DFW Metro Area is Seeing Progress on $651M Congestion-Relief Projects
Combating Traffic Gridlocks: Texas Clear Lanes Funding Aids in Untangling Traffic Knot at East Loop 820, SH 121, and I-635 in DFW
Last year, traffic congestion cost Americans nearly $87 billion (an average of $1,348 per driver), according to INRIX’s “2018 Global Traffic Scorecard.” Assuming all factors used to compile this data remained unchanged, the total financial loss would exceed $4 trillion within 50 years. With this chunk of change, about one-fifth of the national debt could be paid off today.
How’s that for putting things in perspective?
The frustrating traffic gridlocks choking our nation’s roadways need fixing – especially in Texas, where a rapidly swelling population is placing heavy strain on the capacity and integrity of existing infrastructure.
Back in September 2015, Governor Greg Abbott directed the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), to develop a comprehensive statewide congestion-relief strategy aimed at improving mobility. This program, now known as Texas Clear Lanes, has since allocated $6.8 billion to non-tolled projects designed to reduce congestion in the state’s five largest metro areas: Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. Major benefits of this initiative include more reliable travel times, improved mobility and safety, enhanced operational efficiency and lower fuel consumption.
Untangling Fort Worth’s Worst Traffic Snarls
To date, 18 congestion-relief projects have been fully funded through Texas Clear Lanes, and another 15 are either partially funded or slated for potential future funding. Of the total 33 projects, six are located in Fort Worth, which added nearly 20,000 new residents in 2018, making it one of the country’s fastest-growing cities.
TxDOT’s Fort Worth District has already completed two of its Texas Clear Lanes projects. Two others are currently under construction, which combined represent a $651 million investment. Both projects broke ground in summer 2018 and are expected to achieve substantial completion sometime in 2022.
Massive Upgrades to East Loop 820
The East Loop 820 Project aims to improve mobility and safety for drivers in northeast Tarrant County who have to deal with the I-820 bottleneck between State Highway 121 and Randol Mill Road. Flatiron Construction Corporation was awarded this $174 million contract.
The scope of work consists of widening a 3-mile section of interstate to three lanes and adding one auxiliary lane in each direction. Additionally, workers are replacing the bridge structures over the Trinity River and constructing a continuous northbound frontage road over the Trinity Railway Express (TRE). The project team is also adding two new direct connectors at SH 121, which will facilitate uninterrupted freeway access to northbound and southbound I-820 travelers.
“With a project of this size and scope, there are always unique challenges to address,” says Val Lopez, TxDOT Public Information Officer. “Coordination with the TRE for work near and over this busy rail connection between Fort Worth and Dallas, and mitigating mobility impacts to their Richland Hills Station adjacent to the project, have been an ongoing effort.” Another consideration, he adds, is work performed over the Trinity River, which can rise sharply from heavy, intense rains as it is the primary river channel through the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
An end of queue (EOQ) warning system has also been integrated as part of the construction process. Using radar and portable message boards, this technology advises motorists of backups within the work zone. “Its deployment is for both safety to reduce rear-end crashes at the back of a queue and to provide traveler information on conditions (slow or stopped traffic ahead),” Lopez explains. This is the first time the TxDOT Fort Worth District has used this system in an urban setting.
Optimized Bridge Designs for New I-635/SH 121 Interchange
The $370 million I-635/SH 121 Interchange Project is a crucial component of the DFW Connector program, which has already infused the DFW area with more than $1 billion in infrastructure upgrades. NorthGate Constructors, a joint venture comprised of Kiewit Texas Construction LP and Zachry Construction Corporation, is serving as general contractor.
This 3-mile project involves rebuilding and widening SH 121 north of the DFW International Airport to accommodate a new interchange at I-635 and new direct connectors at FM 2499 and SH 26. Crews are also reconstructing and widening the Bass Pro Drive bridge along with the surrounding frontage roads. “The first three new bridges on this project – northbound SH 26 to SH 121, eastbound Bass Pro Drive and southbound SH 121 to I-635 – will open this summer to the public,” says Alyssa Tenorio, Public Information Manager, NorthGate Constructors.
As with all highway construction jobs, traffic management can be challenging. To minimize traffic delays and ensure the safety of both construction workers and commuters, NorthGate Constructors is utilizing various methods and techniques to speed project progress.
Tenorio adds, “We have optimized the design by placing most of the new bridge foundations in areas that are not currently under traffic, minimizing traffic conflicts. This allows the completion of new structures outside of the current traffic pattern, thereby reducing the impact to traffic movement.”
Another area of design efficiency occurred during the project’s preliminary phases. “NorthGate modified the I-635 overpass layout to eliminate a straddle bent location that would have spanned all of the southbound SH 121 mainlanes. Not only did this design eliminate the need for extensive falsework over mainlane traffic, but it also allows NorthGate to build this portion of the I-635/SH 121 interchange with reduced traffic impacts,” Tenorio says.
In order to avoid additional full-weekend closures, NorthGate Constructors used horizontal drilling to complete utility operations under the SH 121 mainlanes. “Multiple utility lines were relocated using this method,” Tenorio explains. “From mid-January through April of this year, crews completed horizontal drilling for a sewer line under SH 121. The new pipe was 36 inches in diameter and relocated 30 feet below the roadway.”
Between June and July, crews conducted another horizontal drilling operation for a 24-inch water line running approximately 15 feet deep. The drilling path for both of these lines is approximately 700 feet.
Later this year, construction milestones slated for completion include new bridges from westbound I-635 to northbound SH 121/FM 2499 and from northbound SH 121 to FM 2499. In 2020, the project team will finish building the eastbound portion of the Bass Pro Drive bridge as well as the direct connector from southbound FM 2499 to SH 121/I-635.
Construction Alone Won’t Solve Congestion Woes
According to researchers at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), gridlocks are worsening statewide, driven largely by population expansion that outpaces growth in roadway capacity. In major urban areas, the problem has become so bad that drivers have to plan more than twice as much travel time as they would normally need due to slowdowns caused by factors such as bad weather, collisions, and construction zones.
There is no single solution to eliminating traffic jams, particularly in burgeoning metro areas, says TTI’s Senior Research Scientist, David Schrank, Ph.D., a key contributor to TxDOT’s Top 100 most-congested corridors report. These high-traffic areas will always experience a certain level of congestion, he adds, simply because they are vital to regional travel.
“The Katy Freeway in Houston, for example, was expanded about a decade ago because it had congestion at all hours of the day and travel times were very unreliable – even on the weekends,” Dr. Schrank recalls. “A few years later, we started seeing a significant amount of congestion again during peak traveling periods. But during off-peak hours, travel times were still fairly reliable, and things were generally working a lot better. This scenario shows that there’s just so much demand during peak hours that will cause traffic to back up; however, for the most part, building more capacity works pretty well.” He also notes the evaluation of traffic flow during off-peak periods is one of the most revealing ways to gauge whether a congestion-relief strategy has significantly improved trip times.
The general consensus among transportation experts is that congestion solutions must involve a mix of strategies – combining new construction, better operations and more transportation options as well as flexible work schedules.
“Our growing traffic problem is too massive for any one entity to handle – state and local agencies can’t do it alone,” comments TTI Research Fellow Tim Lomax, Ph.D., PE. “Businesses can give their employees more flexibility in where, when and how they work, individual workers can adjust their commuting patterns, and we can have better thinking when it comes to long-term land-use planning. This problem calls for a classic ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach.”
Continued innovations in technologies such as smart roadways and automated vehicles will also play a major role in how people travel in the future. More intelligent transportation systems could certainly go a long way in managing the flow of people and commerce more efficiently.
In a nutshell, government officials and transportation planners must utilize the knowledge acquired from data-driven research – as well as an appropriate and balanced combination of congestion-relief strategies – to enhance mobility for Texas commuters.