Here comes the neighborhood

Angry community group attacks TxDOT with injunction to stop construction

Article February 17, 2004
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What do you do when push comes to a chokehold?
The Texas Department of Transportation hoped a judge would untangle the mess involving the reconstruction of U.S. 59 earlier this month.

Over a decade ago, a local neighborhood encouraged TxDOT officials to lower the elevated U.S. 59, which served as a menacing divider. Called the Southwest Alternatives Project (SWAP), the group used powerful politicians and ongoing pressure to move reconstruction into the design phase. But three weeks before the job was supposed to kick into fifth gear TxDOT heard that voice again. This time a new neighborhood team—the West Alabama Quality of Life Coalition—threatened to protest if road closures were not postponed.

In order to begin demolition and reconstruction on the south end of U.S. 59 traffic had to be moved over to the north. Prime contractor Williams Brothers Construction Co. planned to sacrifice Spur 527, a three-lane feeder into downtown Houston. Closing the route would allow for the reconfiguration on U.S. 59. To compensate for the loss, a temporary exit ramp would create a new entry point linking to Main Street.

“Off of this temporary ramp we would also be constructing a U-turn under (U.S. 59) to circle traffic back that wants to head toward the inbound Spur location,” Janelle Gbur, TxDOT spokesman, told ROADS & BRIDGES.

Residents, however, wanted to keep intruders off their path and filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction in order to stop construction on Feb. 13.
“The suit claimed (the detour) would damage sites of historical significance and that we didn’t do an evaluation of traffic impacts prior to awarding the contract,” said Gbur.

TxDOT thought issues were resolved during eight months of peer review meetings in March 2002, which were attended by community leaders. In fact, Gbur said the feedback created positive alternatives. Originally, Williams Brothers Construction Co. was going to close the inbound and a portion of the outbound Spur. After discovering there was a higher volume of traffic using the outbound Spur during the evening rush TxDOT decided to keep it open even though it cost an additional $1.8 to $2 million.

“We had to rob a lane from 59 outbound in order to make room for that one lane of Spur outbound,” said Gbur.

The U-turn tied to the temporary ramp also came out of peer review meetings.
But the discussions apparently did not air every grievance. TxDOT does understand the concern of aimless traffic making its way on neighborhood streets, but finds it highly unlikely considering motorists would be dealing with speed humps and 20 mph zones.

To combat the strays TxDOT has formed an aggressive communication campaign involving dynamic message boards and portable electronic message signs along the corridor. However, to be effective commuters need at least two weeks of advance notice. With U.S. 59 projects caught up in the courts, all communication efforts had to be shelved. Additionally, an injunction to stop the project would mean another four to six months of documentation, report writing and re-evaluations.
When complete U.S. 59 will hold a total of 12 lanes of traffic, with two devoted to high-occupancy vehicles. The 1.8-mile project will cost $71 million and take 33 months to construct.

About the author: 
Bill Wilson is editor of Roads & Bridges.
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