Friday, August 23, 2002

TxDOT and Commisioners concerned that commercial development along texas highways causes unnessary congestion.

TxDOT access management rules on hold after local revolt

by David Guenthner

The Lone Star Report
Volume 7, Issue 2
Copyright 2002

The Texas Transportation Commission has postponed consideration of proposed changes to the state Department of Transportation’s access management policy in the face of vehement protests from businesses, city and county officials, and at least two influential state senators.

The new rules had originally been scheduled to appear on the Aug. 29 commission agenda.

Gov. Rick Perry , who supports the concept of access management, wrote Transportation Commission chairman John Johnson Aug. 16 asking that the commissioners put the changes on hold.

“After hearing from a number of interested parties, it is my belief that community leaders and transportation planners need more time to properly review the proposed rules and the specifics of the draft access management manual,” Perry wrote. “To accommodate this need, I suggest that the department involve all parties and develop a completed access management manual prior to adopting the draft rules.”

However, the word among transportation insiders at last week’s Texas Transportation Summit in Irving was that the decision to postpone the rules had been made earlier in the week as a result of discussions primarily involving Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and Senate State Affairs chairman Florence Shapiro (R-Plano). Ratliff recently added the issue to the State Affairs interim charges.

The department and the commissioners have been concerned that the roliferation of commercial development alongside Texas highways causes unnecessary congestion, turns the highways into city arterials, and increases the likelihood of accidents between highway and commercial traffic.

The original remedy sought last year was an end to TxDOT’s policy of building frontage roads along freeways and limited-access highways. Besides the mobility and safety issues, TxDOT argued that frontage roads add about 30 percent to the cost of a highway project. But that plan sparked furious opposition across the state – as lawmakers and local officials complained about the economic development that would be lost – and was pulled down earlier this year.

TxDOT then shifted its focus to access management across its entire highway network – everything from interstate highways to farm-to-market roads. Access management is described by the department as “a set of tools used to balance the needs of mobility on a roadway with the needs of access to adjacent land uses.” The concept is to streamline traffic flow by limiting the number of “conflict points” where accidents can happen.

That means spacing intersections further apart so that drivers can approach each set of conflict points individually and predict where those conflict points will occur. Location of private driveways and street intersections and the distance between traffic signals fall into this category.

It similarly means limiting the number of turning movements possible at intersections. Also in this category are locations of private driveways or streets so that they are not directly across from each other and erection of physical barriers like raised medians between directions of traffic.

Access management in and of itself is not a controversial concept. TxDOT has had an access management policy for several decades; many cities have policies of their own. The present furor, particularly in North Texas, stems from TxDOT’s specific proposals and its approach to implementing them. Critics say the new policy would hurt mobility and cripple economic development.

“Many cities, Denton included, now impose access management principles based on public safety objectives,” said Denton Mayor Pro Tem Mark Burroughs , “and it appears that local regulations are being summarily supplanted by rules that seem to have had only a minimal level of research and review for application to this state, with no regional or local transportation planning input.”

Wrote Jeff Thoene , director of real estate for the QuikTrip convenience store chain, in a July 3 letter to TxDOT: “My company recently determined to expand into Texas because the growth opportunities that currently exist and the future growth opportunities for other businesses to thrive in the State were better than in other states because the restrictions placed on new development in most areas was not so limiting as to create a roadblock for the success of businesses. We would never have considered Texas for expansion if these proposed rules were in place at that time.”

“We really believe, and I personally strongly believe,” replied TxDOT design division director Ken Bohuslav , “that there has been a very strong knee-jerk reaction to this; that there is a lot of miscommunication out there. I’ve heard and read some of the things, and that’s simply not the way that it’s going to work. There is going to be some flexibility in implementing this. It is going to take some time to do. It’s only going to be effective if it’s a cooperative effort.”

As a general rule, TxDOT’s new access management manual wants at least half a mile between traffic lights, but is willing to allow them at quarter-mile intervals in areas already heavily developed.

“Your overall level of service for a facility that has signal spacings of a half mile apart is going to move a whole lot better than when the signals are substantially closer,” Bohuslav explained. “You get too much buildup of traffic when you start getting your signals in closer spacings.”

Unsignalized access – including private driveways and public streets – would be allowed every quarter mile on higher-speed roads, every one-eighth mile on lower-speed rural and intermediate-speed urbanized roads, and every 330 feet on lower-speed urbanized roads.

“How will the state address small parcel owners with only 150-200 feet of frontage?” asked Jeff Johnston , president of Quorum Equities Group. “Properties that fit this [criterion] are in many cases left without access.”

“In the rural parts of the state,” Ratliff elaborated, “when you look at a highway and they’re telling people that you can’t have a driveway but every quarter mile, I think the whole policy needs to be discussed considerably before they adopt any such thing.”

It also wants to move driveways further away from intersections. For streets with a design speed of 30 mph, it wants no driveways within 200 feet of the corners. Increase the design speed to 55 mph, and the required corner clearance increases to 495 feet.

“Assuming the minimum requirement of 305 feet [for 40 mph traffic], this would prevent the corner lot from having access for 300 feet along both streets of a major intersection,” wrote Jody Short and Kelly Parma of Dallas’ Lee Engineering. This would require square corner lots to be over two acres in order to have access from both streets. This would impact many of the common corner users including drug stores, banks, convenience stores, and restaurants.”

“You have a series of distances that are the optimum distances. Those are the distances we would like to see,” Bohuslav said of the distance disputes. “We know from research that has been done that things work the best with these distances. Then you have minimal distances, so if you can’t get your optimum distances, this is what you work towards.”

On roads designated for raised medians, the guidelines would also seek to limit them to one-quarter mile intervals for directional curb cuts (one-eighth mile on urbanized roads) and one-half mile for two-way curb cuts (one-quarter mile for lower-speed urbanized roads).

The manual seeks to incorporate two new turn-lane concepts. On roads where a left turn is tight for large vehicles, the jughandle would have left- or U-turning traffic exit to the right, swing around perpendicular to the main artery, and wait for a signal to clear them through the intersection. The Michigan U-turn prohibits all left turns at main intersections, taking traffic one-eighth mile past the intersection to a U-turn lane in a wide median. The driver would then backtrack the one-eighth mile to make a right turn to his desired destination.

Allen Mayor Steve Terrell said that the new access policy would eliminate all eight median openings on a mile-long stretch of SH 5 being widened in his city. Emergency vehicles responding to calls on the west side of the highway would have to travel the entire section of road in his city and make a U-turn to get to the properties, significantly increasing response times.

Beyond that, many communities charge that TxDOT districts are implementing this new access management manual before the commission has formally approved it or the new rules.

“I got word from various citizens, not only in Northeast Texas but from a number of other places, that the district engineers were telling them that these rules were already in July even though they weren’t to be voted on until the end of August,” Ratliff said.

“I’ve personally talked to the district engineers and that’s simply not the case,” Bohuslav replied. “We understand that the policy is not in place... I’ve been reassured that any driveway permits that have been turned down in the last several months had nothing to do with access management policy. They would have been turned down anyway because they were safety problems. It’s just an easy tag to hang onto why they were turned down, and there weren’t that many that were denied.”

Not only do critics want more involvement and a bigger say in the final access management guidelines, they want TxDOT to leave local policies alone. “TxDOT should accept and approve the access management rules currently in place in those cities that have them,” said Jim Foster , general manager of Mesquite’s Town East Mall.

“I don’t think we’re that far apart [from city standards] on what we’re proposing, and that’s what we were going to do,” Bohuslav said. “We were going to look at it, work with them, and see if we can’t come up with some consensus on what can we use and what makes sense. That’s what the next four months was going to be for us – trying to resolve some of these issues.”

Finally, they want projects currently under development to be grandfathered and for access rights to follow the sale of the property. “Allowing access approval to be reopened upon the sale of a property could depreciate the value of the property and jeopardize any potential sale due to uncertainty,” said Dana Chiodo on behalf of the International Council of Shopping Centers. O

The Lone Star Report: