(Houston -- KUHF) A trip along a Houston freeway can be a terrifying trip for the white-knuckled driver. There are entrance ramps that shoot motorists into fast-moving lanes with little warning. Exits to the left force drivers to make quick, calculated lane changes. Combine that with wrecks, breakdowns, and poorly tied-down mattresses that fly off the backs of trucks.
We spoke with the Texas Department of Transportation's new interim executive director about some of Houston's particular traffic woes. He knows more lanes could solve some of the problem, but he's thinking broader and wants Houston to tackle light rail expansion and up freight efficiency.
John Barton has been with the agency for 25 years, rising through the ranks from a high school summer job as a maintenance worker. He moved on to a full-time position after getting his engineering degree from Texas A&M. Before taking the interim director's post, Barton was an assistant director for engineering operations where he helped direct long and short-term planning, so he's accustomed to thinking big.
Barton says areas of concern include U.S. Highway 290, which carries heavy commuter traffic from downtown to Houston's northwest suburbs. He also cites the intersection of east-west Interstate 10 and north-south Interstate 45 north of downtown. South of downtown, there's that thrill-ride ramp that funnels drivers from U.S. Highway 59 onto busy northbound I-45. While the idea of added lanes may sound attractive to some commuters, Barton says just building new roads alone won't solve the problem. He says there needs to be a strong focus on mobility issues in the center of the city and that requires multiple solutions.
Houston currently has one operating light rail line, which carries riders on a seven-mile trip from downtown that passes through the city's Museum District and Medical Center. The line ends near Reliant Stadium to the south, making it convenient for Texans football fans. Other rail lines are now under development but as it stands right now, commuters in the outlying areas have to rely on buses and park-and-rides if they want to use public transit. Barton says the city needs commuter rail alternatives along with new ways of moving freight on rail and water.
As for how to pay for projects, Barton admits it's not easy to attract funding and Texas needs to come up with more cost-effective solutions. Barton cites as an example partnerships with local governmental entities that can put up some of the costs. He says there is also a lot of capital in privately-held interests, and transportation in a huge metro area like Houston is a solid investment that many companies may be willing to make. Along with money, Barton says investment from the private sector brings new ideas on how to design and build more effective solutions.
Road projects currently in the works for the Houston area include the widening of two segments of the South Beltway, one of two loops that circle the city. The road will be widened from two lanes to four lanes in each direction. Construction is also getting underway on a new segment of the Grand Parkway, which officials say will eventually become a third loop around the metro area.