Houston toll roads open, but no power, no comms, no tolls

September 17, 2008

Houston's tollroads are open and busy and carrying large traffic volumes in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, but there's no early prospect of resuming toll collection. Gary Stobb, spokesman at Harris County Toll Road Authority says he doesn't expect tolls to be collected "until we're a lot closer to normality than we are now."

Priority has been getting the roads open to traffic. Both I-10 and I-45, major freeways were closed by flood waters for a day in the aftermath of the hurricane. That made the Sam Houston Tollway aka Beltway 8 even more important than usual. The main flooding problems the Beltway 8 had were rather shortlived accumulations on ramps of interchanges and one lower volume segment of the mainline.

Sometimes Houston's famous 4 and 5 level direct connection interchanges have their lower level depressed and depend on drains - which can get overwhelmed in major storms.

Stobb says the only major prolonged closure on the county tollroad system was the Ship Channel Bridge on the eastern side of Beltway 8. A high concrete arch bridge it is routinely closed when there are sustained winds over 50mph (80km/hr). Wind speed instruments trigger warning lights. At speeds of over 50mph (80km) there's a danger of tractor trailers, buses and other high profile vehicles being unstable and even blown over. Since winds were obviously going to exceed the allowable level the bridge was closed late Friday night.

When the winds subsided Saturday afternoon there were further problems that prevented the Ship Channel Bridge being reopened - a natural gas main leak and sagging high voltage electric power lines. Work to fix these kept the bridge closed through Sunday evening. There are three other non-tolled crossings of the channel so traffic had to be diverted from the Tollway.

The worst of the high winds associated with Ike was in about a 12 hour period from midnight Friday night to about midday Saturday. But heavy rains were spread over four or five days. Some of the heaviest rains were on Sunday.

Rainfall totals over four days were in the range 12 to 16 inches (300mm to 400mm).

Treacherous muddy slick left on pavement

HCTRA's roads needed work to remove a fine slick muddy sediment which gave the pavement a slipperiness akin to ice, Stobb says. It's a clayey fines that is washed onto the road in very severe downpours.

This has to be tackled with streetsweepers, and in severe cases by hosing it away.

A few signs are damaged but the great bulk of the tollroad's signage and all the major sign gantries withstood Ike's furies fine.

A number of Toll Authority buildings - including the Dairy Ashford head offices suffered water damage to ceiling tiles and carpets from water getting under roof flashings or below doors - in a combination of strong wind and heavy rain. But the damage is limited.

Mainline toll plaza canopies and toll booths held up fine. Ground level structures like these suffered none of the devastating damage of highrise office towers.

There hasn't been any assessment yet of the condition of electronic toll antennas, cameras, lights, and other exposed gear.

The toll plazas don't have mains electric power. They do have backup generators which they could use but without a resumption of toll collection imminent there have been higher priorities.

Stobb says the greatest problem they presently see in resuming toll collection is outages in their T1 and fiber optic communications links. These are leased or provided for joint use by TxDOT. They are needed to bring all the plaza data and images to the central servers where customer accounts are kept.

Toll collection is dependent on these large diameter, so to speak, data 'pipes' being operational.

HCTRA has under construction a high capacity fiber backbone of its own, but this won't be in service in time to help alleviate this emergency.

No one knows yet what's wrong with the communications backbone, whether it is switches or damage to the cables, or just lack of power at some point, Stobb says. It might be just rebooting that's needed.

They can't estimate how long restoring the toll system will take.

Any decision to resume toll collection would be made by the county commissioners and the county chief executive (an elected official called a Judge in Texas).

About a half of the staff make it to work

Like other county departments Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) staff have all been asked since Monday morning to make it to the normal 8 to 5 day work shift - if they can. Normally they work three shifts of toll collection, which accounts for 400 of the 900 staff. A night curfew is in effect in the area.

Gary Stobb HCTRA spokesman tells us his impression is that a bit less than half the staff of 900 made it in to work today (Tuesday). About two-thirds of the Houston metro area is without mains electricity, and many have downed trees and other disruptions to their lives.

The press often equates being without mains power with spoiled food. But many people in the Houston area have gasoline or diesel powered generators that keep refrigerators, a TV, a computer and a few lights going when the mains are dead. They typically use a half a gallon (2L) an hour, so trips are needed to the gas station to refill cans.

Getting fuel however involves long waits at area gas stations, or long trips out into rural areas. The major problem at gas stations is the lack of electric power to run the gas pumps though some canopies are down damaging pumps.

Gary Stobb has no mains power at home and is running an 8KW generator. He says he was fortunate to suffer no real storm damage although neighbors have trees on roofs and cars smashed. The challenge grows he says after a couple of days when fuel tanks are run down and batteries drained and people need to travel to shop because their supplies are running down.

He has no wire telephone service at home and he notices the service has got worse - he's guessing it may be because of the batteries of uninterruptible power supply units are running out.

But, he notes, the problems of people in the Houston area - an average of 50 miles inland and above the sea surge - are minor in comparison with the devastated areas on the Gulf coast - Galveston and the Bolivar peninsula.

Mobile phone service in the Houston area is spotty, Stobb says, and often seems to cut out after about two minutes - probably a telephone company procedure to limit calls. At work at HCTRA they have working telephones, and haven't needed to resort to emergency communications - backup ham radios and satellite telephones.

Tuesday has seen a cool change which is a real relief for the millions without air conditioning.

Typically Houston electric power is strung down the back fences of houses making the streetfronts neater, but aggravating access for the electric utilities' bucket trucks. There are no back alleyways, unlike sensible 19th century street systems of the northeast, so the trucks have to use residents' driveways and yards.

Very few have underground service, but those few have mostly had power throughout.

Traffic on the tollroads is heavy throughout the day, but there's less peaking in the normal commuting hours - Stobb says. An unusual sight is the convoys of trucks and equipment, many going to a race track near the Tollway from where they are based.

Traffic is generally moving well on the freeways and the tollroads, because of their grade separations, but immediately off them on the surface streets it's dicey. There are very few traffic signals working because of the lack of electric power.

"It is slow and there are a lot of fender benders," says Stobb.

TOLLROADSnews 2008-09-16

CORRECTION: description of Ship Channel Bridge. TOLLROADSnews 2008-0917 22:00

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