Medical Center Mobility Centered on Big Roads for Big Need

Medical Center Mobility - Houston Chronicle










Houston Chronicle
April 25, 2014

Already the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center is poised to get much bigger, prompting a raft of ideas ranging from routine to grandiose for expanding traffic and parking capacity. Medical Center officials predict another 28 million square feet of offices and health care facilities will be developed on the campus over the next two decades. More development means more visitors and workers, which planners estimate will require an additional 50,400 parking spaces, along with wider roads and more transit capacity.

City officials, Medical Center administrators and consultants developed a long list of options to unclog roads and add transit and bike choices in the Medical Center area as part of a months-long study prepared by a team of consultants.

At a public meeting Thursday, area residents and others scoffed at some of the plan’s boldest ideas, which officials stressed are a starting point for improvements, with many proposals likely headed for the dust bin. Ideas that drew skepticism ranged from burying the Red Line light rail tracks through the Medical Center – at a cost of $725 million – to building elevated express lanes along Old Spanish Trail.

“If they’re going to do that, I won’t be here long,” said Paula Black, 29, who rents a house in a cluster of homes off OST, near her job just south of the Medical Center. “I don’t want a freeway, or whatever, right outside my door.”

The problem is that freeway-like traffic volumes come into the Medical Center daily. Planners expect the deluge of vehicles will only grow as more doctors’ offices and hospital rooms are built.

Even if just more than half of the projected Medical Center development occurs, and the number of parking spaces per square foot remains constant, about 26,000 new spots – roughly the same number now available at Reliant Park – would be needed.

Getting people to those spots will require bigger roads to handle greater demand.

Based on traffic predictions, OST between Kirby and Fannin will carry 56,000 cars daily in 2035, more than double its 2013 volume. Though traffic on other roads will not grow nearly as much, all major thoroughfares in and out of the area will carry more traffic.

Long-term fixes pricey

The cure, according to the study, is a combination of bigger roads and more transit choices, though the list tilts toward road-building for long-term needs. OST and Holcombe Boulevard would each expand from six lanes to 10 in some scenarios, including express lanes that funnel traffic out of the area toward Texas 288, where the Texas Department of Transportation has plans for toll lanes.

The alternative to some road widening is parking garages and improved transit within the Medical Center, said Ramesh Gunda, president of Gunda Corp., the engineering firm that conducted some of the traffic modeling.

“If you take the traffic coming into the Texas Medical Center, and hold it at what I call the gateways, and there are lots at (Texas) 288 and Loop 610, look at how we improve these intersections by reducing cars,” Gunda noted.

Relief will start small, with the cost of short-term improvements estimated at $12 million. Those improvements include mostly adding or expanding turn lanes, so traffic waiting to turn at key intersections isn’t held up.

Those first steps could start in a few years but remain outside the current construction schedule, according to Khang Nguyen, assistant director of the city’s Department of Public Works and Engineering.

Where things start to get pricey, officials concede, is with long-term fixes such as those for OST. The study includes two options for adding four lanes to the road – one that turns it into a parkway like Allen Parkway with underpasses and overpasses of crossing streets, and another that elevates the express lanes over the road but keeps the intersections intact.

The two choices are estimated to cost $85 million and $105 million, respectively, not including the cost of land acquisition.

Comparing costs

Building a large parking garage on the edge of the campus along Holcombe, meanwhile, is expected to cost $30 million, compared to $120 million to widen the road.

Thursday, residents who live near the Medical Center favored proposals that didn’t create elevated lanes and didn’t put wide parkways right outside their doors.

Others said the plans missed an opportunity to dramatically improve transit and biking access in the area. Traffic, many said, is only severe during peak commuting times.

For far less cost, and better results, the Medical Center and city should put more emphasis on transit to and from the area, and better shuttles and sidewalks inside the campus, cyclist Todd Redmon said.

“I’d rather see something that’s different than what got us in this mess,” he said.

Planners, however, were skeptical about eliminating cars.

“We want to serve everyone,” Gunda said. “We want to see pedestrians. We want to serve autos and transit.… Whether we like it or not, they are all coming.”

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1 The final report, with comments, will be submitted May 30.