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NOTE: On May 30, 2002, TxDOT withdrew its proposal to limit construction of frontage roads.

Proposal would curtail a Texas tradition

Backing Out of Frontage Roads?

Four, six, eight langes arch into the sky on concrete pillars, and flanking them run frontage roads, each bordered by shopping centers with parking lots big enough to earn them seats in the United Nations. Not the loveliest of sights, perhaps, but a quintessentially Texas one: in our cities, commerce clusters on the frontage roads. It's such a part of the fabric of Texas lives that it's easy to forget that other states do things differently, and that even here, it wasn't always this way.

But more Texans are mulling these issues over now, since the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has floated a proposal to reverse a half-century pattern of construction and begin easing the state away from its love affair with frontage roads.

Fronting for our highways
Whether you call them frontage, service, access or feeder roads--and some say you can tell what part of the state Texans hail from by what they call them--these roads are a unique phenomenon. Texans who travel often are astonished to find how rare they are in other states, where highways generally connect directly to local street networks via short ramps or roadways. Texas, by contrast, has nearly 6,500 miles of frontage roads.

This network was the brainchild of Dewitt Greer, chief engineer of the State Highway Department, TxDOT's precursor, from 1940 to 1968. Given the expense of a road system as large as Texas', it's a little surprising to learn that Greer championed frontage roads as an economy measure. But state law requires that landowners be compensated for their access rights if their property is "cut off" by a highway project, and Greer reasoned that it would be cheaper to provide roads preserving owners' access.

As frontage roads became popular arteries for commercial development, the state saved even more when landowners began donating rights of way for highway projects in the expectation that the accompanying frontage roads would make their holdings more valuable.

Over time, however, TxDOT's attitude toward Greer's innovation began to change. Today, the agency criticizes frontage roads for their expense, their contribution to traffic congestion and environmental and safety risks. On June 28, 2001, the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT's ruling body, quietly approved a new policy limiting new construction of frontage roads. This policy may not be the final word, though.

Under the new policy, road planners would no longer automatically assume these roads should be built. Instead, they would examine each proposed project and plan for frontage roads only where they are needed to keep streets or towns from being cut off or if a frontage road can be built for less than a purchase of access rights. Existing frontage roads would not be affected by the policy change, although as highways are rebuilt, their frontage roads might lose some exits and entrances. Cities and counties still could build their own frontage roads, but TxDOT would decide what access to freeways they would receive.

The policy change went almost unnoticed by the public and the press--at first.

Why build 'em?
After approving the policy, the commission solicited public input. Since then, the debate over the purpose and future of frontage roads has become considerably hotter, popping up in hearings and newspaper editorials across the state.

One of the main arguments in favor of curtailing the construction of frontage roads--and one of TxDOT's major reasons for proposing the change'is their cost. TxDOT estimates that frontage roads cost about $1.5 million a mile on average in addition to maintenance costs, producing a continuing drain on a limited construction budget. At present, the agency estimates its funding sources will support less than 40 percent of the state's highway construction and maintenance needs.

Tight funding was a major reason for the endorsement of the new policy by the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston's leading business and economic development organization. According to Jacqueline Baly Chaumette, the partnership's vice president for transportation/ infrastructure and environmental programs, "There's a shortfall for funding in TxDOT's budget, so we encourage the fact that they will look at each case and decide [whether to build a frontage road]. The key is that projects will be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. This will allow scarce funding sources to be used on necessary projects rather than unnecessary ones."

But cost is not the only indictment of frontage roads. TxDOT maintains that they have decreased both the mobility and safety of highway traffic, not so much by themselves as in combination with frequent entrances and exits in metropolitan areas, which disrupt traffic flows and contribute to rush-hour congestion. Central Texans can view a fine example of this phenomenon by crawling along I-35 from Austin to Georgetown after work. Leave a couple of hours free for the exercise. As magnets for commercial activity, they also pose safety risks, particularly when cars pull out of parking lots into traffic moving at or near highway speed.

Some have broader philosophical objections to the whole notion of access roads. No fans of concrete, some environmentalists have endorsed TxDOT's proposal; the Bexar County chapter of the Audubon Society, for instance, has stated that "frontage roads increase the amount of impermeable cover, offer more opportunities for accidents and hydrocarbon spills, and attract additional development that will contribute to watershed degradation and non-point source pollution."

Why not build 'em?
City officials, on the other hand, tend to like features that attract additional development, and opposition mounted as word spread about the TxDOT policy change. Several cities, including Fort Worth, Plano and El Paso, have gone on record as opposing the move, while former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk called frontage roads "critical in opening up the southern part of the city to commercial development."

TEX-21, a statewide coalition of local officials and business organizations, strongly opposed the TxDOT policy change, partly due to the perception that the agency did not consider all the policy's ramifications. TEX-21 chairwoman Linda Harper-Brown, states that "TEX-21 formally opposed the frontage road proposal because of its lack of clarity. We thought the proposal was not well thought through before it became public."

TxDOT conducted a series of hearings in January 2002 to gauge public attitudes about the policy change, and according to Harper-Brown, "there was quite a bit of testimony throughout the state from retailers concerning the loss of the economic activity that frontage roads generate."

Road proponents have other concerns as well. Will local property owners still donate rights of way, for instance, without the incentive of a frontage road in return? And, as Harper-Brown points out, the safety issue cuts both ways: "If there's a major wreck on a highway, emergency vehicles use frontage roads to reach the accident. There's also a concern regarding hazardous material spills. Without frontage roads, emergency workers couldn't clear the roads fast enough."

Another issue is the havoc the policy change might cause with existing city planning--and city streets. A lack of frontage roads, says Harper-Brown, "would definitely promote [more] building within neighborhoods, putting a lot of traffic into those streets. This would totally disrupt local planning priorities, putting traffic into streets and roadways that were not designed to handle it."

So are frontage roads headed the way of the passenger pigeon? Not just yet. At present, TxDOT is weighing the testimony and comments it has received, and some sort of compromise appears likely. A TxDOT spokeswoman, Gabriela Garcia, confirms that "we've received a lot of public comment, a great deal of it not in favor of the rules as written. We're reviewing those comments now and determining how we can address them, either in the rules as written or through a new set of rules."

For the time being, at least, weekend trips to the GigantoMart--along a smooth ribbon of frontage road--will remain a part of the Texas experience.

Bruce Wright

No more frontage roads?

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has proposed reducing the construction of frontage roads in the future. According to TxDOT, the new policy would:

  • improve mobility on state highways;
  • increase travel safety;
  • extend the operational life of existing roadways; and
  • reduce highway construction and maintenance costs.

Even so, TxDOT would build new frontage roads under certain circumstances, including the following:

  • to improve the safety and efficiency of specific highway corridors;
  • to avoid creating "landlocked" conditions for property owners;
  • to restore local traffic circulation from severed streets; or
  • if the cost of purchasing access rights would exceed the cost of a frontage road.
SOURCE: Texas Department of Transportation.