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Latest Katy Freeway plan more flexible

By RAD SALLEE
Nov. 14, 2000, 10:07PM

Highway officials are seeking final approval of a revised plan for the long-awaited Katy Freeway widening, and hoping that diamonds will be a motorist's best friend. The new plan calls for one barrier-separated high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane, plus one so-called diamond lane, in each direction from the West Loop to Texas 6. There would also be four regular traffic lanes each way, one more than now.

texasfreeway.com comment: According to recent plans, there will actually be a minimum of 5 regular traffic lanes in each direction, and more at most points. The western 2-3 miles of the eastbound lanes will have 4 lanes.

Diamond lanes would be subject to multiple-occupancy rules similar, but not necessarily identical, to those for HOV lanes. The important difference is that drivers could enter or exit the diamond lanes anywhere, while the HOV lanes have only three access points in the interval.

The new plan was submitted recently to officials of the Texas and U.S. transportation departments in Austin, and a decision may come by the end of the month, said Jim Darden, director of project development for the Texas Department of Transportation regional office here. The expansion is expected to start in 2003 and the work will take about seven years, Darden said.

The chronically congested freeway, leading to Houston's fast-growing western suburbs, the Memorial villages and Katy, is seven lanes wide for most of the distance between the West Loop and Texas 6. It has three regular lanes in each direction and a reversible HOV lane in the middle.

Initial expansion plans released in 1997 called for 12 lanes, including two HOV lanes in each direction behind a concrete barrier. Rather than generating expected cheers, the plan produced grumblings about the additional HOV lanes, which some referred to as "wasted capacity" and "concrete box canyons." The revised plan doesn't go far enough for some residents and officials, including state Rep. John Culberson, R-Katy, who are calling for the HOV barriers to be removed.

Newly elected to Congress to succeed U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, R-Houston, Culberson said Tuesday that he would like to see 14 lanes of freeway -- a diamond lane and six regular lanes in each direction. But Culberson said Tuesday he was pleased with the change, even though the barriers will stay up for now. "The expansion of the Katy Freeway as rapidly as they can lay steel and pour concrete is my primary legislative priority," he said.

Darden said the original plan had four barrier-separated HOV lanes for safety and easier management. Motorists on short local errands would get relief from a third lane to be added to the freeway's frontage roads, he said.

Culberson and others have long argued that most trips on the Katy Freeway are for short distances, and that most downtown commuters need their cars on the job. For these reasons, he says, the HOV lanes go largely unused except at rush hour. But if short-trip drivers have to weave across four lanes of traffic to enter the diamond lanes, then weave back again to exit the freeway, the congestion and hazards created might largely offset their value, Darden acknowledged. He said two studies are being done by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University and by Texas Southern University to assess the best way to manage the freeway's special-use lanes.

Adopting Culberson's idea, Darden said, would require evaluating its likely effects on air quality. To qualify for federal funding, a highway project must conform to the region's air-quality plan. "I won't say anything is out of the realm of possibility," Darden said, "but the air-quality impact (analysis for the Katy Freeway) was based on four regular lanes in each direction plus the four managed lanes."

County Judge Robert Eckels, who chairs the regional Transportation Policy Commitee, was also pleased but added, "I think, in the long term, we will need to move away from the barrier-separated lanes." For now, Eckels said, he wants to ensure that the HOV barriers, laid down in heavy but movable concrete segments, can be repositioned if studies or experience show that is desirable. Transportation department officials agreed. City Councilmen Bruce Tatro and Bert Keller, whose districts lie on opposite sides of the freeway, expressed pleasure at the change in plans. "If that's the case, it's absolutely great news for everybody along the corridor," Tatro said. Keller called it "a great improvement" but agreed with Culberson and Eckels that the barriers should come down.

Local Sierra Club chairman Frank Blake said he is no big fan of HOV lanes, with or without barriers. "You're still gearing all your transportation dollars to accommodating automobiles, and not really providing any alternatives," Blake said. "Instead of adding all these lanes to the freeway, they should have done something different," he said, such as running a train along the tracks that used to parallel the freeway on the north. "Squeezing all these lanes into the corridor will just make it more taxing for people to negotiate, and you're going to reach a threshold where it's not productive anymore," Blake said.

Patti Muck, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which manages the HOV lanes, said officials there have no problem with what they have heard of the plan but want to know more. Metro buses, van pools and car pools "will be able to operate behind the barriers," Muck said. "We feel that is safer, more enforceable, and provides a chance for more reliable transit service." In December, diamond lanes will open on the Katy Freeway from Texas 6 to Mason Road. That stretch also has three regular lanes in each direction but has no HOV lanes.