Friday, May 14, 2010

Mobility according to TXDOT - planning for 2035

Traffic in The Woodlands, Texas is forever a problem. Today, I went to Beaumont and gave TXDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) my two cents on our future and put some monkeys on its back. Now we watch for the department to start swinging, a dance to the music of  dollars and sense later this fall.

We are definitely on the TXDOT map of consideration. Our planning district, or MPO, covers the cities of Houston, Galveston, Beaumont, Conroe, and Freeport. Out to the west, it extends to Brookshire. The MPO boundaries are on county lines. Over the next 25 years, the growth prediction for our county  is 100+%. Only three counties in the Houston MPO earn that distinction.  In 2035, we should have a population between 500,000 and 1,000,000. We are one of two counties in the Houston planning district which will have over 500,000 employed, other than Harris county.  30% of the employed living in our county will commute to Harris County.

Can we continue to rely on cars, van pools and buses to get to Houston? In my view, no! Not into 2035. We must recognize that the probability of being able to sustain current lifestyles in 25 years using gasoline or any combustible material in automobile engines in the volume we consume today, is just not practical. There are many reasons including the environment ( we have air that will be polluted more easily than Harris County because we lack the sea breezes ), prices of gasoline will be out of sight by then (resource may not even be available), automobiles will likely be electric-driven with shorter range capability, on and on. We must be planning light rail for commute to Houston within the next 12 years, if not sooner.  Redneck planning must be put aside; we have to begin to be smart in what we do. What bigger threat do we have to the community in the long term than these mobility issues?  

The "monkey" I took to TXDOT is derived from the need for a realistic sustainable mass transportation system between The Woodlands and Houston-Galveston area, from our need for a quality life that includes pedestrian mobility, and from our need to move place to place within The Woodlands conveniently. 

Since The Woodlands Parkway widening project is quickly dividing our community into two separate areas of pedestrian traffic, there are significant issues to overcome in the shorter time frame. We could divide The Woodlands into two pedestrian zones, north and south. In time that would grow to three - assuming Research Blvd also becomes a six lane divider as well.  On Woodlands Parkway, a need has emerged for a walkway over the road in one, probably two locations - Gosling in the short term and later at Branch Crossing where the 9th grade campus is located.  In time, we might also have a need for one at the far western edge of the community. It is expected in a few years that six lanes will be required on the entire parkway to support the western extension of the parkway and development on the western side of FM2978.  There are some who believe we will need 8 lanes on the eastern side, thereby requiring a significant removal of trees along the parkway. Pedestrian bridges over the parkway need to be wide enough and not too steep to adequately enable elderly electric carts, bicycles and walking/running by foot. Crossing Woodlands Parkway is now dangerous for those walking with children and the elderly. Some argue that our true need is to go under the road instead of over it, but cost will probably prohibit that. The aesthetics of such a structure is important.

What says TXDOT on this matter? It says we have three funding possibilities from the state - (1) CMAQ to improve the quality of air, (2) the ENHANCEMENT program for walk and bike trails, and (3) safety program. The safety program is unlikely to be of any help because someone has to get hurt first to demonstrate a problem actually exists. There is clear recognition that Montgomery County has a growing likelihood of the need for a mass transportation system.  TXDOT encourages us to pursue the bridges and suggest we work with the HGAC (Houston Galveston Area Council) who recently conducted a planning forum here, which I was unable to attend. TXDOT does have programs to encourage less pollution and alternative means of transportation.  

As an example of stressing the master plan, Indian Springs has no schools except a private one within its boundaries. All grades except intermediate and high school are accessible by foot or bike, but students must cross the 4-lane Gosling Rd, now with a speed limit of 45mph.  Intermediate grade children must now cross a 6-lane road to use their bicycle to those grade levels. Traffic is supposedly limited to a 45 MPH speed, but I see 60-70 mph often. A disaster is just waiting to happen.  Elderly people living in Panther Creek cross the road at Panther Creek and at Gosling, two equivalent locations, to access the Panther Creek Shopping Center. I've seen entire families navigating both locations on bicycle. Only one safe crossing is needed, in my opinion. Whichever is the preferred alternative would be utilized by all. I prefer the Gosling intersection, because it is nearest the grocery store.   

The Woodlands master plan is for pedestrians. Our enclave of 90,000 residents has become a hustle and bustle community where people think it is their right to travel at whatever speed they determine to travel. I have heard several people say they want the left lane to be the speed lane. Many actually believe speed does not kill and drivers can do whatever they want on the roads.  In actuality, the county has the responsibility to determine what is safe and what is not safe. Speed generates noise, safety issues, a higher automobile wind and a related spray of dust. Speed limits should be enforced at the "safe" speed, not 10 mph over that speed. 

TXDot says that our state will increase in population by 61% in the next 25 years. Houston will grow by the equivalent of 3/4 of a Houston by then. Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex will almost double in population. Keeping Texans mobile is a daunting task. Keeping The Woodlands a beautiful place with an exceptional quality lifestyle is our problem. Mobility vs lifestyle - where will that take us? Mobility is always first for the state, so we have the responsibility to deal with it now. TXDOT can condemn land to make way for highways or freeways. That is the reason I cannot sit back and wait for others, when there are no others stepping forward. Join me in this quest for quality. The threat exists!

Related Links
+ HGAC Livable Centers forum at Lone Star College
+ Texas Transportation Public Involvement Plan

No comments: