With car traffic and congestion in the Bryan-College Station metro area approaching — but not yet reaching — levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic, two local transportation experts shared data and reflections on traffic patterns as well as on present and future road construction projects in interviews with The Eagle.
Dan Rudge, executive director for the Bryan-College Station Metropolitan Planning Organization, said Friday that the long-discussed Interstate 14 is in alignment study phase. Interstate 14, a relative sliver of which currently runs near Killeen, would go from west Texas near Midland/Odessa east through central and east central Texas to Hunstville before going all the way through Louisiana out to Georgia.
Rudge said a transportation bill that recently passed the U.S. House includes language for a loop around Bryan-College Station that would be called Interstate 214. Rudge said local leaders have been working to have I-214 included in the bill.
“That’s important, because once that language is in the bill, then that allows TxDOT and anybody else that wants to do it to do an alignment study and begin the environmental process and the design process. Getting that in there is a pretty big deal,” Rudge said. “It typically takes anywhere from 5 to 10 years from alignment study to final design, so the sooner we can get it mentioned in the legislation, the sooner we can bring it to the attention of those who can do those studies.”
Rudge said currently, the version of the bill that’s in the U.S. Senate doesn’t include I-214, though stakeholders are working to change that. With some exceptions, local leaders have largely expressed a desire to have an interstate come through the Bryan-College Station metro area for potential economic benefits.
Rudge said current road projects and those slated to begin construction in the next couple years haven’t seen many fiscal or virus protocol-related effects; he added that some projects scheduled for 5-10 years out were altered or in some cases defunded because of pandemic-related budgetary challenges.
This weekend, FM 2818 is closed from Raymond Stotzer Parkway to George Bush Drive through 6 a.m. Monday “to allow the placement of a large drainage structure across the full width of FM 2818 instead of placing the culvert in three smaller phases, which would require reduced lanes and slower traffic over the course of months,” according to a TxDOT press release.
The closure is part of a $47.6 million project that spans from north of Stotzer Parkway to Wellborn Road. Rudge said the first option was to widen FM 2818 by one lane in each direction, but he said research found that within 10 years, traffic would be back where it was. He also said that the plan being implemented would allow FM 2818 to be transformed into an expressway if leaders choose.
In 2022, work will continue on FM 2818, and a major phase of a project to revamp Texas Avenue with new medians, turn lanes and sidewalks from Downtown Bryan to University Avenue is slated to begin. An intersection-raising project at Wellborn Road and Holleman Drive is also on the schedule, Rudge said.
Rudge said that 2023 will be “transportation Armageddon” locally because work will continue on the 2022 projects, and a major renovation of Texas 6 is set to begin. Rudge explained that the plan is to widen Texas 6 from Texas 21 south to Texas 40 and, ultimately, add distributor-collector lanes. According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, distributor-collector lanes are extra lanes between the freeway mainlanes and the frontage roads. Several major freeway-to-freeway interchanges in the San Antonio area have these lanes. Rudge said that the average person is on Texas 6 for less than two miles per trip.
Though transportation-related construction can be frustrating, Rudge acknowledged, the goal is to provide motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians with increased safety and convenience.
“There’s going to be a period of inconvenience that takes place, but once they’re done, you’ll be able to get around Brazos County much more easily and much faster — and most importantly, much safer. All of these projects have a huge safety element,” Rudge said.
Bill Eisele, senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, said car traffic dropped precipitously early in the pandemic — both locally and nationally — and has steadily rebounded since, though not yet quite to pre-pandemic levels.
“Nationwide, we really observed this shocking drop in traffic last spring due to the pandemic. We certainly experienced that here in Bryan-College Station,” Eisele said. “Likewise, we’ve all felt it start to come back, though we’re still a little bit less than our pre-pandemic levels. I do expect that we’ll be close to pre-pandemic level by the fall, if not already back there, once we get A&M back to school.”
Eisele said that despite the steep drop in car traffic during the pandemic, commercial truck traffic was far less affected because supply needs remained strong across the country. He said TTI will soon release a detailed report outlining the effects of the pandemic on travel patterns.
Looking forward, Eisele said “there’s a lot still that we don’t know” about the long-term effects of the pandemic on travel and transportation habits. In particular, he noted that there are jobs are likely to keep some elements of remote work, and that ripple effects, particularly in large metro areas, could be far-reaching.
“How much flexibility will people have in their jobs? Where are they going to live as a function of that, where will they work, and where will they recreate? Once that settles, then the business community will need to figure out where to locate to get to the workforces,” Eisele said. He also mentioned that developments such as Bryan’s Midtown area could impact travel and traffic patterns.