Fort Worth zooms ahead of highway headaches, but challenges remain

A. Lee Graham lgraham@bizpressnet

Three of the state’s 25 most congested roadways are in Fort Worth, but Cowtown beats many municipalities in tackling the problem, according to a state transportation researcher. “The good thing is, compared to some of your big-city neighbors, there’s something going on in all three of those,” said Tim Lomax, senior research engineer with Texas A&M University Transportation Institute, referring to freeway improvement projects.

Speaking at the Dec. 3 Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition’s monthly meeting in Fort Worth, Lomax applauded the city for championing ongoing current and planned improvements to Interstate 35W north of downtown and Northeast Loop 820 between I-35W and Texas 121 but described a statewide lag in meeting future transportation needs. Funding more freeways is vital and something taxpayers could support, Lomax said. With the average Texan paying $128 in monthly Internet-telephone-cable TV expenses and $139 for monthly cellphone service yet only $22 per month in state and federal gas taxes, according to TTI research, Lomax said taxpayers could pay more. “We’re really not paying all that much,” said Lomax, who foresees the need for more freeway space. Perhaps more importantly, he recommends new solutions for alleviating longstanding challenges posed by freeway gridlock as motorists multiply. Those include encouraging businesses to offer flexible work hours that allow employees to lessen freeway congestion by working from home during peak traffic hours, encouraging transit, ride-sharing and van-pooling, and encouraging shipping companies to transport goods overnight instead of during peak daylight hours, to name just a few approaches.

Fort Worth commuters already are enjoying some fruits of reconstructed roadways. When the 13.3-mile North Tarrant Express opened in October, it brought reconstructed expanded frontage lanes and main lanes and the addition of TEXpress managed lanes along Loop 820 and Texas 121-183 between Interstate 35W in Fort Worth and Industrial Boulevard in Euless. Yet Fort Worth motorists continue paying a hefty price for freeway gridlock. According to TTI research, traffic delays cost the average Dallas-Fort Worth motorist $960 each year. That’s 45 hours driven by each commuter, the Dallas-Fort Worth populace spending 170 million hours on freeways and using 75 million gallons of gas.

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Meanwhile, Fort Worth motorists travel an average of 13,300 miles per year, with only 18 percent using public transit in the last month and 23 percent telecommuting or changing work hours due to congestion. And while quality schools and job opportunities lure many families to new towns, 17 percent of Fort Worth residents polled said they chose where they live based on traffic congestion, Lomax said. Some traditional solutions include building more toll roads, as well as better traffic signal timing and clearing traffic accident scenes more quickly. According to poll results, respondents said they would favor the latter solutions rather than the former solution. According to results of the poll taken this summer, about two-thirds of respondents said they would support increased funding for transportation needs but only “tepid” support for increased funding for those needs.

About five out of every 10 respondents said they would be most supportive of dedicating motor vehicles sales taxes to transportation needs. And only 3.8 out of every 10 respondents said they would favor raising vehicle registration fees from $65 to $75. Such hesitation has Lomax and his colleagues determined to change public perception, one of several strategies for currying more support. “We need to help people understand the realities we face,” said Lomax, whose agency plans more public meetings to heighten public awareness of challenges state motorists face. “In a region that’s going to go from 6.7 million to 10.5 million population in the next 10 years, we’re not going to get there by timing the signals or clearing crashes,” Lomax said of Dallas-Fort Worth population estimates by the North Central Texas Council of Governments.