Upping the Ante-Up

A planned HOV lane in west Houston ma instead become yet another toll road in our fair city

You're at the corner of Westheimer and, say, Chimney Rock, trying to head west at 5:30 p.m.

In other words, you're in hell. Nothing but cars in front and back of you, waiting in vain for any movement through another light change. You sit and curse the brainless idiots who have the temerity to try to cut in front of you as they exit a business or parking garage. When you finally reach home, you're a jangling, frustrated mess of road rage.

You don't see much that can be done about it -- no government entity's going to condemn enough land in the densely packed corridor to provide space for a limited-access highway free of the dreaded and countless "curb cuts," or driveways, that help clog the east-west streets outside the Loop.

You might be surprised to know that Metro owns a superbly located strip of land in the area that is perfectly suited for such a highway. Metro has fought the battles necessary to get federal funding for a project, it has done the environmental prerequisites, it has even overcome a federal-court challenge that temporarily stymied it.

Metro could start rolling bulldozers tomorrow on a road that would offer some relief to the harried users of Westheimer, San Felipe and Richmond.

The only problem, according to a politically powerful group that includes westside business interests, the county judge and the mayor, is that Metro isn't thinking big enough.

By now, if businessman Jim Murphy's dream had come true, more than 81,000 cars a day would be using a toll road stretching nearly 13 miles from Shepherd and U.S. 59 out to the Sam Houston Tollway. Those 81,000 cars would be bypassing the clogged surface roads on a high-tech tollway where no one would have to stop to hand money over to a booth attendant and where the prices charged would vary according to the number of riders per car and the time of day.

Instead, Murphy, general manager of the Westchase District business group, looks down from his high-rise near the Sam Houston Tollway and watches traffic build.

If he looks away from the streets, he can see part of the strip of land that Metro bought in 1992 from Southern Pacific Railroad. It's known as the Westpark Corridor and is 100 feet wide and 58 miles long, reaching from Dunlavy Street near downtown out to the city of Eagle Lake.

In his mind, Murphy still sees a four-lane toll road. "We could be driving on this thing in five years," he says. "You don't have to knock any homes down, you don't even have to worry about noise abatement -- these people are living next to a railroad now, anyway."

Murphy is the point man for such westside groups as the Galleria-area Uptown Houston Association and the West Houston Association. He and his troops are lobbying hard to get Metro to shelve its current plans and become partners in a toll road.

Metro wants to build a High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane along four miles of the corridor, from Hillcroft out to a Park & Ride lot near Wilcrest outside the Sam Houston Tollway. The single-lane road, limited to buses and carpools, would handle eastbound traffic in the morning and westbound in the afternoon.

Metro staffers really want to build the HOV lane, if only because they have fought so hard to get to this point: Among other battles, they have convinced the feds to let them use funds normally targeted for rail projects and have seen the project stalled when it became caught up in a court fight over Metro's affirmative-action program.

Murphy is sympathetic. "They're saying 'I got federal approval for a bus plan out of rail money -- that's like a slam dunk over Michael Jordan,' " he says. "They're saying 'I've got all the environmental done, I've got a plan all ready to go, I've gotten out of this morass with subcontractors. I've got all that behind us, and now you're telling me to shift gears?' It's very understandable, their reaction. So we have to build a constituency."

Metro board chairman Robert Miller acknowledges that there is a push from staffers and contractors to start awarding construction contracts on the $49 million HOV plan. "We're under some pressure to start moving dirt tomorrow," he says. "But I think it's incumbent for board members to see if there is a viable alternative."

Miller isn't sure the proposed toll road will work. Much of the $350 million or so needed for construction would come from revenue bonds; the number of bonds that could be sold depends on traffic projections done by an independent financial firm.

That study is not yet complete. "I haven't seen it," Miller says, "but my understanding is that it does not show a high degree of ridership."

Wesley Freise, executive director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority, is more optimistic. "If I get federal funding, I believe I can make the project feasible," he says. HCTRA would be part of a complicated union of Metro, the Texas Department of Transportation and possibly the city in any toll road project.

Whether the toll road is financially viable or not is actually beside the point right now. Metro has frozen all work on its HOV project in order to give Murphy and his troops a chance to lobby for their idea, both locally and in Washington.

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