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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. I10 HOV change There is a recursive #INCLUDE chain
There is a recursive #INCLUDE chain

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.

Retailers revolt over road expansion
Facing displacement, businesses unite to fight as Katy Freeway widens

Tanya Rutledge
Houston Business Journal
From the January 26, 2001 print edition

For 15 years, Ciro Lampasas and his family have been "rolling meatballs" at Ciro's restaurant on the Katy Freeway. But like many retailers along the busy thoroughfare, the restaurateurs are preparing to pack up their rolling pins to make way for the wrecking ball that will extend the freeway right though their dining room. The Lampasases are one of a few dozen Katy Freeway tenants and land owners that have banded together to fight for the limited rights they have in the fast-approaching widening process. More than 30 have hired local law firm Vinson & Elkins to represent them in negotiating for their land and for tenant settlements.

As a result of the project, hundreds of Katy Freeway businesses from just inside Loop 610 to Katy will be displaced over the next eight years. The freeway, also known as Interstate 10, will be widened to a minimum of eight regular lanes (four in each direction), four high-occupancy-vehicle lanes (two in each direction) and six lanes of frontage roads (three in each direction). The entire project is projected to take at least eight years, with utility work beginning as early as this year. The state will acquire as much as 100 feet of right-of-way on both the north and south sides of I-10 from just inside West Loop to Beltway 8. Between Beltway 8 and past Highway 6, less right-of-way will be necessary, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, the retailers are bracing for the worst. "We know this is progress, and we can't get in the way, but we feel like we're a really small fish and they're getting ready to squish us," says Lampasas, who is faced with the decision of relocating his restaurant when his lease is up in a year or staying until his building is displaced.

Little legal recourse
Starting this summer, the Texas Department of Transportation will start making monetary offers to landowners for the cost of their land and tenants for their relocation expenses along the Katy Freeway. Already, TxDOT has settled on a price with dozens of homeowners and the Westside YMCA for the land that will be condemned to make way for a widened highway. The YMCA is leasing back their land from the state until construction begins. The remaining businesses don't have much recourse when it comes to settling with the state, largely because the widening program is considered an improvement project that is being executed for the greater good of the city. In such a case, the state has the right to invoke eminent domain and to condemn whatever property is necessary for completion of the project. Still, the state isn't expecting the process to be without legal action.

"There will be quite a few displacements," confirms Jim Heacock, a project development engineer with TxDOT. "We obviously hope to settle each individual case before it gets to the point of a jury trial." Heacock, who served as the project manager on preliminary engineering for the project, admits that it's likely that some of the cases will go to trial. TxDOT is not yet able to estimate which end of the Katy Freeway will go under construction first, a point which has also raised the ire of retailers. "The most upsetting part is that there is no vision of how the whole process will take place," Lampasas says. "A lot of people are shrugging their shoulders, while all we can do is wait." Landlords are also suffering, as tenants -- pointing to the uncertainty of the situation -- begin to request lower rental rates as their leases come up for renewal. Other tenants are declining to renew their leases at all, according to Vinson & Elkins attorney Dixon Montague, who is representing many of the tenants and landlords in their negotiations with the state.

Once the tenants and landowners receive an offer from TxDOT, they have the right to make a counter-offer. If the two parties still don't agree, the case will go before a land commissioner's court made up of three impartial, randomly selected Harris County property owners that will decide on what they think is a fair settlement. The last resort would be a jury trial, which both sides typically try to avoid. "The truth is that there's not much legal protection for these people," Montague says. "But many of them have no idea what they're going to do or how they're going to do it. The bottom line is that if they relocate, they're going to lose customers. A lot of people are going to suffer."

Rising values
One of the more high-profile displacements will be the newly constructed Marq-E entertainment center on I-10 and Silber. Opened just over a year ago, the Edwards Marq-E Stadium 22 Cinemas theater will be losing some of its parking as part of the widening process. Further west, the newly opened Lowe's Home Improvement center -- which is part of the new Centre at Bunker Hill -- will see a highway running through its outdoor garden center. The owners of the Marq-E and the Centre at Bunker Hill did not return telephone calls. In fact, almost every retailer and office building along the freeway will be permanently affected by the project. Once construction actually starts, customers are likely to experience headaches getting in and out of the businesses, which can often be the death knell for retailers. But TxDOT's Heacock points out that the state is doing everything it can to keep the disruption to a minimum. He says none of the businesses' access to the frontage roads or freeway will be cut off during the process. Heacock also points out that tenants and landlords that hunker in to weather the storm will likely reap the benefits once the project is completed in 2008 or 2009.

Indeed, property values along I-10 don't seem to be adversely affected by the pending project. Statistics compiled by land brokerage firm McDade, Smith, Gould, Johnston & Co. indicate that land along the freeway is trading at a minimum of two and a half times higher than it was five years ago. Land along I-10 between Loop 610 and Beltway 8 was trading at an average of about $4 per square foot five years ago, compared to average values in the high teens today, according to the real estate firm. Bill McDade, a principal in McDade Smith, says most retailers believe they must have a presence along the busy freeway if they are to be considered a major player in Houston. "It's the most phenomenal thing I've ever seen," he says. "You announce the shutdown of a freeway and there's a flurry of activity to get a position there. The pending construction hasn't done anything to negatively affect property values. Retailers understand that they have to be there in the long run."