Building Better Roads: Precinct 4 Creates More Environmentally Friendly Roadways

The benefits of roadways are well documented – they can connect communities, promote economic development, and provide opportunities for growth. But, like many modern structures, they can also damage the environment, absorb heat, and disrupt natural drainage.

Fortunately, new design standards allow Harris County to minimize those drawbacks and maximize the benefits. By embracing new design standards, Precinct 4 can build environmentally friendly roadways at a lower cost than traditional roadways.

Tapping Into Nature

Birnamwood Drive in Precinct 4 has long served as the model for this type of low impact development in Texas. Opened in 2012, the roadway was the first in the state to feature a drainage system of native plants, engineered soil, gravel, and underground rain tanks to filter and release water into storm sewers. Notable for its lack of off-site drainage, the project requires less space for drainage and boasts lower maintenance costs.

“The Birnamwood Drive Extension project represents a more environmentally respectful approach to roadway construction,” said Nick Russo, the senior environmental coordinator with the Harris County Engineering Department. “It is also less costly to build and maintain.”

The project’s success inspired Commissioner R. Jack Cagle to embrace low-impact design standards across the precinct. So far, Precinct 4 has completed five smaller projects incorporating low-impact design elements and native plantings along Aldine Westfield, Gosling, Holderrieth, Holzwarth, and Louetta roads.

The sixth project, planned for completion in April, will improve drainage along Champions Drive between FM 1960 and Cypress Creek. Like Birnamwood Drive, Champions Drive will include underground rain tanks, engineered soil, and native plantings. During high-water situations, rainwater will flow off the road into an underground channel.

“This is an innovative approach to stormwater management that models nature,” said Pamela Rocchi, the director of the Precinct 4 Capital Improvement Projects Division. “Native plantings and engineered soils will filter pollutants before they enter a receiving stream.”

Embracing the benefits of nature has become a trend in Precinct 4. To battle pollution, stormwater runoff, and high summer temperatures, Precinct 4 plans to plant more trees along select thoroughfares.

“Planting trees is a cost-efficient method for improving stormwater quality runoff and decreasing temperatures along roadways,” said Rocchi.

Areas with tree coverage can benefit from temperature reductions of up to 20 degrees, faster stormwater absorption, and higher property values, a study by the National Forest Service showed.

“Nature remains an untapped resource in many areas,” said Rocchi. “In Precinct 4, we work to identify the most cost-effective ways to maximize results. In some cases, that turns out to simply be planting more trees.”

Improving Air Quality

Air quality is also a concern among many Precinct 4 residents. To help communities meet the Clean Air Act, the Federal Highway Administration’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, or CMAQ, provides money to state and local governments for emission reduction projects.

Although program funding can be used on a variety of transportation projects, Precinct 4 projects focus on traffic reduction, said Rocchi.

Since 2005, Precinct 4 has managed four phases of the program – CMAQ 1, 2, 3, and 4 — with each phase representing multiple projects. Increases in traffic volume, outdated traffic signal equipment, and improper signal timing can lead to longer wait times at stoplights and higher emissions.

“This funding continues to improve air quality and reduce traffic congestion in Precinct 4,” said Rocchi. “The current CMAQ 4 program is designed to improve traffic flow along heavily traveled corridors, thus reducing stop-and-go congestion, and ultimately improve air quality.”

Drivers can expect to see new traffic signal installations, reconstruction of older traffic signal systems, turn lane extensions and installations, and median modifications along Precinct 4 roadways over the next two years.

But as technology continues to advance, roadways will continue to evolve well into the future. Some of that direction comes from Cagle himself, who said improving quality of life and creating healthier communities will always be a priority in Precinct 4.

“Residents shouldn’t worry about their health each time they walk outside or drive a car,” he said. “By relieving congestion, planting more trees, and building more natural drainage systems, we improve air quality, beautify the community, reduce flood risk, and save residents money.”

Precinct 4 CMAQ Projects

The following three projects include new traffic signal installations, reconstruction of older traffic signal systems, fiber-optic interconnection, battery back-up systems for existing traffic signal systems, upgrading pedestrian facilities to comply with the Americans with Disability Act standards, turn lane extensions and installations, and median modifications along the three corridors.  Construction of CMAQ 4 1A, 1B and 1C is managed by the Harris County Engineering Department.

1A: Spring Cypress Road corridor between Telge Road and Louetta Glen Drive
  • Construction cost: $5,522,835
  • Construction timeframe: March 11, 2019–June 3, 2020
1B: Cypresswood Drive corridor between Hickory Twig Way and FM 1960
  • Construction cost: $6,600,600
  • Construction timeframe: February 11, 2019–June 4, 2020
1C: North Eldridge Parkway corridor between Clay Road and FM 1960, and between Grant Road and Spring Cypress Road
  • Construction cost: $4,532,472
  • Construction timeframe: April 8, 2019–March 22, 2020
CMAQ 4 2D, 2E and 2F were combined into one project being managed by TxDOT. These three projects include turn lane extensions and installations, median modifications, and turn lane assignment modifications along Precinct 4-maintained roadways intersecting TxDOT corridors.
2D: SH 249 corridor between Antoine Drive and Spring Cypress Road, and FM 529 corridor between Greenhouse Road and North Eldridge Parkway
  • Construction cost: $3,618,458
  • Construction timeframe: August 2019–March 2022
2E: Beltway 8 corridor between West Gulf Bank Road and T.C. Jester Boulevard
  • Construction cost: $3,000,244
  • Construction timeframe: August 2019–March 2022
2F: SH 6 corridor between West Little York Road and West Road, and FM 1960 corridor between Fallbrook Drive and Kenswick Drive
  • Construction cost: $2,000,869
  • Construction timeframe: August 2019–March 2022