Despite the Katy 'Freeways' size, the massive project adds "just one new 'free' lane, a pair of toll lanes and no significant transit improvement."
Festivities celebrate the completion of 18-lane project with eventual tollway
By RAD SALLEE
Amid a burst of confetti and a release of balloons, some 400 supporters and road-building professionals Tuesday applauded the consummation of Texas' biggest freeway project — $2.8 billlion, 23 miles long and the first to have a tollway down the middle.
"This project, for all intents and purposes, is complete," announced Delvin Dennis, interim director of the Texas Department of Transportation's Houston District. "Tomorrow morning the (high occupancy-toll) lanes open. If you're not doing anything, take a ride on them."
The two center lanes of the rebuilt Katy Freeway in each direction from Texas 6 to the West Loop will operate from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 8 p.m., but drivers will need two or more people in the car.
Tolls on hold for now
Tolls will not be introduced until probably late April, giving the Harris County Toll Road Authority several months to gauge the likely demand, said authority spokeswoman Lawanda Howse. When the trial run is over, she said, tolls that increase with traffic volume will be collected via EZ Tag or TxTag for vehicles not meeting occupancy requirements for free rides. Transit vehicles will use the lanes at no charge.
Elected officials attending the celebration included Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. John Culberson, who, with former County Judge Robert Eckels and county infrastructure director Art Storey, had pushed the idea of including toll lanes and using county toll road revenue to speed completion of the work.
Culberson said the job was completed in five years and four months, compared to a likely 10 years or more with conventional funding.
"And without a single federal earmark," he added.
290 project down the road
Culberson then told the crowd, "290's next," referring to plans by TxDOT and HCTRA to widen the Northwest Freeway, and build a tollway along Hempstead Highway. The double-barreled project is expected to extend through much of the next decade.
Perry noted the roar of traffic below, above and around the crowd, which was gathered on a frontage road overpass.
"This is the sound of freedom we hear," he said. "These people need roads to get to work, to church and to school."
Opponents of the project have noted its extreme size — 18 lanes, counting toll and frontage lanes from Texas 6 to Washington, and more lanes at entrances and exits. The widening uprooted numerous businesses along the route and took two streets in the city of Spring Valley. Opponents also say the widening will increase emissions and noise and contribute to suburban sprawl.
Despite its size, the widened freeway adds "just one new 'free' lane, a pair of toll lanes and no significant transit improvement," said Robin Holzer, chair of the grass-roots Citizens Transportation Coalition.
"Too bad it does not have a space for a commuter rail like our design did," said environmental attorney Jim Blackburn, who tried unsuccessfully to force the state to revise its plans, add mass transit and lessen the project's impact on neighborhoods.
Still hoping for rail
Before the ceremony, Eckels said he still hopes commuter rail can be built along the route, possibly in one of the strips between the main and frontage road lanes.
The track would need to be elevated over major crossings, he said, adding that, if that is too costly, Westpark may make a good alternative.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which already plans light rail on Westpark, paid to have Katy Freeway overpasses beefed up to carry its trains if space there ever is available for them.
But Culberson, whose ability to get federal dollars was crucial to the widening project, pledged not to give up a single freeway lane for Metro rail.
Brandt Mannchen, the Sierra Club regional air quality chairman, expressed regret at what he termed a missed opportunity to have rail on the Katy.
"Instead, we have allowed the privatization and commercialization our freeways via toll lanes," he said.
"Those that are less able to pay will have to stay in slower congested lanes, while toll lanes will be used by those who have the money."
© 2008 Houston Chronicle: www.khou.com
To search TTC News Archives click
To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click