Hwy 290 improvements could face hurdles

HOUSTON Highway 290 is considered one of the worst congestion spots in the state of Texas, as far as freeways are concerned. Improvements have been years in the planning, and optimistically, the first phase of widening could begin next year. But there are financial funding hurdles ahead.

There was once a time when the 290 corridor was a two lane road. These days, it's an overburdened freeway where rush hours span four hours or longer.

"It's unbelievable," said northwest Houston resident Evelyn Woods. "It's horrible!"

The solution is to make the freeway bigger. It's been in the planning a long time.

Business manager David Khaliq said, "It was supposed to be the last 10 years to expand this freeway. It's been jamming day by day, especially every morning."

The design is $4.6 billion worth that would add two lanes in either direction, starting at the 610 loop all the way to Waller County. Nearby Hempstead Road would become a toll way and existing freight rail tracks might be shared with commuter rails from suburbs to work centers. What isn't included is a way to fund that piece of the transit plan.

"There's no money in it," explained Maureen Crocker with the Gulf Coast Rail District. "If there were money there, some of that money could be used to upgrade this rail line and start running trains."

There are 10 agencies working with TxDOT to push this project ahead. A few years ago, there was money from Washington and Austin for freeway overhauls. Now it's more of a challenge.

"Even maybe some private money becomes available, then we'll start working on these projects," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. "But we have to get them all designed and ready first."

Thirty eight miles from the loop on the Waller County line, there's one person in no rush to see the last of the farm land give way to development. Tomball resident Lee Mata was a ranch hand once.

"But my boss sold the ranch and he moved out," Mata said. "'Lee,' he said, 'over here's too many people coming. I'm going to move further out.'"

TxDOT has some $314 million in federal money to begin the project. The first phase will start perhaps next year at 610 and 290.
The Citizens' Transportation Coalition (CTC) recognizes that US-290 and Hempstead are one of Houston's most-important transportation corridors for both people and freight. We have one opportunity to do these improvements well. How these projects are designed and built will dramatically affect both mobility in the corridor and quality of life in the adjacent neighborhoods.

When to build the Hempstead Managed Lanes?
TxDOT has repeatedly told the public that the Hempstead Managed Lanes will be constructed before US-290 construction begins, to give people travel options and minimize disruption during construction.

But the Hempstead project is owned by Harris County. And from 2008 to 2009, Harris County Commissioners cut the allocation for Hempstead in half, from $2.05 billion to $1.08 billion, reallocating Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) funds to advance Grand Parkway instead. We encourage northwest Harris County voters who want to see the Hempstead project move forward to talk to their Commissioners between now and the next CIP hearing on June 22, 2010.

What fate for 20,000 daily HOV users?
The current design for US-290 will eliminate the reversible HOV lane, relocating all transit, vanpool, and carpool users to the proposed Hempstead Managed Lanes. It's not clear what happens to these commuters if the County doesn't build Hempstead. And it's clear that congestion on US-290 will get a lot worse if all these people end up in the main lanes in solo cars. CTC urges TxDOT and Harris County to develop a meaningful plan to serve these commuters and maintain levels of service.

Have you wondered how to reduce noise impacts?
Anyone who lives or works within 1,000 feet of a major roadway is familiar with highway noise. But did you know that significant levels of roadway noise can be avoided with proper design? If you're concerned about noise, please take a look at the sections in CTC's comments. Although they are directed at the specifics of US-290, you'll learn about how noise can be measured, how noise impacts can be reduced, and how to make sure highway agencies budget appropriately for mitigation.

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