Don Davis and Chris Rich spent two years prodding and petitioning in an attempt to make their neighborhood streets safer.
Then a pandemic hit, prolonging their fight even more.
Davis and Rich, with the help of Houston City Council member Mike Knox and a 2019 story by The Leader about increased cut-through traffic in Oak Forest Section 17, convinced the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to consider partially closing Berendo Street and Hewitt Drive where they intersect with the U.S. 290 frontage road. Davis and Rich said traffic on those streets increased significantly after TxDOT moved the nearby entrance and exit ramps for westbound travelers, enabling motorists to turn right on Berendo or Hewitt to avoid the stoplight at West 43rd Street.
A public engagement meeting about the proposed modification was scheduled for March 18 but scrapped just a few days beforehand because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19. There will now be a virtual community meeting from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 23, when neighborhood residents will have a chance to push the traffic-calming plan toward fruition.
“We just can’t wait,” said Davis, who lives on Berendo.
The meeting, which will be held online through Microsoft Teams, will include impacted residents and is being hosted by Houston Public Works. Department spokesperson Erin Jones said in March that the city is collecting community feedback that it will pass along to TxDOT, which will then make a determination. TxDOT spokesperson Deidrea George said in March that proceeding with the proposed changes, which are estimated to cost less than $50,000, depends on concurrence from residents as well as the city.
TxDOT’s plan is to install “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 43rd Street exit ramp, and corresponding entrance ramp, were moved in 2017 to prevent exiting traffic from backing up on 290. 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 onto Hewitt or Berendo before proceeding north to 43rd on either Bethel Boulevard, Hill Oak Drive or Antoine Drive.
Davis and Rich, who lives on Hewitt, said the problem has been exacerbated by the recent speed limit increase on the frontage road from 40 to 50 mph. The Oak Forest residents said there recently have been accidents at the frontage road intersections with both Berendo and Hewitt, with motorists crashing into fences as they attempted to turn right.
Neither George nor Jones responded to a Monday email asking when the speed limit was increased and why.
If the community supports the proposed changes, and TxDOT prevents drivers from turning right into Berendo or Hewitt, speed on the access road figures to be less of an issue.
“This is very exciting,” Rich said of the upcoming meeting. “I hope that we have a good attendance for this.”