The Cannonball Run

Ten competitors. One mile along the Katy Freeway. No cars allowed.

I immediately leaped into a nearby convertible to drive Devadanam along the path for video footage. A sour-faced woman in a security-type outfit marched out of the office building and up to our car.

"Ummm, can you tell me what y'all are doing here?" she asked.

I bit down on my cigarette filter and threw it into reverse. I think Devadanam was still hanging halfway out the car.

Experiment foiled: Our "control group" pace car sails 
smoothly along.
Monica Fuentes
Experiment foiled: Our "control group" pace car sails smoothly along.
Mosi Secret (left) has trouble maneuvering the 
Photos by Daniel Kramer
Mosi Secret (left) has trouble maneuvering the Segway…

"Official newspaper business, ma'am!" I exclaimed, flooring it. "We'll be on our way now!"

It's like that opening scene in Office Space. The one where Peter is bumper-to-bumper at morning rush hour and he sees an old man with a walker making better time on the sidewalk than he is. It's funny because it's true. And it's true because you live in Houston. Admit it. At times, your daily commute is just plain absurd.

At times, you've probably wondered if there isn't a better way of traveling around town. You've found yourself idling along some interstate, crawling at a fraction of the posted speed, and you've cried out to the heavens, "Ye gods! I could walk there faster than this!"

We, too, have had that meltdown. That is why we decided to see if, indeed, getting from point A to point B could be faster without a car. But for this Cannonball Run, we needed the meanest freeway in town -- at the ugliest time of day. The choice was obvious.

In 2003 (the most recent year tabulated), the Katy Freeway led all local highways, with more than 1,500 traffic-slowing incidents, according to an annual report by the Houston TranStar Partnership, a joint venture between transportation and emergency management agencies. For the 6.3 miles between the Beltway and the Loop, TranStar recorded more than 3.4 million hours of annual congestion -- or roughly the equivalent of being forced to watch Alexander 19,429 times.

On an average day, the Texas Department of Transportation says, more than 219,000 vehicles drive on this tortured strip of pavement. Moreover, since Interstate 10 is a "land bridge" between Los Angeles and Jacksonville, a good portion of those wheels are on large commercial trucks -- more than any other roadway in all of Texas.

Artee Jones, the executive public information officer for TranStar, says that I-10 West tops his list of ever-congested roads.

"It's a combination of things," he explains. "One, unlike many other cities around the country, Houston has several major employment centers. Out on the Katy Freeway, we have the West Houston energy corridor. In addition to that, we have the communities and the home-building-type activity sprouting up throughout."

He adds, "And then we have the construction activity -- the reconstruction activity -- taking place on the I-10 Katy Freeway." Which is no small factor.

At a current budget of $2.4 billion -- nearly double the initial estimate -- the Katy Freeway reconstruction is the largest and costliest road expansion in Houston history. The project broke ground in June 2003 and will run until the end of 2008. For the most part, the current 11-lane highway will bulk up to 18 lanes. Groups such as the Katy Corridor Coalition aren't fans of the expansion design.

"A lot of people are going to lose their homes, we're going to spend a lot of money, [and] we're going to increase the pollution over there," says Polly Ledvina, spokeswoman for the coalition. "And instead of having 11 lanes of congestion as we have now, we're going to have 18 to 20 lanes of congestion in the very near future."

With concerns about flooding, noise, pollution and effectiveness in reducing traffic, the coalition filed a federal lawsuit in September 2002. Two years later, a judge ruled that the citizens' group failed to prove its two main assertions: that state and federal transportation agencies didn't disclose health consequences of the freeway widening and that the agencies didn't evaluate possible alternatives.

One of the coalition's biggest disappointments is that the current freeway plan seems to have shut the door to the possibility of a Metro rail line along the Katy corridor.

"Metro wasn't at a point where they were pursuing light rail on I-10 at that time," says Raquelle Wooten, spokeswoman for the freeway reconstruction project. "And you have to appreciate that, you know, TxDOT has its mission and vision, and Metro has its mission and vision, and they were on two different planning horizons."

The Cannonball Run had its own mission and vision. We hatched the idea over booze, and at subsequent "planning sessions" more booze helped us clarify our plan.

We decided the key was assembling unnatural modes of transport. This experiment needed to be one part science, two parts theater of the absurd.

"How about an ostrich?" one friend suggested. "How about a fan boat?" said another. Over e-mail, we kicked around even more outlandish possibilities. Visions of pogo sticks and hang gliders danced in our heads. We wanted to get riding lawn mowers, Greek chariots and hot air balloons into the mix.

Reality (and sobriety) eventually kicked in, and some options obviously had to be discarded. Where would we find an elephant, camel, yak or rhinoceros -- much less an Iditarod sled?

Could one really do the caterpillar break-dancing move for more than a few dozen feet? And how hard is that on the rib cage?

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