Why Wait? Here’s The Preston Center Traffic Plan – NOW

Preston Center Task Force Map

The Task Force’s 1,630 acre charge

As CandysDirt.com readers (and likely most all of Dallas) know, Councilwoman Jennifer Gates formed a task force to hire a consultant to tell them how bad traffic and parking are in the Preston Road and Northwest Highway area. Granted the scope of the project is much larger (see map), but this intersection is where the action will be. I just heard today that the consultant has been selected who will deliver suggested solutions for their $350,000 fee.

During the last task force meeting on April 27, it was revealed that they were about $100,000 short and seeking donations from concerned area citizens and businesses needing a tax write-off. The other $250,000 is being fronted by North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTOG).

NCTOG is a voluntary coalition formed from local government representatives from the 16 counties surrounding Dallas and Fort Worth and includes 235 members. NCTOG is a political subdivision formed by the State of Texas in 1966. NCTOG’s mission seems to be to a shared resource to help municipal planning in the region (judging from current job vacancies, traffic management is a large part). Unfortunately their reports and recommendations carry no force so no matter how smart (and right) they are, local governments can ultimately do whatever they want. Funding comes from member dues and local, state and federal government agencies.

The initial data will take 12-18 months to gather and present to the task force. I then easily foresee another 6-12 months of digesting and bandying around various scenarios before crafting a final document to present to the City Council. Or in other words, about two years. Then the work begins to beg, borrow and curry favor to implement whatever recommendations have made it that far. Best guess for seeing a first shovel hit the ground? At least four years from now … if at all.

If at All

  • “If at all” because if Dallas and University Park City Councils are not even supportive enough to fund the study, then surely they’re not anxiously waiting, wallet outstretched, to unleash the millions needed to actually better the area, are they?
  • “If at all” because, as pointed out by Morning News blogger Robert Wilonsky, today’s fracas is a near word-for-word repeat from 1976 which sought (unsuccessfully) to back-zone properties to three stories in an effort to curb development and traffic.
  • “If at all” because two later studies in 1986 and 1989 received little/no action or funding from the city.
  • “If at all” because Mayor Mike Rawlins, faced with overflowing property tax coffers, would rather cut taxes than fix crumbling infrastructure. Infrastructure that’s admittedly underfunded by the Texas Transportation Commission by $2-billion annually in the NCTOG area (I hate taxes too, but I hate crappy roads more).

I think the City Council is more likely to thank the task force for their work before ushering them out with a case of Rice-a-Roni and a year’s supply of Tic Tacs. The anti-development crowd knows the game being played is to stall and starve developers. The death of 1,000 City Council postponements.

Begun in 2014, we will spend over four years pretending this is a difficult and time consuming project. It’s not. In fact, I spent a few hours over a weekend and crafted the poor-man’s Preston Center Traffic and Parking Plan. I have mailed a copy to each member of the city council so that, years from now, I’ll have my big, fat, “I told you so” moment.

Granted my plan is more concise and isn’t full of the pretty sketches of happy, dog-walking models on tree-lined, car-less streets – I’m not good with Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, or AutoCAD.  But don’t be fooled, these kinds of images are all just a marketing “show” put on for the tourists.

But the same recommendations on how to fix traffic and parking will be there. Why am I so sure? Because the area surrounding Northwest Highway and Preston Road is finite and so are the solutions. It’s the simple application of math coupled with a little research on traffic management theory. After all, we’re talking physical roadways here, not a TARDIS.

Jon Anderson’s Traffic Plan for Preston Center

Jump for more details.

History is Part of the Problem

Historically, one of the traffic problems was created as the Tollway was born from the old St. Louis Railway Corridor in 1968. At Northwest Highway, what had been a railroad crossing became a major automotive intersection.   While the traffic capacity provided by the Tollway is great for moving cars in and out of the area, the Tollway’s proximity to Preston Center impacts traffic movement. The physical closeness of traffic signals surrounding the Tollway (particularly at Douglas) creates a bottleneck on Northwest Highway. This has been exacerbated over the years as the Preston Center area grew, and the surrounding areas up and down the Tollway became more heavily populated.

Another remnant of the railway-to-Tollway transformation is that there isn’t a single Tollway crossing in the mile between Northwest Highway and Lovers Lane.  This forces all east-west traffic flow to Northwest Highway or Lovers Lane. Other major crossings also have mid-point crossings – e.g. Park, Beverly, University, etc. — but for some reason not this pair.

East-west traffic is further compounded by cross-streets that don’t extend. For example, Park Lane crosses the Tollway but jogs south at Preston Road which is further gummed up by traffic signals at both jogged Preston Road intersections.

10-Lanes would fill up too

10-Lanes would fill up too

Wholesale Roadway Expansion is a Losing Proposition

Some of you may be thinking that if somehow all the major roads were expanded to say, 10-lanes, traffic in the area would forever flow at the height of rush-hour. You’d be wrong.

Traffic management is a little like a one-gallon water bottle being filled by a hose. If it’s overfilled, the water spills out. If it’s half empty, it quickly refills to capacity and then again to overflowing. The Preston Center area is a gallon bottle that’s already overflowing onto side streets during peak hours. If you radically expand the roadways in the area, they will simply refill as drivers reroute to the now less-full roadway … until it again fills and quickly overflows.

It’s part of the same reason expanding public transit alone doesn’t typically ease traffic. If X-number of commuters take the train, X-number will move in to take their place on the road (either from different routes or from population growth). The ultimate result of drastically expanding roadways is drastically expanding traffic.  Dallas is one of the ten most populated cities in the country and growing rapidly.  Just like every other large city in the world, there will always be congestion during peak hours.

Therefore, expanding roadways into infinity is a losing proposition. We must accept that congestion is a part of an urban life.  Preston Center will always have congestion because, ever since the area reached critical mass, there always has been. This long-term congestion is evidenced by various proposals dating back to at least 1976 – a scant decade after much of the area was initially developed. This is another bell you can’t un-ring.  Accept it, and move on to what can be done.

Congestion Charges

The one proven way to actually decrease congestion is to charge drivers for the privilege. We know that often Dallas’ Tollways are less crowded (or crowded for shorter periods) because of the fees. In cities like Singapore and London where drivers are charged to drive in the city, congestion has eased. London charges £11.50 (US$18) per day to drive in the city core. Since 2003, they’ve invested £1.2-billion (US$1.9b) collected from these fees into public transportation, roadways and bridges. With our scant public transportation system, can anyone envision Dallas implementing a congestion charge in their lifetime? Me either.

Paris (the real one) has gone a step further and is actually narrowing roadways to further discourage inner-city driving (and traffic has eased, turning to public transit).

So, I hate to tell the moaners and the dreamers, but there is no panacea. There are only minor tweaks to yield the best result possible. And here they are …

Preston Center is a Destination

Surgical changes to traffic flows must account for the Preston Center area being treated as a “destination” or end point, rather than an area to traverse. In creating traffic plans that help traffic move THROUGH Preston Center, we would encourage even more traffic to cross it, which would make the problem worse. In thinking of Preston Center as an end point (to either live or work), traffic management centers on getting traffic in and out of the area (but not across it). In other words easing Preston Center congestion must not include making it easier to get to North Park or Central Expressway because that would encourage other traffic into the area for that purpose.

Once you begin thinking how to get traffic in and out of the area, the levers you can pull are few.

Two BIG pain points

Two BIG pain points

Traffic Signals

Two of the biggest problems in the area are the traffic signals at Douglas and Northwest Highway and at Preston Road and Berkshire/Villanova. Both are too close to major intersections resulting in backups from their inefficient damming of traffic flow. The only solution for Douglas is to install a smart traffic signal that’s able to adapt to congestion (making the best of a bad situation). The problem being that Dallas’ antiquated traffic control system doesn’t “do” smart traffic signals (and I don’t know enough about them to know if you can install the technology on a single intersection – Give me $350,000 and I’ll make the call.).

The Preston and Berkshire traffic signal (one of four in the 1,000-ish feet between Northwest Highway and Centenary) needs to be removed. It’s too close to Northwest Highway (295’ to be exact) and creates a bottleneck during rush hours. The entrance/exit from Preston Center East and West must be moved south to the existing signal at Sherry Lane (for Preston Center West) and a new signal at Wentwood (for Preston Center East). This gives over 1,000 feet of “runway” for cars to clear the Northwest Highway intersection. Smart signals should also be installed at Sherry/Wentwood to maximize flow (on the upside, University Park, who controls these signals, knows what a smart traffic signal is).  This morning I spoke with University Park and was told the relocation of the Berkshire signal to Wentwood has been suggested but met with unspecified opposition.

The Preston and Berkshire intersection becomes a right-turn only, “stop” sign intersection.

Sherry Lane should also probably be expanded to 4-lanes as it becomes the main entrance/exit for Preston Center West onto Preston Road (there’s plenty of space).

Fixing Preston Road

Fixing Preston Road

Roadway Widening

Aside from the expansion of Sherry Lane, Preston Road should also be widened to 6-lanes from Sherry to Northwest Highway. As it is today, Preston zippers from 6-lanes to four at Northwest Highway. Moving the “zip” further south from Northwest Highway will enable more cars in both directions to clear the intersection during each signal cycle.

Widening Northwest Highway from Pickwick to the Tollway. This will provide a short improvement in roadway capacity but most importantly enable longer/larger turn lanes to/from the Tollway, Preston Road and Preston Center that will reduce lane blockages from turning traffic backing up into “straight” through lanes.

Improving the capacity of Lomo Alto from Lovers Lane to Northwest Highway would encourage more Tollway drivers from the south to exit at Lovers Lane instead of Northwest Highway.

Southbound Express

Southbound Express

Douglas, Colgate, Eastern and the Lovers Lane Tollway Entrance

To make the most efficient use of southbound Tollway access at Lovers Lane, a direct route to Eastern Avenue must be created. By extending Douglas’ 4-lane width to Colgate and creating a Tollway overpass at Colgate to connect with Eastern, traffic would have a straight run to the south Tollway ramp at Lovers Lane (the same way the northbound Lovers Lane exit shuttles traffic straight up Lomo Alto to enter Preston Center from the south without involving Northwest Highway).

Yes, this makes Colgate Avenue busier, but it’s a single block that has residential only on one side (St. Michael’s on the other). I think it’s a necessary trade that limits neighborhood impact.

In a perfect world, I also MIGHT suggest making the small northern portion of Eastern two-way to enable traffic to cut across Stonegate Road to Inwood. But the world isn’t perfect.  While that half-mile stretch could easily be widened, its residents would correctly be livid.

One-Way? No Way!

Widen all Preston Center West one-way streets to accommodate two-way traffic (Westchase Dr., Luther Lane, Berkshire Lane, and Kate St.). Eliminate street parking as needed to gain width. Two-way roads will reduce wasted circling of the parking garage and circuitous entrance/exit routes.

Sorry Flying Fish

Sorry Flying Fish

Straight Kate

Kate Street, in addition to being one-way also hiccups at Luther Lane which impedes its ability to shuttle traffic towards Sherry Lane. Purchasing the lot on the southwest corner of Luther and Kate (Flying Fish) would allow Kate to be straightened to improve flow to/from Sherry Lane.

 

A Blueprint for Preston Center West Parking?

A Blueprint for Preston Center West Parking?

Preston Center West PARKING

Unlike roadway congestion, parking availability isn’t really a huge problem. Street parking stinks as people circle the block wanting to understandably avoid the dilapidated, though underutilized garage (except during weekday lunch hours). However, creating two-way streets will also force more parkers into the garage if some street parking is eliminated. The garage’s convoluted ownership and control structure hampers development. However the City of Dallas already has the right to demolish the structure and rebuild a double-capacity, underground parking structure – without surrounding landowners’ blessing. (Actually, any parking-related structure could be built without blessing.)

I suggest doubling capacity to four underground stories to mostly account for future use because today’s garage is largely underutilized.

Note: Many skybridge opponents lament that the poor Preston Center worker will have nowhere to park. But outside weekday lunch hours, the second level is largely vacant – meaning workers already have plenty of parking as long as their shifts don’t begin between 11:30am and 2:00pm during the work week.

I also suggest underground because, as one CandysDirt.com reader noted, the resulting town square green space would be a boon for business and residents. Think about San Francisco’s Union Square – an oasis surrounded by retail covering an underground garage. The new structure would also be handicap accessible (something the current garage doesn’t do well). Want security? Charge non-workers $1 if not validated by a business (who then pays the $1).

For quick-errands or to-go pickups, place parking meters on street parking spaces with 30-minute limits on weekdays until 6:00pm just like downtown.

Development’s Limited Impact

Any future development in the Preston Center area must work with developers to get them to pay for these changes (because Dallas won’t). Also, traffic mechanics will tell you that increasing density will not increase congestion, but may increase the length of it. In other words, you can’t stuff more cars into a defined space, but rush hours may become longer.

The type of development will also have a minor impact on rush hour timing because residential and commercial development create slightly different traffic patterns.

If a work day is from 8:30am to 5:00pm, a commuting worker will leave home between 7:30-8:00am and arrive home between 5:30-6:00pm.

Residential development will generate the biggest wave of area exits in the morning before most area workers arrive. In the evening, residents will arrive home after most workers have left the area. Residential development also has no impact on local weekday lunch hour traffic.

Balancing the area for residential and commercial use is best.  There’s a slight edge to businesses that minimize commuting altogether – senior care, retirement living, units targeting part-time residents and live/work spaces. If residential and commercial are synchronized well, the residential component builds housing affordable and desirable to workers in the newly built commercial projects.

In Summary: The REAL Problems

You’ve seen the solutions.  Here’s why it will never happen.

  • There is no City budget to implement any changes to the area
  • There is little/no City Council political will to implement any changes to the area
  • Developers are the most likely check-writers but the anti-developers have demonized them
  • Area residents seem to believe there’s a magic potion that will turn back time to 1962 and clear congested Preston Center roadways.
  • University Park seems to be on the fringe however they’re needed to make key portions of this plan work as best as they can.

When we meet in a few years, be prepared for a walloping “I told you so.”

Remember: Do you have an HOA story to tell? A little high-rise history? Realtors, want to feature a listing in need of renovation or one that’s complete with flying colors? How about hosting a Candy’s Dirt Staff Meeting? Shoot Jon an email. Marriage proposals accepted (now that THEY ARE legal in Texas)! sharewithjon@candysdirt.com

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