anticipated in the future. Kuykendahl is being expanded and extended as planned to help move the traffic between the new village and the remainder of The Woodlands community. It will be extended to help move traffic through The Woodlands to FM1488 and further north in the future.

The Woodlands is bound by four highways and has an additional highway as an intra-commute artery. As an east/west access to the freeway and as a means to commute to the hospital, SH-242 is visioned to function as a local commuter road, just as the Woodlands Parkway is, with some flow-through traffic into the county. It is surrounded by The Woodlands residents, an area college, a state forest, and Woodlands commercial areas, all part of the master plan. The four highways of the master plan, looping around The Woodlands to provide efficient mobility for the county and state, by design are:

  1. North - FM-1488. This road is being expanded by the county (but using pass-through state funds from TxDOT) to four lanes. There will not be many traffic lights between I-45 and FM-2978. Area commuters hopefully will prefer to use this instead of SH-242 to bypass The Woodlands. Because of the traffic lights and the volume of The Woodlands internal traffic, it is only natural to use FM-1488 for east/west county mobility. There are hints that the community is seeking help from TxDOT to encourage traffic to use this in preference to SH-242, but we shall see. The Flyover onto SH-242 from I-45 will be a toll road, so it will be a means to facilitate faster exchange of traffic between SH-242 and I-45. but will not effectively change traffic volume capacity on the eastern end of the western segment of SH-242. There needs to be a better way to move traffic on SH-242, especially on the eastern end of I-45 to FM-1488. The plan in the far future, is to regulate the flow of traffic with timed traffic lights, thereby moving vehicles more efficiently on lanes already provided.
  2. South - FM-2920 was expanded as a major artery for mobility in Harris County; this road serves to bypass The Woodlands traffic, but probably a little too far south. Not in the master plan, as far as I know, is the evolving Grand Parkway. It will be a very major enabler to bypass this densely populated area on the south. Another lesser road extension is planned, Rayford, to provide a more efficient means to access I-45 from the south. This plan may be trumped by the Grand Parkway and never be executed, although right now there is no evidence of the plan being dropped.
  3. East - I-45. With the expansion of I-45 past Conroe, that freeway will continue to serve regional mobility requirements. The Hardy Toll Road expansion to downtown Houston will encourage more Woodlands residents to bypass the I-45 Spring area when commuting to work, even though that area is not a bottleneck. The tollway will help get residents downtown faster.
  4. West - FM 2978. This highway has a capacity of four lanes and will be expanded by TxDOT in the future to accommodate the increased traffic load resulting from rapid county growth. Montgomery County shows plans to have this highway extended in the future to FM 2854.
An interesting recent statement by a resident of The Woodlands is worth adding to this article. 'The master plan was innovative for its time by providing the “village” concept where residents could safely and freely move about via hike and bike trails between neighborhoods and village facilities and schools. These were concepts and promises incorporated into the master plan and were promoted and sold to residents. "America’s Hometown” was designed for families. Is this promise still being kept?' My answer is yes it is, but we cannot assume it unless we remember it in everything we plan and do. Only in recent years have other communities embraced this way of thinking, something we almost take for granted here now. The Urban Land Institute reports on the new movement to conceal urban highways with parks as “nature over traffic.” – we are the example of this and even go much further with the concept. We continue to protect our medians instead of using them for road beds. We hide the homes and many of the commercial areas from the roads as well. Hats off to the master planners of our beloved Woodlands. It's not perfect, but if we continuously work towards excellence, we will have it even better than it is today.

This is the master plan as I understand it. It has been and continues to be part of THE master development plan which has made this community as it is. As we go forward, the blueprint must continue to evolve, with the values that made the villages and roads as they are. We all expect our roads to be managed in a way to preserve our quality of life and make us all proud to live here, even 25 years from now. Will it be part of the scope of responsibility of our new government by 2015? That is the million dollar question and may be answered by the strategic direction being established now by the Woodlands Township. More to come on that during the next two months. The county is moving ahead with a bond proposal this November or next year to resurface some of our older roads. They have endured well beyond expectations. Is it time to do some maintenance? A subject for another article.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Rash of robberies in The Woodlands

We have been experiencing a rash of criminal activities lately here in our community. Some of the incidents are probably linked. A higher level of caution than normal is advised to residents until these criminal elements are apprehended.

In Indian Springs, an aggravated home robbery (with weapon) has made some residents nervous. There have been spottings of suspicious persons also, and it appears that there are some criminal minds working in and around our neighborhoods. It is important to identify anyone suspicious and report them to the Sheriff via Crime Stoppers www.montgomerycountycrimestoppers.org. This incident occurred at a residence at approximately 9:33pm on W. Landsdowne Circle in The Woodlands on July 11, 2009. Two black males were reported to have entered the home by breaking a rear window. The two suspects confronted the homeowner and his wife and demanded money. While no weapons were displayed, the victims believed the suspects had handguns in their pockets. The suspects left the home with an undetermined amount of money. The victims waited about five minutes after the suspects left to notify law enforcement. No suspect vehicle was observed and no one was injured.

In another case, on July 10, 2009, at just before midnight, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office was dispatched to the 24900 block of South Park. Deputies met with a 48 year old white male victim from Spring, who told the officers that he was driving north on South Park when he saw that three individuals had their bicycles upside down as if they were working on them. The victim stopped to offer assistance and one to the suspects pointed a handgun at him and demanded his wallet and keys. The suspects left on their bicycles north from the victim. The victim was not injured.

In a third case, July 11, 2009, at approximately 3:50am, deputies were dispatched to the Shell Gas Station at 8001 Hwy 242 in reference to an aggravated robbery. The victim, a 23 white male, finished fueling his vehicle and moved his truck to the side of the store. A black male suspect sitting in a maroon late model 80’s Buick, pointed a handgun at him and demanded the victim’s wallet. The victim complied. The suspect left driving east on SH 242. The victim was not injured.

In a fourth case, On July 11, 2009, at approximately 933pm, Sheriff’s Deputies met with a victim, a 39 year-old white male from Houston, of an aggravated robbery that had just occurred in the parking lot of The Woodlands Mall. The victim told deputies that as he was walking to his car in the north parking lot of The Woodlands Mall three males approached him on foot. The victim said that one of the suspects pointed a handgun at him and demanded his money and cell phone. The victim complied and the suspects left in a four door dark car. The victim was not injured.

In a fifth case, The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office was called to the 7400 block of Branch Crossing at approximately 10:15pm in reference to an aggravated robbery. The victim, a 53-year-old white male, was on the Hike and Bike Trail located on Branch Crossing just south of the intersection near Research Forest. The victim told deputies that two black male suspects approached him from the woods demanding his wallet and that both suspects had handguns. Both suspects fled in a waiting small dark blue or black sedan, possibly a Honda or Toyota. One of the suspects removed the victim’s keys from his pocket but did not take them.

Descriptions of the perpetrators are in the press release at this link. Click here for further details.

Please put this number in your cell phone to help you report incidents should you see someone suspicious or see a crime: 1-800-392-7867 (Crime Stoppers).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

New Service Announcement,

Technology is enabling us to start a Spanish version of the Commentary. All pages will be available in Spanish starting today to local people whose primary language is Spanish. Each web page is translated automatically. I have found that most of it can be comprehended but it is far from perfect. I simply do not have time to write in both languages, so I am using a technology solution. I know many people would prefer to read what I write in Spanish and I wish I had the time to do so, but this will have have to suffice for now.

Mis amigos. Ahora ofrecio un servicio nuevo. Estoy comenzando usar un servicio de Google para traducir todas las páginas al idioma español. Mira a las páginas para verlas. No son perfectas pero poco a poco Google está cambiando su método y en la futura puede hacerlo en una manera mejor. Dime si se gusta o no por favor en los comentarios abajo. Gracias...

Toca aqui para entrar en el español.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Celebration of July 4th

Click here to see the short story of the parade and collection of images

Fire Hazard in Montgomery County continues

How long does it take for water to reach the leaves of a pine tree 80 feet high suffering from a bad drought? It takes thirteen hours! How long does it take for dried grass to become a fire hazard after a rain? Less than two days! Can we lay down our guard and celebrate that the drought is over? I hardly think so. The hardwoods and green underbrush was quenched of thirst before anything else. Remember, the pines use a different means to transport water than do the hardwoods. Dry pines are very dangerous, so having the dried grass and small plants as fuel for a forest fire, we sit on kindling that starts a forest fire. What three things at this time of the year primarily cause fires? Smoking tobacco and flicking our the ashes is the prime cause, but fireworks often cause more loss than does cigarettes. Remember Atascosita this year, just three days ago. A house burned down there on the fourth from stray fireworks. Here in The Woodlands, residents apparently and thankfully observed the county ban and respected the covenants to not use any fireworks in the Township. Third is of course natural - lightening, and that is rare when we have no rain. OK, we had that threat this morning also. I measured one inch of rain, enough to water the lawn for about a week. Our trees are drinking right now! They can already resist fire to some extent. I expect the drought index to lower quickly. However, the damage already done is extensive, and there is a great deal of kindling out there from the hurricane and the drought, a bad combination.

Yesterday, before the rain, our drought index registered over 700, up from 600 just two weeks ago. At 600, we are in a fire hazard area. Although the holiday weekend is over, the county restriction on skyrockets and missile fireworks will remain in effect as previously ordered by Commissioner’s Court. A ban on outdoor burning remains in effect, and the Fire Marshal’s Office asks that residents refrain from shooting off any leftover fireworks until conditions improve, county-wide.

During the July 4th holiday, there was a significant spike in wildfires in Montgomery County, culminating in nearly 30 reported fires on Saturday July 4th. Between 7 PM and Midnight, twenty wildfires were reported. Many of the 911 callers indicated that the fires had started from fireworks. Most of the fires this weekend were quickly contained by firefighters, as many County Fire Departments had placed additional firefighters on duty over the Holiday. The largest fire this weekend occurred in the area near where Harris, Montgomery and Liberty counties meet East of New Caney. This fire was estimated at 45 acres and 11 Montgomery County units responded to assist the Huffman Fire Department at that fire.

So please be careful with your smoking habit and put out your ashes in the place you have inside of your automobile, not flicked outside where the risk of fire can cause hundreds of thousands dollar damages. Please do not explode firecrackers. Certain ones such as bottle rockets are banned. Please observe the law.

Firechief Alan Benson reminds residents that the danger is not over yet.