The Mixmaster

County Judge Bob Eckels, the Doc Ock of transportation, is busy planning more roads

The three-block area along Bunningham Lane, west of Voss Road, is one of the many places in Houston where fate is obscured by yellow caution tape. A chain-link fence, a phalanx of neon traffic barrels and a "Road Closed" sign clearly proclaim this is no longer a place to go. But what they don't say is where Bunningham -- as a street, a part of a neighborhood, a place to maybe walk the dog -- is heading.

Peek through the fence, and a glade stretches down either side of the lane for hundreds of yards, with oaks and magnolias, blooming hibiscus plants and hydrangeas. The birds chirp and the saint augustine is well mowed.

Yet if this is a city park, it seems to have closed long ago. A pile of junk in the corner holds a dusty flipper, an old fishing net and a deflated volleyball. There are no water fountains or benches.

Once lined with houses and lawns, Bunningham Lane 
is being razed to make way for the expanded Katy 
Daniel Kramer
Once lined with houses and lawns, Bunningham Lane is being razed to make way for the expanded Katy Freeway.
Once lined with houses and lawns, Bunningham Lane 
is being razed to make way for the expanded Katy 
Daniel Kramer
Once lined with houses and lawns, Bunningham Lane is being razed to make way for the expanded Katy Freeway.

The real story of Bunningham is told on the street curb. Every few yards, it curves inward, where driveways once ran. They now end abruptly in grass or mud. And between an oak and a crape myrtle, a wooden stake marks what they will become. On it someone has written "curb of feeder Rd."

It was here that last month Lillian Jones's red brick home, with white trim and azaleas in the front, was bulldozed to make way for the eventual widening of the Katy Freeway. At 92, Jones had lived in the home since the Katy was a four-lane road. She was one of the last residents on the street to go.

"We had chosen that spot carefully, and they just messed it up," she says, sitting with her son Carlton, who grew up in the house. "It was nice to be near a freeway, but not part of it."

A six-mile strip along the Katy now resembles a bombed-out quarter of Sarajevo. Entire blocks have been flattened, and office buildings sit vacant, overcome by weeds. The 18-lane Katy project is already more than $1 billion over budget. And for Judge Robert Eckels, Harris County commissioner, chair of the Houston-Galveston Area Council's Transportation Policy Council and self-appointed road czar, it's just the beginning.

"A lot of [my opponents] believe we cannot reduce congestion," Eckels says. "Those folks are just flat wrong."

Last month, Eckels's policy council pushed through the $77 billion 2025 Regional Transportation Plan, a 20-year road map for the eight-county region's mobility needs. It promotes the biggest road-building bonanza the Houston area has ever seen. The plan equates to 117 Katy Freeway projects, or enough lane miles to stretch from San Francisco to South Africa.

If built, the plan will make present-day Los Angeles look like a cluster of bus terminals. And it may well boost air pollution and make the suburbs even bigger. But what most enrages a growing chorus of critics is more basic: The plan's roads ultimately won't banish traffic jams, and will probably make them worse.

Everybody knows Houston is a freeway city. During much of the early 1990s, the Houston region alone built more roads than any other state except California and Texas. Yet a lot of people now say that's changing. The rail lines are going in. Young people are moving into new, dense apartment buildings in Montrose, the Heights and Midtown. Downtown is finally a hip place to buy an Eames lamp and a bellini.

Even so, our mobility planners aren't impressed.

Their transportation plan estimates where people in Houston will move over the next 20 years. And they're not moving downtown. In fact, they're not moving anywhere close. Of the three million people who will settle in the Houston region by 2025, the planners say, most will stake claims past Loop 610 and out of town.

Most of us won't have much time for barhopping, it seems, because we'll be driving. We already drive 39 miles a day -- more than the residents of any other urbanized area in the nation. And we should get ready to drive more, the planners say. As workers move farther out, most jobs will remain closer in. Car miles traveled in the region will spike 75 percent.

To save the Houston region from plunging into gridlock, the plan prescribes bigger roads, faster roads and more roads -- way more roads than in comparable regions elsewhere. The Atlanta area's 2025 RTP, which doesn't include airports and ports, slates 46 percent of transportation funding for roads. By contrast, excluding ports and airports from the Houston plan, roads receive, percentage-wise, half again as many dollars -- a whopping 72 percent of all transportation money.

"[T]here's places to go, and that's what's lost on a whole lot of folks," Eckels says. "When I want to come down to a baseball game or a football game or bring 100,000 people downtown for a festival or a Super Bowl, you've got to have roads to get down there."

And if anybody has the power to build more of them, it's Eckels.

Reaching into Texas's intricate network of road interests, Eckels chairs the Interstate Highway 69 Coalition-Texas, a group pushing for an interstate from Mexico to Canada. Dubbed the NAFTA freeway, the trade route is slated to run near Houston. As the group's chairman, Eckels also spoke out recently in favor of the Trans Texas Corridor, a 4,000-mile superartery proposed by Governor Rick Perry that would crisscross the state with six passenger lanes, four truck lanes and several rail lines. Eckels said I-69 could follow part of the route.

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