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Shortage of funds puts West Loop expansion plans on hold

The Houston Chronicle
July 16, 1992, Thursday

Plans to transform the West Loop into a 24-lane superstructure have been put on hold because of a lack of funds and likely will not be considered soon, the top state highway official for the Houston area said Wednesday. Also, other key freeway expansion projects will be delayed because of funding shortfalls, while officials look toward improving traffic on existing lanes.

"The original 24-lane design was designed for 20-year traffic projections. We need to look at cheaper, alternative ways to resolve today's traffic problems," said Milton Dietert, chief engineer for the Houston regional office of the state Department of Highways and Public Transportation. And for the first time environmentalists and transportation officials agree.

"We still need to figure out what to do with our traffic congestion problems, but the (pollution) threat of the 24 lanes has disappeared. And that's wonderful,'' said George Smith, an air quality expert for the Sierra Club. But Dietert said the West Loop expansion project could be pushed forward if future state and federal money is allocated for projects that specifically call for freeway expansion. "As far as that project is concerned, it's really just been put on hold less money is available for added-capacity projects," Dietert said. Dietert said more effort will go into trying to resolve congestion problems on the West Loop at the Westheimer entrance ramp and U.S. 59 exit ramp.

In an address to the Greater Houston Partnership, Dietert said the city has received $ 390 million in state and federal funding for transportation projects for 1993. That amount is $300,000 more than funds received in 1992 and well above what city officials expected, Dietert said. Dietert said Houston almost lost $100 million of its 1993 funding as other areas in the state battled for bigger allotments, claiming Houston receives too much financing. "The perception is that we get too much aid, but when you look at it as compared to how much we contribute to state and federal taxes, we are getting our fair share," Dietert said.

Even though Houston got the $ 390 million, the city is limited in how the money can be spent. Some 40 percent must be invested in traffic management systems -- removing stalled vehicles more quickly, controlling ramp traffic and alerting motorists to alternate routes -- and will force some expansion projects to be put on hold. Those projects include the expansion of the Eastex Freeway from the 610 Loop to downtown and Interstate 45 from Green's Road to FM 1960. But the Greater Houston Partnership is concerned that if the Eastex (U.S. 59 North) project is put off for too long it could have devastating consequences, said Jim Kollaer, president of the Partnership.

Projects that have approval include: U.S. 59 from Beltway 8 to the Montgomery County Line; U.S. 59 from Shepherd to Texas 288; the Southwest Freeway from Keegan's Bayou to the Fort Bend county line; Beltway 8 frontage road from U.S. 59 to Interstate 45; and I-45 from the Beltway 8 interchange to Green's Bayou.

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