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Wide approval greets I-10 plan

Houston Chronicle
April 13, 2001

To the surprise of few, a plan to almost double the congested Katy Freeway and to speed funding for the project with a toll road down the middle scored a hit at two town hall meetings this week. A show of hands Tuesday during a meeting at Hayes Elementary School in Katy -- where residents who work in downtown Houston face a 60-mile daily commute -- indicated strong support for freeway expansion, by whatever means and the sooner the better. The toll-road idea was an overwhelming favorite at Thursday's meeting, which drew about 500 residents to Memorial Senior High School, itself located just a few blocks from the freeway.

But one audience member's assertion that "we need more trains" also drew enthusiastic applause -- along with a few boos. One of the few critics Thursday was Spring Valley Mayor Louise Richman, who said the widening -- planned solely for the freeway's north side because of the many office buildings and businesses on the south -- would take away about 5 percent of her city's taxable property. Besides losing several businesses, the Spring Branch YMCA and about 60 homes along Bunningham and nearby streets, she said, the enclave city of about 4,000 residents would endure increased pollution from exhaust fumes, noise and lighting. Richman pleaded to have one lane deleted from plans for the new north frontage road between Campbell and Bingle roads, saying the extra 12 feet would provide breathing space for residents whose properties will back up to a 20-foot-tall sound barrier wall. Ciro Lampasas, whose Ciro's Cibi Italiani restaurant, 1000 Campbell, would have to move, said Friday that business people who lease their space -- as he does -- are not entitled to buyouts. They may receive compensation for the cost of moving, Lampasas said, but he is worried about the money he has invested for such non-movable facilities as air conditioning, grease traps and a wood-burning pizza oven. The start-up cost of a new restaurant is about $500,000, Lampasas said, and it is unclear how much the closing -- still several years in the future -- will end up costing him.

The two public meetings were hosted by U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston. A third meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Cypress Falls High School, 9811 Huffmeister, in northwest Harris County. At both of this week's meetings, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels explained the toll road plan and the Texas Department of Transportation's current widening plan. Both Eckels and Culberson answered written questions from the audience. Culberson, who made freeway congestion a campaign issue last fall, was lukewarm to a suggestion at the Katy meeting that rail transit be part of any mobility solution for the area's far west side. Culberson said most suburbanites need their cars to get to their jobs and he decried heavy rail's $40 million-per-mile construction costs. Rail advocates say comparisons purporting to show a cost advantage of freeways over rail transit seldom take into account such factors as vehicle maintenance, vehicles and fuel and the health costs of pollution. But Culberson did not reject rail out of hand, demanding instead an areawide referendum before Metro goes ahead with planning and construction. "We already had one," shouted one audience member Thursday night. Eckels reminded listeners that potential rail transit right of way is reserved along both the Katy Freeway and Westpark Drive, now planned to become a tollway to far west Harris County. But he, too, endorsed Park & Ride bus service as the most practical mass transit alternative for the west side.

Both the state and the toll road plans for widening the freeway call for increasing its "footprint" from 275 feet to 475 feet in a 38-mile stretch from the West Loop to the Brazos River. But the toll road plan offers an additional two traffic lanes, a completion date up to seven years sooner than the Transportation Department plan, and would shave an estimated $65 million off the $1 billion project. The freeway now has three regular and two frontage road lanes in each direction, and a reversible high-occupancy vehicle lane down the middle -- 11 through lanes in all. There are also four auxiliary lanes for entry and exit at major cross streets, making a total of 15. The Transportation Department's plan, scheduled to begin construction in 2003 and take about a decade to complete, calls for four regular lanes, three frontage road lanes, one HOV lane and one diamond lane in each direction, making 18 lanes in all, or 22 counting auxiliary lanes. The toll road plan is similar, except that instead of a barrier-separated HOV lane in each direction, there would be two toll-road lanes without barriers. Use of the toll road would be monitored by TV cameras and tolls would be paid by purchase of EZ Tags, without use of gates, Eckels said. By removing the barriers, he said, enough space could be saved to increase the number of lanes to 20, or 24 counting auxiliary lanes.

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