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TxDOT plans work to relieve FM 1960 traffic congestion

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Plans to make major improvements to FM 1960 over the next five years (KTRK)

The Texas Department of Transportation has planned several projects on FM 1960 in the next five years to keep pace with growth along the thoroughfare, which has transformed from a two-lane rural road to a busy commercial corridor since the 1970s.

According to a 2016 TxDOT study naming the road one of the state's 100 most congested corridors, congestion on the road costs commuters at least 300,000 hours of time and more than $52 million in gas and other commuter expenses annually.

To address the congestion, TxDOT has earmarked a total of $27.3 million for projects to add turn lanes on FM 1960 near Willowbrook Mall in 2018 and to improve electronic communication between signals on the roadway to keep traffic moving.

The construction plan has garnered approval from the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce and Willowbrook Mall. However, officials with a municipal utility district serving a section of the construction zone said parts of the plan are too disruptive and will take too much land away from businesses located between Cutten Road and Hwy. 249.

"We want progress, but we're concerned that it be done properly and that the damage caused by that progress does not exceed the benefits," said Ed Monto, president of MUD 191, which serves FM 1960 near Cutten Road including Champions Centre Estates, Prestonwood Park and several other residential neighborhoods.

Traffic Crunch

A section of FM 1960, a state-maintained road, was ranked No. 29 on TxDOT's 2016 list of most congested roadways in Texas.

The Texas Congestion Index-which measures how much longer a trip takes during peak periods than during times when traffic is flowing freely-on
FM 1960 between I-45 and Hwy. 249 is 1.79, according to a 2016 TxDOT report. This means travel takes 79 percent longer during a peak period than it would when traffic was moving more freely.

"FM 1960 is still heavily traveled, and this is why we will continue to work toward providing congestion relief by way of roadway widenings, signal upgrades, and many more projects in the area," TxDOT Public Information Officer Danny Perez said.

In 2009, TxDOT considered a plan to create an overpass for the BNSF Railroad track that crosses FM 1960, but the project was dismissed as cost-prohibitive, said Alan Clark, director of transportation at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which advocates for Houston-area mobility projects to receive federal and state funding.

After dismissing the plan to create an overpass, TxDOT formulated the current plan, which will be put out for bid in January. This $16.4 million proposal is designed to ease the traffic crunch near Willowbrook Mall by adding more left- and right-turn lanes at several intersections, Perez said.

Although a date of completion has not been established, Perez said the goal is to complete the project quickly.

"We will focus on working during off-peak hours," Perez said. "Every effort will be made to minimize impacts on the traveling public."

Another project planned for FM 1960 is installation of Intelligent Transportation Systems equipment and infrastructure. Scheduled to go out to bid in January 2022, the project is estimated to cost $10.9 million and will coordinate traffic signals, provide remote access to signals and allow remote monitoring of the route, he said.

Installation will take an additional one or two years, so the project will not be finished until 2023-24, Perez said.
District's Alternatives

MUD 191 officials said they believe the proposed plan is too disruptive because of the easements that will be taken from FM 1960 businesses, and similar improvements could be achieved at a lower cost.
"We think we can achieve 80 percent of the benefits with 40 percent of the costs," Monto said.

MUD 191 hired an engineering company to develop its alternative plan, which calls for all of TxDOT's proposed improvements west of the BNSF Railroad, but does not extend them to Cutten Road as TxDOT proposes. The alternative suggests ending improvements just east of the railroad. It also proposes adding a U-turn lane east of the BNSF Railroad, adding an eastbound right-turn lane between Breton Ridge Street and Willow Center Drive and moving up the date of ITS improvements.

The MUD receives 0.5 cents of sales tax revenue for every dollar spent in the area and would likely have to raise fees or taxes if business on FM 1960 declined as a result of long-term construction or permanent loss of land, Monto said.

Monto said he believes the alternative plan would achieve the same result as the TxDOT project with fewer utility relocations, damage to businesses and uses of eminent domain, through which a governmental entity can take private property for public use with appropriate compensation.

MUD 191 Vice President Robert Price said the utility district's alternative plan was submitted to TxDOT but not adopted by the agency.

"It would be premature to comment at this time, as we need more time to gather the facts of this proposal," Perez said.

Monto said MUD 191 sent its proposal to the office of Gov. Greg Abbott in June in hopes he would intervene.

Clark said the expansion of the right of ways opposed by the utility district is necessary and will provide better accommodations for individuals walking or using bicycles to reach public transportation.
TxDOT will pay for utility relocations in the right of way, Clark said.

Tommy Ripley, owner of Ripley's Muffler and Brakes at FM 1960 and Kuykendahl Road, said the TxDOT project creating an underpass at that intersection about 10 years ago damaged many businesses in the area, although his business survived the construction and loss of land due to eminent domain takings.

"I think it's a double-edged sword," Ripley said. "We did survive the construction, but a lot of people closed up and have never opened since then."

Ron Walkoviak, president of Cy-Champ Public Utility District-which also includes a portion of FM 1960-said he is opposed to the proposed construction because of its potential effect on businesses.
"I just don't think it's needed," he said. "I think there may be some other options that ought to be looked at."

Eager for Improvement

Although MUD 191 opposes parts of the TxDOT plan, Monto said he supports the idea of improving mobility on FM 1960 and wants work to commence on improvements.
The Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce supports the TxDOT plan, President Barbara Thomason said.

"We're not road engineers; we're not in a position to comment on exactly how the impact will be," Thomason said. "We've been told by engineers it will improve ingress (to the mall) ... we stand by our previous position, in support of Willowbrook (Mall's) desire to see the plan complete."

Thomason said that while the road becomes congested at peak hours, she believes that improvements made in recent years-such as the green medians in the center of the road in 2011-have contributed to the overall health of the thoroughfare.

Sandy LaClave, senior general manager of Willowbrook Mall, said the mall managers support efforts to improve congestion on FM 1960.

"I think that it's a positive thing for the mall ... everyone who drives on FM 1960 is aware of how congested it is particularly at peak times of the day, and it's definitely going to alleviate some of that congestion," LaClave said.

A detour to Cutten and Greens roads will accommodate mall traffic during construction, she said.

"I am hopeful that our customers will not be too inconvenienced," LaClave said. "There may be a little bit of short-term pain for long-term gain. No one enjoys sitting in traffic."

For more on this story, visit our sister site Community Impact Newspaper.

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