Driving Me Crazy

October 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

Driving in Houston–A Crash Course in Chaos by Lynn Ashby

It was famed racing driver and Houstonian A.J. Foyt who once observed, “I feel safer on a racetrack than I do on Houston’s freeways.” He should know, because Foyt got paid to win the Indianapolis 500 four times while you and I actually have to pay for the privilege of risking our lives on Houston’s roads. Remember several years ago when Houston police were pulled off of patrolling our freeways because it was too dangerous? That was rather unnerving.

As we sit in gridlock, listening on the radio to some semi–literate, thumb–sucker explaining why Obama is a vegetarian cannibal, let’s look at where we are in terms of driving in Houston. For openers, yes, we have traffic. There are more vehicles in Harris County than there are people in Houston; more vehicles than there are in 26 states. In 2010, we had 3,372,647 motor vehicles registered in this county, an increase of 434,272 from 2005. That means that every single day last year when you backed out of your driveway, seven days a week, there were almost 1,190 more cars on the road than there were in 2005. No wonder we can’t find a parking place in the Galleria.

Today, according to the Texas Transportation Institute, Houston drivers spend an average of 58 hours each year stuck in traffic, costing each person $1,322 annually.  (Dallas drivers spend 48 hours a year in traffic, costing $1,077.) What’s more, it takes longer to get there. The average rush hour speed on our freeways is 40.3 miles an hour, down from 48.3 in 1982 and 44 in 2003. Multiply Houston’s wasted time and money by our number of vehicles and there is no question why we have road rage, dirty air and big gas bills.

In addition, demographers predict that the Houston area will grow by 2 million more people in the next 20 years. If you think we’ve got traffic jams now, wait awhile.

Not to get bogged down in statistics, but some of these figures may explain your blood pressure. In the 10–county Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), last year we traveled 139,283,043 miles every day. If you are the average motorist in this MSA, you drive just under 30 (29.9) miles per day. At almost $4 a gallon, go figure. Houston leads the nation in HOV lanes with 103 miles.

Harris County contains 1,835 miles of freeways and toll roads. It could have been more. At one point the Harris County Toll Road Authority considered running a toll road right through Memorial Park. When the authority didn’t think up its own stupid ideas, it received some from Washington. In 2003, the Government Accounting Office, or GAO, studied toll roads and recommended that our authority increase the tolls during rush hours. The report said this plan would keep more people off the toll roads.

Huh? Isn’t the whole point of our very expensive toll road system to put people on those roads and take them off  our city streets? The GAO report did point out a few negatives of increased rush–hour tolls including, “little system–wide reduction in travel times” and “increased gridlock on some alternate routes.” Our tax dollars at work.

As you drive around town, does it seem you have to stop and start a lot? You do, because we have – count ‘em – 2,600 traffic signals and another 1,660 yellow flashing signs at school crossings within the city. That’s a lot of signs, so we have 68 workers going around town inspecting all these electronic gadgets. They have a 27–point check list which they go through with each device twice a year. Most other cities only do it annually, and some other Texas cities are coming here to see how we do it.

Still, we don’t have to use our roads. We can always take our extensive subway system. Oh, that’s right. Unlike most large cities in the world, Houston has had no mass transit since the mule died. I blame our backwardness here in Space City on the three amigos: Bob Lanier, Tom DeLay and John Culberson. Singlehandedly (triplehandedly?), they prevented Houston from getting any kind of mass tracked transit, while Dallas was eating our lunch – and our tax dollars.

They led the fight against any sane transportation system, and often took steps by themselves to defeat good projects. Let’s start with Lanier. He was head of Metro and was against light rail. Then–Mayor Kathy Whitmire favored some sort of rail system (including an elevated monorail which never got off the ground, so to speak).

Lanier, being a wealthy and powerful person, simply ran for mayor against Whitmire, won, and scrapped any move towards rail. More than that, he destroyed all plans to build a significant light rail system in Houston for years to come by taking an enormous amount of Metro money, which had been set aside for rail, and spending it on everything from curbs to cops. The funds siphoned from Metro were a nice addition to the city’s coffers, but his immediate feel–good plan was a disaster for Houston’s long range transportation needs.

Tom DeLay is another case. He consistently and aggressively fought Houston’s receiving any federal funds for light rail. He took away $45 million in federal transportation grants that were earmarked for the Houston area and immediately gave the money to Dallas. Because of DeLay, Houston was the only city in the nation specifically banned by federal law from receiving federal funds for rail transit. Come to think of it, whatever happened to Tom DeLay?

This brings us to John Culberson. He took over the safe, west Houston, solid GOP Congressional district from Bill Archer (who had held the post for 30 years until he retired, to give you an idea of how safe the seat is). Even though Culberson was a veteran state representative, he faced a lot of opponents in the Republican primary. He ran, and won, mostly on a platform of widening the Katy Freeway.
The freeway was vastly widened, creating more concrete, more flooding, more noise, more air pollution and, of course, more traffic. There is probably a Parkinson’s Law of Transportation: traffic will expand to meet the lanes available. A year or so ago, Culberson wrote a letter to the Chronicle calling for a rail line out to the Katy Freeway. Outraged letters to the editor showed elephants—and donkeys—never forget.

Rail transit to the center of Houston is older than most of Houston. If you look at an old map you will see that railroad lines came into Houston like spokes on a wheel. Virtually every one of our freeways parallel, or are built on top of, rail lines. Indeed, the city motto was: “Where 17 railroads meet the sea.” That must have been one hell of a splash. Even today our city seal shows a locomotive, and, with great foresight, black soot is belching out of its smokestack. A few years ago, while most large cities were building new tracks, we ripped up those alongside the Katy Freeway to expand the concrete. Dumb!

Amidst all this gloom and doom, let us remember that Houston has some beautiful sights while motoring. Have you ever come into our town on a freeway at sunset when the air is clean (Wednesdays) and the sun’s rays reflect off our magnificent skyline? Depending on construction, high–speed police chases and ICE roadblocks, you can spot gorgeous views coming up the Gulf Freeway, on the Pearce Elevated, on the Katy going from the loop to downtown and other spots. No doubt the same can be said for sunrises, but noon is my dawn.

Another great sight is going through the Galleria (bumper to bumper) at Christmas time, looking at all the buildings festooned with lights and haloes on top. One time I forgot the day, and came upon a Go Texan trail ride. Suddenly, I rounded the corner and there were a hundred horses, cowboys/girls, wagons, flags, everyone waving and laughing. Now you just don’t see that in Detroit. We also have some delightful streets. North and South Boulevard, with those huge trees, spring to mind. Athletic coaches at Rice actually point to the beautiful campus as a selling point for potential Owls.

Don’t laugh, but auto accidents in Houston are declining, and experts credit the lousy economy – with high unemployment, fewer workers drive to work – and higher gas prices. Also, the drought helped, with dry streets. In terms of numbers, 23,432 auto accidents were recorded in Houston from the middle of last November to the middle of April of this year. That’s a drop of 13 percent from the 26,662 crashes that were reported between mid–June and Nov. 14 of last year. However, fatal traffic accidents in Houston have remained steady during the last three years. Last year, 216 people died in Houston auto crashes, compared to the 207 killed in 2009 and 217 dead in 2008.

AGGGGGG!!! I am driving through an intersection and a car comes whizzing from the side, runs a red light and almost slams into me. Alas, our red light districts were shut down by a public vote. It rather boggles the mind that our friends and neighbors would vote to unplug the already installed cameras at 50 of our more deadly intersections. Do they like to get themselves and my grandchildren crushed to death by speeding, law–breaking idiots?

Opponents to the cameras said the devices were only money–making operations for the city. It is unclear how they feel about parking meters, zoo tickets and parade permits, and those expenses don’t even save lives. By shutting down the cameras, the city lost between $10 and $14 million in revenue a year and had to—guess what?—order lay–offs in the HPD. But, just as our overall accident rate has declined, so have wrecks where the cameras were unplugged. Following the five months after cameras were turned off (they are still in place) those monitored intersections had 362 accidents—a 16 percent drop from the previous five months. Cops credit the drought and more police traffic enforcement.

This trend of less driving is also reflected in the city’s SAFEClear program in which the city of Houston pays tow trucks to assist stranded motorists on freeways. The towing used to be free. Now a cash–starved city is planning to charge $50 per tow. If you are stopped dead, or wrecked, in the middle lane of the Southwest Freeway at 5 p.m. on a rainy weekday, $50 is worth every penny. Even more if it’s 3 a.m.

So welcome to Houston, where road rage is all the rage. Just consider our fellow drivers around town, some of whose cars need training wheels: No one is allowed to use a turn signal. Stop signs are for wussies. That’s not a Mercedes hood ornament, but crosshairs for the nose gunner. Even baby buggies in Houston have roll bars. Avoid any cars that have notches on their bumpers, stickers reading: “I’d Rather Be T–Boning” or has a personalized license plate: “DWI.” As for our city motto, forget “Where 17 railroads meet the sea.” It should be: “Where two cars meet each other—constantly.”

I just roared passed A.J. Foyt on the South Loop. He looked scared.

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