County, TxDOT may part ways on 290 plan

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County, TxDOT may part ways on 290 plan
County likely to revise partnership with state; move could lead to more free lanes
By Dug Begley and Kiah Collier
June 9, 2014
Houston Chronicle

Drivers head northwestbound in the HOV lane on U.S. 290 Tuesday, May 14, 2013, in Houston. Starting Monday, solo drivers will be able to pay between $1 and $5 for using the lanes while eligible carpoolers can still use them for free.

The honeymoon is likely over between Harris County and state transportation officials who joined together to speed construction of U.S. 290, and the split could mean more free lanes for motorists on the expanded freeway.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation would still remain partners in some way along two major toll corridors.

"I certainly wouldn't say we're getting a divorce," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said, explaining a revised plan for the $1.8 billion freeway widening. "We are still contributing to 290, but this lets everybody get back to where they are more comfortable."

If county commissioners approve a revised plan Wednesday, the 2012 agreement that made the county and state partners on the freeway widening would change significantly, and include ceding control of toll lanes along Interstate 10 to the state.

For drivers, it could mean more free lanes along U.S. 290 than earlier proposed, but minus the reversible lanes meant to handle peak commuting inbound and outbound.

County and state engineers have been at odds for the past three months regarding some aspects of the design used to widen U.S. 290. Crews are already working to widen the freeway between Mueschke Road and Loop 610.

When county and state officials lauded their partnership in 2012, the plan was to widen the freeway to four general use lanes in each direction, with three reversible managed lanes in the middle. How those carpool/toll lanes fit into the overall freeway project - such as the location of entrance and exit ramps - was the focus of recent county-state discussions.

"There were just complications that were occurring, and there were problems," said Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, whose Precinct 4 encompasses most of the U.S. 290 work.

Because discussions are still ongoing, TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said it would premature for the agency to comment until county officials make a decision.

Under terms proposed by Harris County Infrastructure Director Art Storey, the county's role diminishes greatly, freeing the Texas Department of Transportation to build the project as they like.

Storey is asking county commissioners on Wednesday to amend an agreement between the county and TxDOT to remove the reversible toll lanes from the U.S. 290 project that were going to be developed by the Harris County Toll Road Authority and waive control of toll projects along U.S. 290, Interstate 10 and the Hempstead Road corridor to TxDOT.

In return, to honor the spirit of the agreement the county and TxDOT announced in October 2012, Harris County will pay TxDOT $200 million - half what it initially offered - and give the state the Katy Managed Lanes along Interstate 10.

"We could have all gone merrily along, and in the end it would've worked," Emmett said. "But I think it is better this way."

If approved, the Katy Managed Lanes would convert to TxDOT property by the end of the year.
TxDOT would then keep two-thirds of the revenue along I-10, Emmett said, and the county would get one-third. A similar deal could be reached along U.S. 290, though that was still unclear based on the agreement proposed Wednesday.

In the short term, drivers would likely not notice the change. State and county toll roads accept toll tags issued by a number of agencies. Agreements between local police and constable offices govern who patrols the respective sections of toll lanes.

A maintenance change also does not worry officials, they said.

"I always see the immediate improvement of our local control," Cagle said. "But … I don't think you're going to have any safety concerns or maintenance control concerns."

Along U.S. 290, the deal could mean more free lanes, because TxDOT could choose to use the right of way to build 10 general use lanes, rather than eight.

Additional general use lanes might be the preferred choice for many commuters and local elected officials along U.S. 290.

"If the freeway is going to be the same width, from a commuter perspective I would rather have the free lanes," said Jersey Village Mayor Rod Erskine.

Commuters, business owners and residents along the route have closely watched the construction, Erkskine said, and likely will monitor changes in the arrangement to ensure the project meets their expectations in terms of noise abatement and providing access to local streets.

The shift, however, could have dramatic long-term effects for commuters, potentially well outside the two freeway corridors being discussed. Emmett said drivers could benefit from county toll officials refocusing on other routes. Harris County, for example, has plans to extend the Hardy Toll Road into downtown Houston, widen southeast sections of the Sam Houston Tollway and complete work on a tollway along Texas 249.

It's a slight reversal from the teamwork officials celebrated less then two years ago, but Emmett said he is confident that ultimately drivers get a better road system.

"The more we looked at this the more I realized maybe HCTRA ought to focus on HCTRA," Emmett said. "We build our roads and handle them, and they take care of theirs."