Houston Mayor Calls for “Paradigm Shift” Away From Highway Widening

Newly elected Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner gave a remarkable speech yesterday in Austin [PDF], calling on the state to change its transportation priorities and stop pouring billions into widening highways.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says the state news a new strategy for managing congestion. Photo: Houston Tomorrow

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says Texas needs a new strategy for managing traffic and growth. Photo: Houston Tomorrow

Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission, the appointed board that leads Texas DOT, that the state needs a totally new transportation paradigm. The speech is phenomenal, and Texas transportation officials badly need to hear it.

Here are some of the highlights from the speech:

We’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth.

The region’s primary transportation strategy in the past has been to add roadway capacity. While the region has increasingly offered greater options for multiple occupant vehicles and other transportation modes, much of the added capacity has been for single occupant vehicles as well.

It’s easy to understand why. TxDOT has noted that 97% of the Texans currently drive a single occupancy vehicle for their daily trips. One could conclude that our agencies should therefore focus their resources to support these kinds of trips. However, this approach is actually exacerbating our congestion problems. We need a paradigm shift in order to achieve the kind of mobility outcomes we desire.

Turner then points to the Katy Freeway — an astounding example of the futility of freeway widening as a congestion management strategy. After a $2.8 billion TxDOT-led widening project, traffic is now traveling slower than it used to along this massive highway.

Turner says:

The Katy Freeway, or Interstate 10 west of Houston, is the widest freeway in the world, with up to 26 lanes including frontage road lanes. The 2008 widening had a significant impact on the adjacent businesses and communities. Yet, despite all these lanes, in 2015 the section of this freeway near Beltway 8 was identified as the 8th most congested roadway in the state. This was only 7 years after being reconstructed! This example, and many others in Houston and around the state, have clearly demonstrated that the traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems. These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.

Saying “there’s a better way,” Turner lays out three recommendations, including:

We need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and densify, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Hap tip: Houston Tomorrow.