Harris County Commissioners Court approved a plan to increase all tolls by 25 cents. But on the Westpark, at least during peak commute hours, the toll would go from $1 to $2.50. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says the toll hike was designed to force commuters off of Westpark thereby reducing congestion, but he says that wasn't the right decision to make.
"There's a problem. And the problem is you cannot have congestion pricing if you don't have a place for people to go to avoid congestion. You can get them off Westpark, but where are they going to go?"
The about-face decision came after hundreds of commuters complained over the new pricing. Emmett says the decision to reverse the toll increase was influenced by the public's reaction to the plan.
"Many people have pointed, and I think rightfully so, that until Interstate 10 construction projects get completed, until Richmond Avenue is widened farther out where it goes from four lanes to two lanes, and until some of the other projects are completed in the area, it doesn't make any sense to try to move people off Westpark, if that's our goal."
The judge says the county's consultants didn't take those other construction projects into consideration when making the recommendation to increase the fees. Harris County officials have drawn criticism over what some view as hasty and uninformed decison-making. Public Infrastructure Director Art Storey says he thinks it's significant that what people in the area have to say matters to county officials.
"We may have been shortsighted to believe it could work previously. But we certainly are not so hard-headed that we don't listen to what people say."
Storey says his department will immediately begin the work of looking for alternative ways to reduce congestion on the Westpark Tollway.
"We're going to do what we can as soon as we can. If it takes additional construction, it could take as long as a year. If it takes retiming some traffic signals on parallel roads, it could be done in a month. It just depends on which sorts of things we find and what we think will work."
Storey says they'll also talk to METRO officials about the possibility of increasing bus service along Westpark and look into incentives to encourage to car-and vanpool. The County's system-wide 25-cent increase will stay in effect. That money will fund various road projects. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.