Chris Rich said the traffic on his Oak Forest street has slowed some during the last few months, because not as many drivers have been out and about.
Even if the COVID-19 pandemic subsides in the next year or so, and more Houstonians return to the road, he figures to see even fewer cars rolling by his home on Hewitt Drive.
A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) said it is moving forward with a proposal to partially close Hewitt and Berendo Street to prevent vehicles from turning onto those streets from the U.S. 290 frontage road. Houston Public Works solicited feedback from residents of Oak Forest Section 17 from March through July and last week recommended that TxDOT proceed with its plan.
“I’ll be over-the-top ecstatic when it happens,” Rich said.
TxDOT spokesperson Deidrea George said in an email Wednesday that construction of the project is expected to start by the end of this year and will be complete within 1-2 months afterward. The project calls for the installation of “do not enter” signs and raised concrete islands on the eastern halves of Berendo and Hewitt where they meet the frontage road, still leaving enough room for vehicles to access the frontage road from those streets. George previously said the work was estimated to cost less than $50,000.
Don Davis, a Berendo Street homeowner who has pushed for the partial street closures along with Rich, said he was told the project will be completed in about nine months. Davis said he asked for temporary “do not enter” signs in the meantime, and Houston Public Works said in an email to residents that it supports the idea, but George said there are no plans to install temporary closures or signage “at this time.”
TxDOT controls the right-of-way along the frontage road.
“I don’t know why TxDOT can’t allow the city to put up the signs or, for that matter, even the neighborhood,” Davis said. “It’s nothing but a do-not-enter sign.”
Davis and Rich petitioned for the partial street closures because they said cut-through traffic on their streets increased significantly after TxDOT moved the nearby entrance and exit ramps for westbound travelers on 290, enabling motorists to turn right on Berendo or Hewitt to avoid the stoplight at West 43rd Street. The switch was made in 2017 to prevent traffic from backing up on the freeway.
The exit ramp for 43rd, which previously was between that street and Berendo immediately to the south, was moved further south between Chantilly Drive and Hewitt. The entrance ramp, which was south of Chantilly, was moved north near Berendo.
Although the switch gave drivers more room to operate on the frontage road, it also gave them the opportunity to avoid the light at 43rd by turning right into Hewitt or Berendo before proceeding north to 43rd on either Bethel Boulevard, Hill Oak Drive or Antoine Drive.
Davis said a May 2019 story by The Leader, which put a spotlight on the cut-through traffic issue, was “very instrumental” in garnering the support of Section 17 residents as well as city officials. Davis said he shared the story with Houston City Council member Mike Knox, who then relayed residents’ concerns to TxDOT and asked for a solution.
According to a spokesperson for Houston Public Works, which facilitated community engagement on behalf of TxDOT, it held two virtual meetings with residents in late June and collected comments from 166 households from March through July. A July 29 email from Houston Public Works to residents said more than 70 percent of those residents supported the partial street closures.
Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who represents the neighborhood in District C, said she supports the project as well.
“This recommendation comes after extensive community input and engagement, and I’m grateful for the public works department leading this effort and the neighbors working tirelessly with our office to see it through,” Kamin said in a statement released by her office.
Rich, who led a 2018 petition drive asking the city for speed cushions in the neighborhood, said it’s been a “long battle” to reduce the traffic on his residential street. And while he would like to see a temporary solution before the permanent closures are constructed, he said he’ll “take what I can get.”
Davis also is glad that help is on its way.
“Oh, it’s great,” he said. “Now we finally see a little daylight coming to the end.”