"In California, researchers found that similar managed lanes there did not deliver..."
By ROSANNA RUIZ
The much-ballyhooed completion of the Katy Freeway project was observed almost two months ago with balloons, confetti and Gov. Rick Perry's observation that the hum of traffic was akin to the "sound of freedom."
But are motorists truly feeling the liberation that only $2.8 billion and five years of construction could buy?
A study released last week concluded that traffic along the expanded roadway, indeed, has hummed since construction wrapped up in late October.
Motorists are saving 15 minutes on travel time and are traveling 25 mph faster during their morning commutes, Texas Transportation Institute researchers concluded. Drivers also are saving 12 minutes during afternoon commutes through increased average speeds by 19 mph.
Back in June, motorists averaged 33 mph and travel times of 36 minutes during morning rush hour. Now, they are averaging 58 mph with travel times of 21 minutes.
Afternoon commuting speeds rose from 35 mph to 54 mph and driving time has dropped to 22 minutes from 34, TTI researchers said.
"This translates to almost 2 1/2 hours per workweek that commuters are given back valuable time to spend in other ways besides sitting in traffic," a Texas Department of Transportation release announcing the study states.
Before the construction
The conclusion remains a bit muddy, given that the data was drawn from a time when construction was still a factor for Katy Freeway users.
The TTI researchers also picked a summer month when there were fewer people on the road.
Motorists in the United States drove 12.2 billion fewer miles in June than in the same month a year before, the Federal Highway Administration reported.
More useful for motorists and taxpayers would be a comparison of the travel times of five years ago before bulldozers and trucks moved onto the freeway. We are working on such an analysis and hope to have more on that soon.
Another gauge of the Katy Freeway can be drawn from Park and Ride figures.
How many motorists remain sold on the idea of leaving the driving to Metro now that the Katy has reopened?
Metro could only provide Park and Ride average boardings for September and October, but not November. A Metro spokeswoman said those figures can only be made available after Metro's board gets a peek at them.
That partial view of Park and Ride figures shows that ridership went up. But that likely was more to do with gasoline prices than anything else. For October, average weekday Park and Ride boardings were 40,735; September saw an average of 38,212.
Another possible measure may be available soon as TTI researchers finish poring over hundreds of Katy Freeway motorist surveys. The survey queried motorists on their drive times and other experiences.
Early next year, the Harris County Toll Road Authority will begin full operation of the managed lanes.
That could prove the final, true measure, if the managed lanes alleviate some of the pressure on the main lanes. That is not a given.
In California, researchers found that similar managed lanes there did not deliver on the promises that traffic finally would move at a more efficient pace.
All of these take on more importance, given that local leaders are now focused on future expansion projects along U.S. 290 and other overstressed roadways.
During its next session, which starts in January, the Legislature has major hurdles to overcome in terms of transportation priorities and how to fund those projects.
You can expect legislators to cast their eyes upon the Katy experience when it comes time to make some of those decisions.
© 2008 The Houston Chronicle: www.chron.com
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