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January 28, 2016 7:00 PM, EST

Texas State Funds to Target Three Houston Freeway Trouble Spots

With Houston choking on traffic congestion, an infusion of $447 million in state funds promises relief sooner than expected at three notorious freeway bottlenecks.

That sum amounts to more than one-third of $1.3 billion allocated to relieve congestion in major Texas cities where officials announced targeted projects Jan. 26. As a result, major upgrades to the Loop 610 interchange with U.S. 59 near Uptown and widening of Interstate 45 south of Houston and Interstate 10 west of Katy will happen years before initially predicted.

Houston had four of the nation's Top 10 worst truck choke points in a 2015 report released by the American Transportation Research Institute last November. ATRI is part of American Trucking Associations. And two Houston bottlenecks ranked among the top 50 in the United States in an American Highway Users Alliance study, also released in November.

"The sooner you can get it constructed … chances are it will be a lower price as opposed to a higher price," Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said. "And the faster drivers receive relief."

Construction will stretch from 2017 to 2021.

Tasked in September by Gov. Greg Abbott to address congestion in the state's five largest metro areas, state transportation officials directed $1.3 billion to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth. The spending plan requires approval by the Texas Transportation Commission, likely next month.

Commissioner Bruce Bugg led various sessions in the five metro areas, consulting with local TxDOT officials and others to find projects that could get the state the most bang for its buck now.

"Those five metropolitan areas represent two-thirds of the Texas population," Bugg said. "They have 97% of the top 100 most congested roads in Texas. We have been rifle-shot focused on getting something done there."

Five of the state's 10 most congested roadway segments in 2015 were in Harris County, according to TxDOT. A segment of Loop 610 that includes its intersection with U.S. 59 was ranked second, after a stretch of I-35 in Austin.

The selected projects target locations often clogged by increased traffic demand, accidents, stalled vehicles or ongoing road construction.

"I'd give anything, just once, to get to work without sitting still on Loop 610," said Jim Matthews, 56, who works in Bellaire and commutes from Jersey Village.

At peak times, some segments of Houston freeways have average speeds slower than most cyclists. Along southbound Loop 610 from Interstate 10 to Post Oak in the Uptown area, the average speed between 4:45 p.m. and 6 p.m. dipped below 12 mph in 2015, down from about 15 mph in 2014 and 18 mph in 2013.

The difference in evening northbound traffic is greater, with average speeds between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. below 20 mph, compared with about 45 mph or more in 2013 and 2014.

Initially, Lewis said, TxDOT planned to rebuild the 610-59 interchange in phases as funding allowed.

The focus on congestion, and voter approval in 2014 and 2015 of new road spending, changed that strategy. The congestion-relief money includes $132 million for this project, making it possible to rebuild the entire interchange at once.

That means new lanes and more effective ramp designs will arrive sooner, although congestion is likely to be even worse during construction.

The three projects were selected because they can provide substantial relief for drivers and were planned and approved so that construction could start in a few months.

"What we are finding is there are a number of projects out there that everybody knows what they are, that just lack the funding," Bugg said, noting that projects were prepared in all five metro areas.

I-10 west of Katy is just such a chokepoint, where Austin and San Antonio-bound drivers commonly see traffic stop or slow significantly.

Matt Simon, 49, who drives that stretch of I-10 three or four times a week, was thrilled to hear of the planned widening to three lanes in each direction to the Brazos River.

"Thank Jesus," Simon said.

Shelved because hardly any of the $242 million widening cost was covered, the I-10 segment jumped to the top of the list primarily because it was among the most attractive projects ready, Lewis said. About $209 million will come from the relief package.

"It is a pressure point that is consistently expressed," Lewis said of the I-10 widening.

The I-45 project would use $106 million in relief money to widen the interstate to four lanes in each direction from NASA 1 to FM 518, and build new frontage roads. The project continues work along I-45, which TxDOT plans to widen to Galveston.

Other areas with worse congestion, such as I-45 through downtown, were not as far along in planning and approvals.

"If we had the I-45 project cleared and ready for funding, it would have been certainly considered," Lewis said. "The key is what can we effectively mobilize and advance."

The downtown plan, expected to cost at least $6 billion, is not ready for construction, though it is inching closer. The last set of federal approvals is expected next year.

With congestion money likely to continue, other projects stand to benefit.

"This isn't anticipated to be a one-hit wonder," Lewis said.

The relief, as specified by Abbott and state officials, was focused strictly on making highways more efficient or larger. The money excluded transit.

Most Texans drive, Bugg said: "We have to be mindful of that."

Among the 10 largest urban areas in the United States, however, only Dallas has more miles of road per person than Houston. Houston has 4.5 miles of road for every 1,000 people, according to 2013 figures compiled by the Federal Highway Administration. Washington, D.C., and Detroit, with slightly larger urban area populations, have 3.2 and 3.9 miles per 1,000 people, respectively.

Bugg said transit is important and can help ease road congestion, but state officials should focus on leveraging local money and competing more for federal transit funds.

"My suggestion is since most transit dollars are federal dollars, we go after that programmed money that is automatically going to the Northeast Corridor," he said, referring to large federal funding for transit between Washington and Boston. Transit use is higher in this region, but population growth is far outpaced by the surge of people coming to Texas.