(Houston, TX — Gail Delaughter, KUHF) As more people move to the suburbs northwest of Houston, officials hope extra money from the state will help speed up improvement projects on U.S. Highway 290, one of the most congested roadways in Texas. Highway 290 begins in the scenic Hill Country west of Austin, but once it approaches its eastern terminus at Houston's I-610 Loop, the drive is anything but peaceful as commuters face hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Alan Clark heads up transportation and air quality programs for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, an association that helps local governments with planning issues in a 13-county region along the Texas Gulf Coast. Clark says the population of Houston's northwestern suburbs is expected to grow to close to a million people over the next couple of decades, but the congestion problems on 290 are already there. Another reason for the urgency is that 290 is also a major hurricane evacuation route, as it hooks up with State Highway 6 from the coastal city of Galveston.
So what needs to be done? Clark says along with widening the roadway, they also need to improve the ramps at Beltway 8, one of the two loops that currently encircle the city. Another trouble spot is near the 610 Loop, where frontage roads don't go all the way through.
"We don't want all the traffic to have to be on the freeway to get anywhere in the corridor," Clark says. "So being able to go along those frontage roads keeps some of that traffic off the freeway itself."
Texas recently identified $2 billion in transportation funds to be used for improvements to congested corridors around the state. Clark says the 290 project will now get an extra $350 million, and that means work that was supposed to be done over 15 to 20 years can now be compressed into five or six years. One of the projects they're looking at is managed lanes.
"We're going to develop three managed lanes that can be reversed. So it's like getting six lanes for the price of three. They'll operate a bit like we see some of the HOV lanes operate. Only these will be tolled."
But as the population grows, Clark says they'll eventually have to look at ways to help people get to work without getting on the freeway. He says officials are also looking at the possibility of commuter rail along a nearby railroad right-of-way, but that project is still a few years away.
You can hear the KUHF story here.