Multibillion-dollar overhaul plans for U.S. 59 may not solve flooding problem

U.S. Highway 59, the main evacuation route out of Houston, has been a problem for East Texas for decades, and when floods comparable to Hurricane Harvey hit the region in April, the highway was closed in several places, cutting off a key evacuation route for countless people fleeing floodwaters.

Plans to upgrade the highway, which stretches more than 900 miles through Texas from Laredo to Texarkana, to interstate standards have been in the works for decades. But the Texas Department of Transportation says it can’t guarantee the billions of dollars poured into the project will solve flooding problems.

“U.S. 59 was one of the issues during (Hurricanes) Rita, Ike and Katrina,” Polk County Judge Sidney Murphy said. “So you’d think by now we’d be working hard to widen that road.”

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Over the past three decades, Texas has poured millions of dollars into an effort known as the I-69 Project to upgrade portions of the freeway to interstate standards with the goals of easing traffic congestion, supporting economic development, improving travel safety and improving a key evacuation route for the state’s most populous city.

So far, only a portion of I-59 through Houston has been upgraded to interstate standards, which includes a minimum of two travel lanes in each direction, 12-foot lane widths and paved shoulders of a specified width on both sides.

Efforts to improve highways in other areas have focused on population centers such as Lufkin and Nacogdoches.

Portions of I-59 between Cleveland and Shepherd, and between Shepherd and Livingston, experienced significant flooding in April. The highway was closed multiple times between April 29 and May 4, and again during further heavy rains over the weekend of May 16, and is scheduled for repairs over the next four years.

These sections are part of about $6 billion the state will spend over the next decade to upgrade the highway to interstate standards, address safety issues and cover basic maintenance. It is. TxDOT says it has allocated $1.5 billion for projects already underway or soon to begin on US 59. The agency has earmarked an additional $4.3 billion for future projects scheduled to begin within the next four to 10 years.

Northbound Interstate 69/Route 59 splits into Interstate 45 on Thursday, February 23, 2017 in Houston.

But it’s unclear whether these upgrades will prevent flooding like the ones that submerged parts of the highway this spring and during Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008.

The Texas Department of Transportation said improved highways will be designed to avoid inundation from 100-year floods, but 100-year floods (which have a 1% chance of occurring in any given year) are becoming more common, as are 500-year floods (which are more severe and have a 0.2% chance of occurring in any given year).

For example, Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was the third 500-year flood to hit Houston in the past three years, and the Memorial Day floods of 2015 and 2016 were also classified as 500-year floods.

John Nielsen-Gammon, the state’s climatologist at Texas A&M University, warned that flooding is becoming more extreme in Texas.

“East Texas in general is experiencing a significant increase in extreme precipitation compared to the last century,” Nielsen Gammon said. “Part of that is due to climate change, which has caused a nearly 20 percent increase in the intensity of very heavy rain across the southern U.S.”

TxDOT has not said whether its current improvement plans take into account climatologists’ warnings that climate change will cause more severe flooding.

“While projects being developed along the future Interstate 69 corridor are designed to withstand a 100-year flood, TxDOT cannot predict future precipitation or flooding potential for lakes, rivers and streams,” he said. Rhonda Oakes, spokeswoman for TxDOT’s Lufkin District, said plans are currently underway to upgrade about 12 miles of U.S. 59 to interstate standards.

Laura Butterbrodt, another TxDOT spokeswoman, said the agency is currently developing a statewide resiliency plan that “targets critical routes to ensure they are best designed, maintained and operated.” and promote resilience.”

The first draft will be available for review by the Resilience Steering Committee in June.

When the federal government authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways crisscrossing the country in the 1950s, it paid 90 percent of the cost, leaving the remaining 10 percent to the states.

But state Sen. Robert Nichols said the I-69 project wasn’t part of the original plan and didn’t receive federal designation until the early 2000s. When completed, the interstate will stretch more than 2,600 miles through multiple states, from the Texas-Mexico border to the Michigan-Canada border.

But each state along the proposed interstate would pay for it, not the federal government.

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“Currently, there is no dedicated federal funding for the full conversion of U.S. 59 to Interstate 69 through Texas in the future,” the Federal Highway Administration said in an emailed statement. “It is up to the state (Texas Department of Transportation) whether to move forward with the project.”