Houstonians call it “the mother of all freeways.” Regular commuters have other names for it, most of them unprintable. And for years, the Katy Freeway has been one of the most heavily traveled, and congested, freeways in the nation.
In fact, congestion has become so bad that impromptu carpools have sprung up in park-and-ride lots.
Much like ticket scalpers outside high-priced events, drivers wait in the commuter parking lots with signs soliciting riders. Potential passengers approach the drivers for a ride and, when enough people are recruited, spur-of-the-moment carpoolers can use the freeway’s faster-moving HOV lanes.
In fact, the practice has become so popular that slang is now used to describe the drivers and their passengers. A commuter who accepts a ride with a stranger in a spontaneous car pool is a “slug.” A commuter who picks enough riders to use the HOV lane is a “body snatcher.”
Now, after years of piecemeal expansion and mobility efforts, the Katy is slated for expansion that will turn it into an 18-lane superhighway. With the help of some of Houston’s most influential politicians, transportation agencies from the federal, state, and local governments have joined together to fix the overcrowded freeway.
At an estimated $1.2 billion, the 20-mi. (32 km) project is the largest single job undertaken by the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) Houston District. The Katy Freeway is the name given to Interstate 10 running from Houston’s central business district to the western suburb of Katy. Not only does it carry most of the traffic to the area’s energy corridor, but also more truck traffic than any other freeway in Texas.
In addition to its current complement of traditional freeway lanes, the reconstructed Katy will have a number of special use lanes to expedite the flow of high-occupancy and express traffic. Through a joint effort with the Harris County Toll Road Authority, as many of four toll lanes will run down the middle of the freeway, and possibly even a light rail line operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO).
The cooperative effort of Houston’s three major transportation agencies, as well cost-sharing by local, state, and federal governments, represents a unique approach to solving one of Texas’ worst traffic headaches. Congressman John Culberson (R-Houston), who represents much of West Houston, has led the effort to bring all players together, helping to land federal funding for the project.
“Every employer in west Houston, or whose employees live in west Houston, should know that relief is right around the corner for the Katy Freeway. Expanding the Katy Freeway is my top legislative priority,” Culberson said.
Culberson noted that since the Katy is part of the national Interstate system, there is a significant federal role in the process. Working with colleagues such House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Houston) and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), federal highway funding was assured.
“This is definitely a new way of handling things, bringing all of the entities together like this,” said Jan Crow, Culberson’s district director. “We are assured that everything’s moving forward.”
Originally built in the 1960s, the Katy Freeway has become the catalyst for economic expansion in western Houston. With tremendous commercial and residential development, however, has come traffic congestion bordering on gridlock during morning and evening rush hours. Even during non-peak times, traffic often moves at a snail’s pace.
Now, in the wake of major investment and environmental impact studies and an innovative cooperative financing arrangement between state, federal, and local governments, the first contract is scheduled to be awarded in April 2003. The first phase, reconstruction of the freeway’s westernmost portion will cost $160 million.
The total rebuild is expected to entail a series of 10 loosely defined projects. The largest component will be renovation of the Katy Freeway and IH-610 interchange, Houston’s inner loop. That job alone will involve two separate contracts for over $200 million of construction.
The entire renovation is expected to take about six years, finishing up in late 2008 or early 2009, according to TxDOT’s Janelle Gbur.
“We are continuing to look for additional ways to expedite this project, both in terms of right-of-way acquisition and actual construction,” Gbur explained.
The beginnings of the Katy Freeway rebuild can be traced to 1995, when TxDOT initiated a study of the IH-10 corridor from Houston’s central business district westward to the Brazos River, a distance of approximately 40 mi. (64 km). Generally referred to as “West Houston,” the area is one of the fastest growing in the region.
Officially dubbed the “IH-10 Katy Freeway Corridor Major Investment Study (MIS),” the purpose was to identify mobility needs of the communities served by the freeway, as well as determine the future needs of the corridor. It also sought to evaluate the transportation alternatives that could meet those needs, as well as assess the potential effects of the alternatives on both the community and the environment.
Fourteen public meetings were held on the study, and more than 14,000 people took part. Additionally, a steering committee was formed with representatives from the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC), the City of Houston, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO), and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC).
Other stakeholders, such as the villages of Spring Branch and Bunker Hill and the cities of Katy and Brookshire, were organized into a Conceptual Alternatives Advisory Committee. This group met periodically during the study and provided feedback from constituents to the steering committee and TxDOT.
Early on, many freeway corridor problems and needs were identified through analyzing existing traffic congestion, projected population and employment growth in the area, and from extensive input from residents and commuters.
On the Katy Freeway itself, it was determined that the existing roadway was not constructed to contemporary TxDOT design standards, many sections had reached the end of their useful life, maintenance costs are increasing significantly with many pavement sections needing immediate replacement, and the freeway had insufficient capacity to handle the volume of traffic.
The study also found that serious accidents are common, especially in more urban areas, worsening problems of safety and mobility. Also, some sections of the Katy, both on the main lanes and frontage roads, were subject to flooding during intense rainfall.
It was also determined that there are few continuous parallel arterial streets, resulting in commuters using the freeway for relatively short trips. This, in turn, translated into longer periods of intense congestion, particularly with vehicle breakdowns or collisions.
The freeway’s existing reversible HOV lane, operated by Houston’s METRO mass transit authority, was also found to have significant shortcomings. Too few access points to the HOV lane reduce the lane’s ability to serve many users. Also, the existing one-way reversible HOV facility is unable to serve the increasing need for two-way travel.
Following the review, four major goals for the Katy’s improvement Freeway were adopted by the Steering Committee and TxDOT. Those goals were to: improve corridor mobility and safety cost effectively, provide a transportation system with minimal negative impact on aesthetics, environment, and community; a balanced and coordinated system; and a system that serves regional land use/development patterns into the future.
Based on these goals, a range of conceptual alternatives was developed to meet needs through 2020. They ranged from a “no-build” option to a variety of build choices.
Each was evaluated for transportation benefits it provided, any fatal engineering flaws, and potential environmental impact. Additionally, comprehensive financial and revenue analyses were conducted, including the development of life-cycle capital and operating costs. The life cycle of the rebuilt freeway was determined to be 25 years.
The “no-build” alternative was quickly eliminated as unfeasible. Remaining options were evaluated on their ability to encourage higher occupancy travel, reduce the vehicle hours and miles of travel, reduce congestion and improve mobility on IH-10, and improve average speeds.
The option ultimately selected provides for significant increase in HOV/Special Use Lane (SUL) capacity while providing a modest increase in single-occupant vehicle (SOV) capacity.
Major improvements to the existing freeway will be:
• a two-lane, two-way HOV roadway from downtown Houston to IH-610 (the inner loop), and from State Highway 6 to the City of Katy.
• a four-lane, two-way HOV/Special Use Lane (SUL) roadway connecting IH-610 to State Highway 6 segments of the two-lane HOV facility.
• one more SOV lane in each direction from IH-610 to Katy, and from the City of Brookshire west to the Brazos River.
By adding these components to the Katy’s current configuration, TxDOT expects SUL’s to improve mobility for all vehicles on I-10.
Estimated cost for the improvements is $1.094 billion, with the anticipated 25-year operations and maintenance costing an additional $106 million. Assuming a value of time equal to $10 per vehicle hour of reduced travel, the study concluded that more than $3 billion could be saved over the life of the reconstructed freeway.
Following adoption of the proposed rebuild plan for the Katy Freeway, both the Harris County Toll Road Authority and METRO began studying the feasibility of toll lanes and light rail as a part of the freeway rebuild.
Toll lanes, light rail, or both would be located within the center median of the freeway, so right-of-way acquisition and design work was adjusted to allow for additional space needs. Also, the incorporation of toll lanes within the footprint of an interstate required approval of the Federal Highway Administration as a pilot program.
When the FHWA approved the toll lanes in March 2002, it was noted that this will be the nation’s first construction of toll lanes on an existing interstate, as well as one of the largest transportation projects in Texas history. In exchange for permission to build four toll lanes down the center of the Katy Freeway, the Toll Road Authority will invest up to $500 million toward the overall project.
Schematics to include as many as two toll lanes in each direction are currently being completed. Although the issue of adding light rail has not yet been finalized, it is considered a viable option and project engineers are incorporating it into the plans. Should the rail line ultimately be approved, some of the area currently allotted for two of the toll lanes would instead be used for rail. Additionally, all bridge structures will be built with sufficient strength to handle rail traffic.
John Sedlak, METRO’s vice president for Planning, Engineering, and Construction, said that his agency, TxDOT, and the Harris County Toll Road Authority are continuing to work together to preserve light rail as an option.
“We are continuing to do planning studies on the (Katy Freeway) corridor and others in the region. The information we get from these studies, such as when and how much it would cost to incorporate rail into that corridor, will be included in METRO’s regional transit plan, which will be completed next year,” Sedlak noted.