Houston: No light at end of tunnel for I-45

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No light at end of tunnel for I-45

With relief years away, businesses along slow-moving freeway face congested future
Feb 18, 2011 C. Richard Cotton, Special to Houston Business Journal
For those on Interstate 45, progress is not the only thing that moves slowly.
According to those who use it and the businesses and communities surrounding it, Houston’s major north-south artery needs serious attention.
In 2010, the Texas Department of Transportation issued the section of I-45 from Loop 610 to Beltway 8 the No. 1 ranking on its list of Most Congested Roadway Segments in Texas. Despite the dubious honor, transportation officials admit there is no end in sight for the freeway’s issues, which are relieved only somewhat by the Hardy Toll Road to the east.
Meanwhile, residents and businesses push for movement of any kind on I-45, while land rates creep down and retailers situated near off-ramps take advantage of a captive audience.
‘Obviously an issue’
The busy ribbon of concrete that runs from Loop 610 North to Beltway 8 is handling at least 50 percent more traffic than its designated capacity, according to TxDOT. The official traffic count for 2003 — the latest year available — for that section of roadway is 317,000 vehicles daily.
According to real estate brokers in the area, I-45’s infamous traffic snarls are a turn-off.
“It’s started to inch down a little,” said Ron Byrd, associate with Coldwell Banker-Ingram Commercial Group, reflecting on property rates along and near the interstate in north Harris and south Montgomery counties.
Prices of commercial land in the area are running $20 to $25 per square foot, he said.
Speculative building, Byrd said, is practically nonexistent: “But parcels (of land) are available up and down I-45.”
“Congestion is obviously an issue,” agreed Karen Hoylman, president and CEO of The Woodlands Chamber of Commerce.
A definite need exists for changes reaching up into Montgomery County, she said, in the form of mass transit such as Metro buses and/or light rail or widening I-45 and some other traffic arteries in the county.
The flip side

TxDOT’s determined average speed for the freeway portion from 610 North to Beltway 8 is 27 mph. At that rate of speed, businesses along the highway expect a lot of exposure.
“Opening new exits has been a plus for us,” said Todd Moseley, president of Moseley Commercial Real Estate. “It has opened a lot of landlocked parcels.”
In fact, said Moseley, whose clients are strictly retail, many big-boxes have timed their store completions to coincide with openings of new exit ramps near their locations.
“Vehicular traffic of 250,000 cars a day creates a lot of interest,” said Rob Banzhaf who, with Trey Halberdier, serves as managing principal of Bandier Partners Realty. Banzhaf added that traffic on I-45 “thins out” in northern Harris County and into Montgomery County.
He and Halberdier agree that, while residential building, buying and selling has tapered off, retailers are learning that existing residences could drive their businesses.
Bandier and other real estate professionals are watching closely a parcel at Spring Creek and I-45 owned by Exxon Mobil Corp. The international energy company will possibly build a new complex on the property, a sprawling park of office buildings and labs in which Exxon would consolidate much of its regional presence.
“We just closed on 100 acres near Exxon,” Halberdier said.
He anticipates it becoming a mixed-use development spawned by the supposed Exxon project’s eventual fruition.
That would, of course, add even more traffic to I-45.
The future

“As long as Houston continues to grow, the traffic is going to increase,” TxDOT Project Development Director Pat Henry said.
Meanwhile, citizen-fueled proposals eschew widening of the freeway in favor of a tunnel-parkway combination.
But any possible solution to I-45’s woes will be years away, Henry said, and, even if design were completed, commencement of construction in a best-case scenario would remain three or four years in the future.
“But I’ve been saying that a couple years,” Henry said.
It could be a decade before any radical redesign construction begins, Henry said. There is simply no money for major highway projects.
The I-45 Coalition, a 13-year-old nonprofit promotes a “tunnel-and-parkway” concept, as opposed to widening.
Randy Raimond, vice president and secretary, said the group’s three tenets include no expansion beyond the current right-of-way, exploration of alternative transportation and no negative impact on quality of life.
“We formed this because we want to have input with TxDOT,” said Raimond.
With an estimated 900 participants, the coalition embraces a freeway concept developed by civil engineer Gonzalo Camacho, who designed a parkway to replace the existing expanse of concrete from downtown to Loop 610. Camacho suggests light rail in the center, replacing existing HOV lanes, and “limited-access express streets similar to Allen Parkway and service roads reconstructed into boulevards,” according to his design notes at .i45parkway.com.
Twin, six-lane tunnels would be bored underneath the existing I-45 to carry commuter and through-traffic.
Henry said constructing such tunnels would be “very expensive.”
Plus, I-45 is a hurricane evacuation route. The freeway, which was put into contraflow mode — all lanes were dedicated to northbound traffic — before Hurricane Rita in 2005, was bumper-to-bumper congestion.
Alternative routes may be part of the answer. That is an option Halberdier and Banzhaf of Bandier Realty say they have long exercised: the Hardy Toll Road.
“We always use that before we use I-45,” Halberdier said.
C. Richard Cotton is a freelance writer.

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