Caution merge ahead

The Chronicle reports this morning on TXDOT’s closing of the brand new Blodgett onramp (above, center of the picture) onto the Southwest Freeway for safety concerns.

I know this onramp well — it was the scariest part of my daily commute for 2 years. 59 was coming off of an elevated structure at this point and the onramp came up to meet it. And that meeting was abrupt — no merge lane whatsoever. I’d accelerate to about 45, and look over my shoulder as the freeway came into view. If there was a gap in traffic, I’d accelerate in. If there wasn’t, the only choice was to hit the brakes and wait until there was a gap big enough to accelerate into from a dead stop. I was driving a 1984 Toyota Corolla, so that was a big gap. Not fun, and a bit unsafe. I figured that was a relic of 1950s engineering, and we knew better by now.

It turns out TXDOT rebuilt the onramp in the same configuration.

Texas Department of Transportation area engineer Quincy Allen, who is in charge of the reconstruction project, said the merging process needs further study.

“I’ve been over it a dozen times,” Allen said of the ramp. “It’s a short merge, but if you know what to look for, it’s functional.”

He acknowledged, however, that, “For somebody coming up the ramp, with freeway speeds on both sides of you, in the rush hour, I can imagine it’s challenging.”

We at CTC like Quincy; he did a very good job of dealing with neighborhood concerns on this project and keeping us up-to-date on construction. But that’s just not a good answer. “If you know what to look for”? Did they hand out users’ manuals to 59 that I missed?

Unfortunately, this isn’t one bad ramp. As the Chronicle notes, there’s another (not quite as bad) example three blocks away on Spur 527, and there are other brand new ones on the West Loop and the Katy Freeway.

Ten years ago, TXDOT had a well deserved reputation for being bad at aesthetics, bad at scheduling construction, bad at keeping the public informed, and bad at working with neighborhoods. But they built very functional freeways. 59 west of Shepherd, rebuilt in 1989-1992, is a model of a driver-friendly freeway. Onramps turn into lengthy merge lanes, and most of those merge lanes don’t end; they simply become exits. If you’re entering the freeway, you have lots of time to merge, and if you still can’t, you can safely exit.

TXDOT is getting better at dealing with the public (though they have a long way to go), they’re actually completing projects on time, and they’re trying to build good-looking freeways. It would be ironic if they’ve forgotten what they were good at.

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