The Bryan-College Station area is poised for the return of its sizable student population in the weeks to come as Texas A&M University prepares for the start of the 2017-2018 academic year.
Bryan-College Station Metropolitan Planning Organization Executive Director Dan Rudge and Texas A&M Transportation Institute research fellow Tim Lomax said drivers in the community should be ready for an increase in traffic for the first few weeks of the new semester as returning students settle into their transportation routines -- especially in areas where student housing has grown the most.
"A lot of people will try different modes [of transportation] the first couple weeks," Lomax said. "They might ride the bus to class Tuesday, then walk, ride a bike or drive on Thursday. ... That's usually the time when there's the most traffic congestion and the most chaos as people are trying to figure out the best way to get around."
Since 2007, university officials said the number of permanent beds available to students on campus has increased by more than 1,400 from 9,767 to about 11,200 this fall. As of the fall 2016 semester, on-campus student housing was at 94 percent capacity, according to university records.
This growth is amplified by the recent addition on George Bush Drive of the Park West student housing project -- a 3,400-bed public-private partnership between the Texas A&M University System and private developer Servitas. As of the complex's grand opening late last month, more than 1,600 students had signed leases at the apartments, with more expected by the time the semester begins.
Unlike the 1,200-bed White Creek student apartments, Park West is not included in the university's on-campus count.
Peter Lange, associate vice president of Transportation Services, said the past three years have seen a steady increase in demand for the university's transit services. He said transportation services over the three-year period saw an 18.7 percent increase -- an addition of 24,066 hours of service -- over the previous three-year period.
Lomax said part of the way the university is seeking to help with the transportation needs created by the continued growth is by making route adjustments to better serve areas such as the Park West complex, which currently has two routes stopping on its nearly 50-acre lot.
City of College Station Traffic Engineer Troy Rother said he believes the key to addressing the transportation challenges surrounding the university campus is the collaborative approach that has been taken by officials in the area.
"We're all working together toward a common goal," Rother said. "It's important for us to address the issues we have, but also to plan together for the future."
One example of this partnership, Rudge said, includes how transportation officials are tailoring their plans for future improvements with Texas A&M's latest campus master plan in mind.
Unveiled to the public earlier this summer, Rudge said the master plan's push to relocate the majority of its parking toward the outer edges of the university through the use of multi-level parking structures is expected to help make it easier for people to get on and off campus.
"One thing that would do is reduce the pressure on [George Bush] and Wellborn," Rudge said. "I think they're doing the best they can to try to minimize the impact of the university on our transportation system. Everything they are doing, they are looking to use roads that have enough capacity to handle students. ... When you look at the transportation plan from a professional's perspective, it's something that makes it easier for us to work with."
Rudge said another forthcoming project that is planned to help relieve traffic congestion -- specifically on George Bush Drive -- is the reconstruction of F.M. 2818. He said the project is slated for funding in 2019 and will focus on improving the section of the road between its intersections with University Drive and Wellborn Road.
The $18 million project is planned to include widened roads, the installation of concrete median barriers and bicycle and pedestrian accommodations.
In addition to automobile traffic, Rudge, Lomax and Rother each noted the recent increase in bicycle and pedestrian travel in the area around campus -- a trend they said is likely to grow along with the addition of new off-campus options such as Park West.
Lomax said the planned multi-million-dollar interchange at the intersection of George Bush Drive and Wellborn Road is expected to not only help with the flow of traffic but also provide pedestrians with a safer, more efficient pathway to and from campus through the use of roadway-separated bicycle and pedestrian paths.
With the increase in the number of student apartments on that side of town in recent years, Lomax said officials are working to develop a "corridor that is heavily oriented toward transit."
"I don't know that we've come up with a solution yet, but that's one of the things we're trying to think about," Lomax said.
Over on University Drive, Rother said the entities are working together to address what the road "needs to look like to accommodate more pedestrians and how that whole area functions as it continues to grow."
Rudge added with new residential housing options being constructed on Northgate, the need for this kind of work will only continue to increase in the coming years.
The issue of available space will be something officials must contend with as the need for changes to the way traffic flows in high-density areas continues, Rudge said.
He said roadwork such as the lane realignment being done by the City of Bryan on the southbound lane of Wellborn Road between Z-Islander and Clay Street -- which begins Monday and is expected to be completed Wednesday -- is one way of addressing some challenges while working within a constrained space.
"The best solution to this was not to widen the road, but to reconfigure it so it works a little better," Rudge said. "Those are the kind of things I think you're going to see more and more of in the future. Not just here in Bryan-College Station, but all over the country, because it is so expensive to build new capacity that nobody can afford everything they need."
Rudge said while there is no shortage of transportation projects that could help make a positive change in the way drivers get around Bryan-College Station, the biggest limitation is funding.
"If we were to build everything in our major thoroughfare concept, that would be somewhere in the ballpark of $3 billion worth of investment," Rudge said. "We have $12 million per year to work with to cover not just roads but also bicycle and pedestrian projects, all kinds of things. ... We just have to react to where the growth goes and build what we can."
He said a major focus for the MPO moving forward is to work on engaging more with the community to discuss the options available and their costs -- both monetary and in terms of increased congestion.
"There are a lot of things we could do, but they all have a pretty hefty price tag," Rudge said. "We want to inform the public of how much [projects] are going to cost and ask them what they want us to do."
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