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New Amtrak Line for Northeast Texas?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

An Amtrak train in Fort Worth (photo by StevenM_61 via flickr)

(Houston, TX -- KUHF)   Texas transportation officials are studying the viability of a new Amtrak line in northeast Texas. The 200-mile route would follow the I-20 corridor between Dallas-Fort Worth and Shreveport-Bossier City, Louisiana -- a popular gambling destination.

Three Amtrak lines currently serve Texas. There's the Sunset Limited, which passes through Houston and San Antonio as it travels between New Orleans and Los Angeles. The Heartland Flyer has daily service between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth.  The Texas Eagle takes a jagged route through northeast Texas on its way between Chicago and San Antonio.

TxDOT Rail Division Director Bill Glavin says they're looking at passenger rail as a way to provide better connectivity between Shreveport's airport and the big international airport located between Dallas and Fort Worth. The train would make up to seven stops on two daily round-trips. The Texas Eagle's current route passes through Marshall, Texas, west of the state line, and  Glavin says they'll examine whether to extend that line into Louisiana or build a new route.

TxDOT is using $265,000 in federal funds to do the study.  Glavin says they'll look at the costs associated with setting up the new route.  The train would operate on existing rights-of-way and would share routes with freight trains, and Glavin says they may have to construct additional sidetracks.  They'll also study projected ridership. Since the train would be a short-distance route as defined by Amtrak, Glavin says the route would be state-supported. That means filling the gap between revenue and operating costs.

The study does not include the cost of building rail stations.  TxDOT says that would be the responsibility of local governments.

Funds for the study were secured by the East Texas Corridor Council.  Amtrak says any new route would have to be approved by state legislatures in both Texas and Louisiana.  Officials in the Shreveport-Bossier City area have expressed support for the route, saying it would help bring in visitors to the area's attractions, including its popular casinos.  Shreveport hasn't had passenger rail service since 1969.

This isn't the only proposed passenger line TxDOT is currently studying.  The agency is working on a $15 million, multi-year study of a possible high-speed route between Houston and Dallas.  They're also looking at Amtrak routes between Houston and Austin, and Oklahoma City and south Texas.

TxDOT says it hopes to complete the Dallas-to-Shreveport study by the end of 2012 or early 2013.

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Transportation Nation

Texas Transpo Officials Hope Light-Hearted Campaign Will Help Curb DWI Fatality Stats

Friday, December 16, 2011


(Houston, TX -- KUHF)

In TXDot's animated public service announcement, Santa is none too happy with what he finds in his barn on Christmas Eve. His reindeer are throwing back beers and martinis and flirting under the mistletoe. So after getting hit in the nose with a flying champagne cork, St. Nick opts for a fleet of taxis to pull his sleigh.

"These campaigns are important because they serve as reminders to motorists to let then know there are other options."

That's TXDot's Deirdrea Samuels, who says the light-hearted TV spots drive home a serious message amid dire statistics. According to figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Texas far outpaces other states in the number of drunk-driving fatalities.  TXDot says its figures show that alcohol is a factor in 36 percent of all the state's traffic deaths. Out of the 3,000 people killed on Texas roads in 2010, over 1,100 died as the result of drunk driving. Samuels says there's one day that sticks out in particular.

"On January 1st of last year, on Texas roadways there were 25 fatalities. Seventeen of those were alcohol-related."

TXDot is hoping to bring down those statistics through its annual holiday anti-drunk driving campaign. This is the 14th year TXDot has conducted the effort. Samuels says the partying reindeer will appear all over Texas in businesses that serve alcohol.

"We have partnered with the Texas Restaurant Association, Texas Petroleum Marketers, the Convenience Store Association, and also restaurants and bars. And we put things like coasters, mirror decals, even on bathrooms, posters. And we just want people to know, don't drive if you're 'tipsy, buzzed or Blitzen.'"

Samuels says they're encouraged by the results of a survey the Texas Transportation Institute conducted last summer. According to the Driver Awareness and Attitudes Survey, Texans are now more likely to designate a sober driver, or get a ride home if they'd have too much to drink. Seventy-five percent of those responding indicated they'd been exposed to an anti-drunk driving message within the past month.

"If you are convicted, a first-time DUI offender can face a fine of up to $2000. You're going to lose your driver's license for up to a year and you can spend up to 180 days in jail."

Samuels says a first-time offender can wind up spending over$17,000 in legal fees, court costs, and insurance rate hikes. A DWI offender also has to spend a lot of time in court and and at alcohol education classes.

"Who knows how many hours, countless hours you're wasting when you could have just easily given the key to someone."

The campaign is funded through federal grant money that's earmarked for state programs aimed at preventing impaired driving. TXDot says the total cost of this year's holiday campaign is $673,000.

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Transportation Nation

Winter Driving More Hazardous for Inexperienced Houstonians

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Icy conditions emptied Houston's busy I-45 during morning rush on February 4, 2011. Photo by Gail Delaughter/KUHF

(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF)  In a place where it's not all that unusual to celebrate Christmas in shorts and flip-flops, winter driving may be the last thing on Houstonians' minds. Karen Othon with the Texas Department of Transportation says that's what makes icy weather in the region all the more dangerous.

"We don't drive on snow and ice. You know, we're not used to it. And especially ice on the bridges and overpasses, it's just not safe. So we just say, don't get out on the roads if you don't have to."

Many Houston-area businesses close for the day on those rare instances when ice glazes the freeway. But for the hardy souls who have to brave the elements, state transportation crews stand ready to de-ice bridges and overpasses in the six-county Houston area. Trucks that spread herbicide in the winter do double-duty as de-icing trucks, spreading magnesium chloride to keep drivers from sliding and skidding.

"We don't do it on the main lanes because the main lanes don't tend to ice over. It's your more elevated structures that will ice. Plus it's a more efficient use of the materials."

Transportation officials say crews with the Houston District applied about 40,000 gallons of magnesium chloride during severe weather events in the area last winter. To get ready for a possible repeat this winter, Othon says Houston residents can do their part by taking advantage of the warm days to make sure their vehicle is ready for extreme cold. She says drivers need to check their vehicles' anti-freeze levels for one. She adds it's also a good idea to toss a blanket in the trunk, just in case.

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Transportation Nation

Construction Begins This Month on Next Segment of Houston's Grand Parkway

Thursday, September 15, 2011

(Photo by Gail Delaughter / KUHF)

(Gail Delaughter--KUHF, Houston) On a September day with temperatures still soaring into the 100's, officials gathered on a bare patch of land northwest of Houston to break ground for a new segment of Texas State Highway 99, also known by its more familiar name, the Grand Parkway.

Next to heavy equipment decorated with balloons, dignitaries donned orange safety vests to turn the ground with ceremonial shovels. Guests gathered under a tent to munch big Texas-shaped cookies while helping themselves to "SH 99" giveaway caps. The festivities kicked off a new toll road project that connects two major arteries into downtown Houston, State Highway 290 and I-10. It's all part of a grander scheme that's been bounced around since the early 1960's, a proposed 170-mile loop around metro Houston that would pass through a total of seven counties. It would swing wide of the two loops that now encircle the city, Beltway 8 and I-610.

Officials say construction will start in just a few weeks on what's known as "Segment E," a 15-mile freeway that passes through suburban areas where you can still see the occasional longhorn steer grazing in a pasture next to a neighborhood. Civic leaders say they look forward to new development in the area, but critics, such as the Sierra Club, fear the project will do harm to an ecologically sensitive area known as the Katy Prairie. The environmental group filed suit last month in an effort to block the freeway. Officials counter those claims, saying the project includes work to preserve area grasslands and wetlands.

We spoke to Texas Department of Transportation Interim Director John Barton, who says the freeway will make it easier for drivers to get between points west of Houston, and it will also take some traffic off the major routes. Barton says Houston has a good radial system when it comes to funneling commuters into downtown but things bog down when commuters have to travel between major freeways. He estimates the project could shave about 30 minutes off the drive time for some commuters as they will now be able to avoid side streets and traffic lights.

The project will cost around $320 million, and Barton says the money comes from the Texas Mobility Fund, which was set up by the Texas Legislature in 2003. The funding used to develop that program comes from driver's license and other fees on motorists.

Construction will take a couple of years, and Barton estimates Segment E will be open to drivers in late 2013.

Listen to an audio version of the story at KUHF.

More TN coverage of the Grand Parkway:
Controversy on the Texas Prairie: Road to Nowhere – or a Must for Houston’s Future? (link)

It’s Official: TxDOT Takes On Houston’s Grand Parkway Project (link)

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Transportation Nation

Texas Wins Bid for HSR $

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

(Houston--Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Texas has secured $15 million dollars in federal funds for the development of a proposed high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas. The money will pay for environmental and engineering studies of the corridor, which is identified as one of the most viable route in the Texas Rail Plan.

The amount is a tiny fraction of the $2.2 billion the US DOT awarded in grants for 22 rail projects across 15 states.

But Bill Glavin, the director of the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) rail division, says he was gratified, “. . . that the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) has recognized the progress [the state] has made over the past year.” He says Texas has made a lot of headway in developing a “unified vision” of what its passenger rail network should look like. Texas has routinely missed out on high speed rail money in the past, snagging only tiny portions of the overall pot.

The grant, Glavin stresses, means TxDOT is “one step closer to being able to implement high speed rail in the state.” But he cautions that there’s “still a long road ahead of us.” He points out that that it could be more than a decade before passengers will be able to board a train in Houston and travel to Dallas at 150 mph.

More than 90 applications were sent to the FRA, totaling about $10 billion dollars in requests for rail projects.

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Transportation Nation

Texas Goes After HSR $ for Dallas-Houston Line

Friday, April 08, 2011

(Houston--Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is hoping to snag a portion of Florida’s unwanted high-speed rail money. TxDOT, which submitted its application to the Federal Railroad Administration this week, is hoping to secure nearly $43 million of the $2.4 billion dollars that’s available. The agency wants to spend $18 million on preliminary engineering and environmental studies for the proposed Dallas-Houston high-speed rail line, which is considered the most economically viable route in the state—not surprising given that, with a combined population of 3.3 million people, they’re two of the most populated cities in the country. “We feel like it’s time to connect those two,” said Jennifer Moczygemba, the rail system director with TxDOT’s Rail Division. There’s not a whole lot going on in between the two cities though, which is why Moczygemba says it would likely operate as an express service with speeds up to 150 miles per hour and few or no stops.

TxDOT wants to spend the remaining $24.8 million on the final design and construction of a federally-mandated safety system (called Positive Train Control) for the Trinity Rail Express corridor, which operates between Dallas and Fort Worth. The safety technology monitors train movements to prevent rail collisions and derailments on tracks that carry both passenger and freight trains.

But Texas isn’t the only one chasing the money. California, the District of Columbia, and 23 other states are all vying for the heavily sought-after funds too. And it’s hard to say how Texas will stack up against all that competition. Moczygemba says TxDOT put in “a pretty good application and we’ll just have to see how everything plays out.”

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Transportation Nation

TxDOT: Road Projects Need To Be Bike and Pedestrian-Friendly

Monday, April 04, 2011

(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has adopted a new policy: all road projects must make room for pedestrians and bicycles, not just cars. In some cases this would require building narrower car lanes to make room.

The new rules mean Houston should start seeing more bike and pedestrian-friendly roadways in the future. TxDOT’s requirements come a year after the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a policy statement underscoring the importance of integrating walking and bicycling into transportation projects.

TxDOT says its new mandate emphasizes its commitment to invest in projects that cater to those on bike and those on foot. Under the guidelines, any shoulder on a new or reconstructed road must be at least 14 feet wide.  That will give cyclists a tad more space to ride since the norm has usually been between 11 and 12 feet.

Tom Beeman, an engineer with TxDOT’s Design Division, says the wider lane will also give cars more room, “to either maneuver around [cyclists] or move into the other lane a little bit." He believes the extra couple of feet will create a safer environment for all modes of transportation. "That would be our minimum design," he notes.  Where feasible, says Beeman, more feet of pavement can be saved for bike and pedestrian use.

Beeman says a road's main lanes may become slightly narrower in some cases to allow for a wider shoulder.  TxDOT will also be adding more sidewalks and widening existing ones in some places to make it easier for people to walk on a continuous route.

So why has TxDOT decided to revise its policy? Well, according to Beeman, "The world’s changing. A lot of people are now walking, or they’re using bikes for fitness, or to commute just to cut down on the gas price. The cost of gas is going up so they may be taking shorter trips or living closer. We’re developing communities that are much more dense and we have all modes of transportation that we’re trying to provide for."

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Transportation Nation

"Talk Text Crash" TxDOT Launches Distracted Driving Campaign

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Distracted-Driving Simulator

(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is launching its “Talk Text Crash” campaign at the University of Houston. TxDOT hopes the month-long campaign will raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving. Students were able to get behind the wheel of a driving simulator at the event to see how easy it can be to lose control when sending a text.

Listen to the story here.

I met Emil Helfer--student and frequent texter-- at the event. Typing on his phone while driving, admits Helfer, may not be such a smart idea. “It’s definitely not the best decision but sometimes it vibrates in your pocket and you have to get a hold of somebody.”

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Transportation Nation

It's Official: TxDOT Takes On Houston's Grand Parkway Project

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Last month Harris County commissioners voted in favor of letting the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) build a portion of the Grand Parkway.  The state has accepted the job and says it will construct three segments of the 180-mile ring road which will loop around Greater Houston. Harris County stepped back from the project after learning that TxDOT expects to have $425 million dollars available for the road this year. TxDOT spokesperson Karen Amacker says it’s now up to the department to" deliver the transportation system the state needs and we believe that the Grand Parkway is an important part of that system."

Grand Parkway Segment Map

TxDOT will be developing all of the segments located in Harris County – three out of the proposed toll road’s eleven segments. Amacker says Segment E, which would connect Interstate 10 with 290, is likely to move forward first because “it’s the most shovel-ready.”  She says it’s also one of the more “financially robust” segments of the Grand Parkway. The 14-mile section would run through the Katy Prairie and is expected to cost around $400 million dollars.

“It is certainly possible that the commission could identify funding for Segment E before the end of this year," says Amacker.  "As for the other segments of the Grand Parkway, it will be a challenge, as it is with funding any transportation project in this challenging environment.”

Amacker says money for the Grand Parkway will come from a number of sources, including the State Highway Fund and bond proceeds. But the state is running low on money for new construction projects, so it’s unlikely funding for the other segments will be available anytime soon. As for Segment E, Harris County has yet to obtain a federal permit that would allow wetlands to be filled in for the construction of the highway. And without it, Segment E can’t be built.

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Transportation Nation

Houston, We Have a Problem: 4,507,059 Hours of Traffic

Friday, September 03, 2010

flickr: kalebdf

(Houston, TX - Wendy Siegle, KUHF NewsLab) Frankly, driving around Houston can be a nightmare. Resistance to mass transit infrastructure has taken its toll, and earlier this year Forbes ranked the petro-metro as the eighth worst place to commute. In more recent news, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) went even further in measuring extreme gridlock this week by ranking the state’s most congested roadways.

For the thousands of Houstonians who sluggishly commute along Interstate 45 each day, they don’t need TxDOT to tell them they’ve got a pretty crappy deal. But commuters may feel relieved that their chock-a-block freeway is finally getting the recognition it deserves. According to TxDOT’s list, the stretch of I-45 from Beltway 8 North to Loop 610 reigns victorious at number one. State officials say the total annual hours of delay comes to 4,507,059; that’s 484,630 hours per mile. TxDOT even worked out the annual cost of the delay – a whopping $98.03 million.

But I-45, you’re not alone. Five of the top ten most backed up roadways in Texas are located in Houston’s home county, Harris. Nine made the top 20. Pardon the hackneyed phrase, but Houston, we most definitely have a problem.

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