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“The traditional strategy of adding capacity … exacerbates urban congestion problems.”

Count new Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner among the growing crowd of local transportation officials wary of road-expansion as a solution to traffic problems. Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission last week that it was time for a “paradigm shift” away from the ineffective approach of widening highways, according to prepared remarks posted by Streetsblog’s Angie Schmitt. That strategy, he said, only makes congestion worse.

To help his case, Turner pointed to the Katy Freeway in Houston, or Interstate 10. A few years ago it was expanded to 26 lanes in some segments at a cost of $2.8 billion—good enough to earn the title of the “world’s widest freeway.” Despite all that new road capacity, rush-hour travel times increased between 2011 and 2014; in 2015, Turner pointed out, one segment of the Katy was ranked among the most congested roads in Texas.

He continued:

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.

Turner ran on a transportation platform that says all the right things about improving urban mobility via travel alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles. His position emphasizes road maintenance without any mention of expansion and favors new public transit options, the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail plan, and the reconstruction of Interstate 45—an elevated highway that cuts through the city. His latest talk offered three specific suggestions:

  1. Texas DOT should prioritize projects that help increase the share of non solo-drive trips from its present 3 percent up to at least 15 percent. That means new intercity rail efforts, HOT lanes, and better local transit. “Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience,” he said.
  2. Highway money pegged for urban regions like Houston should be used toward enhancing roads in the core—as opposed to those on the fringes. Again his point was that expanding peripheral highways only makes the whole road system more congested.
  3. Texas DOT and the city need to work together to coordinate Houston’s last-mile trip options, especially along local streets that feed off major highways.

Houston has taken strong steps to improve its urban mobility options in recent years. It reimagined its local bus network into a high-frequency grid that does a better job connecting workers and workplaces. It’s expanded the light rail system and pushed bus-rapid transit projects along certain corridors. But Turner and other local leaders have a lot of ground to make up in terms of changing the established thinking when it comes to transportation.

Take an announcement made by Texas DOT the same day as Turner’s speech: a $1.3 billion highway program designed to “addresses gridlock in some of the state’s most congested areas.” One of the proposed component projects for the Houston metro area? Further widening the I-10 Katy Freeway.

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