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.


lockmat said...

So are we watching Woodlands Parkway expand before our eyes? I hope so, this is exciting. Any idea how long it will take and how they plan on doing it? Looks like they're starting on the east bound side next to Kuykendahl and it might take 1-2 years.

What do you think?

lockmat said...

So are we watching Woodlands Parkway expand before our eyes? I hope so, this is exciting. Any idea how long it will take and how they plan on doing it? Looks like they're starting on the east bound side next to Kuykendahl and it might take 1-2 years.

What do you think?

indianspringsguy said...

This must be completed to reduce congestion, and it will, but it is my understanding that it will take less than a year. First, the area must be prepared, mostly removing the small trees that have infringed into the right-of-way, to make room for a full lane, not just a shoulder. Then of course the roadbed will be prepared. At this point, it will require the same amount of time per mile as the eastern end. I am unsure how many resources will be put onto the project, so it is unclear to me at this point how much work will be in progress concurrently. I am hopeful there will be at least two crews working. The more the merrier in this economy, I would think.