With massive construction projects under way on just about every major road in El Paso, Bob Bielek has jumped right in as the new El Paso district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation
He’s learning fast.
“It’s like drinking out of a fire hose, but I haven’t drowned yet,” he says.
On March 1, Bielek replaced Chuck Berry, who retired after 32 years with the El Paso district of TxDOT.
Bielek, pronounced like BEE-lick, has 42 years of experience in transportation planning, design and construction.
Most recently, he served as director of project delivery and city engineer for the Houston Airport System, where he managed more than 25 projects valued at $600 million.
Bielek was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Penn State and a master’s in transportation and environmental systems engineering from the University of Pittsburgh.
He says he was inspired by his grandfather who was an engineer.
“I pretty much grew up going to work with him,” Bielek says.
He and his wife Dagmar, who is a clinical psychologist, have two grown children.
Bielek sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about traffic, toll roads, roundabouts and how TxDOT will get more people into the planning process.
Q: What are the transportation priorities right now?
The primary priority is to reduce some of the congestion, particularly along the Interstate-10 corridor, and it’s very difficult to do. There’s very little room between the border and the foot of the mountains. It is a very, very narrow corridor with a lot of transportation already in there. So that is probably the greatest single challenge.
Q: What’s going to alleviate that?
I’ve only been here for six weeks, but in looking at some of the planning that has been done by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, there are several projects under way or being planned, including the Border Highway West extension project, and the managed lanes on the César Chávez Border Highway. Right now, the Border Highway could be under construction the end of 2013 or 2014.
Q: Managed lanes?
Managed lanes are toll lanes that are added to a roadway. When things get really congested, people will move into the toll lanes, which helps relieve some of the congestion. For those who are willing to pay, it moves them along quicker.
Q: The Border Highway West project you mentioned. You’re talking about the unfinished portion of the loop that runs through Downtown and the Chihuahuita neighborhood?
Yeah, that runs all the way from Downtown out to the West.
Q: There have been concerns about how extending the loop could impact the Chihuahuita neighborhood. What are some of the proposed designs?
That’s what we are looking at right now. Part of the environmental assessment is taking a look at the routings. Because it is so narrow, there really are only two routings that are possible. We are looking at those right now and it will all go out to the public for input.
Q: What are those two routings?
One stays out of the neighborhood entirely and uses more of the railroad right-of-way. The other one goes right along the edge of the neighborhood, but is elevated to keep it out. But anytime you go up, it becomes difficult then to maintain access to the neighborhood.
Q: You mentioned toll roads. How far should TxDOT go with toll roads in El Paso?
People need to be realistic about what can and can’t be done. If you’ve taken a look at the cost of gas, it’s going up very dramatically. Nobody wants to raise taxes on gasoline.
People are driving less, which means they are using less gas and there is less revenue from the gas tax, but people keep moving to Texas. That means congestion is only getting worse. You have to build roads, and toll roads are an option.
If you want to accelerate road building, toll roads have to be an option to look at. Ultimately it is a local decision.
Q: So even though something works in Houston, say, where there are many toll roads, it may not work in El Paso?
Yeah, you have to look locally. Take a look at roundabouts. They are used all over the world; I first drove on them in England on the wrong side of the road. Roundabouts are a good way of taking intersections that meet at odd angles, we have a lot of those here in El Paso, and making them workable.
It’s more a matter of learning how to drive on roundabouts than anything else. Once people use them and learn to drive on them, they’ll love them. It’s the same way with toll roads. When you find out what kind of acceleration you can get in building roads and what that means in your daily commute – the gas that you use and the emissions you put in the air – people may learn to like toll roads, or at least accept toll roads.
Q: What is being done to help drivers learn how to use roundabouts?
We’ve been talking with the City of El Paso and the New Mexico Department of Transportation about trying to find what’s available in the way of videos that introduce people to roundabouts and how to drive on them. We’ve also talked about putting markers on the road itself that tell you the appropriate lane to be in as you enter the roundabout.
Q: You have quite a bit of experience in other Texas cities like Houston. How is transportation in El Paso different?
The congestion here is probably as intense as it is in Houston, simply because we don’t have the toll lanes that take some of the traffic off the primary roads. That’s the big difference. Having lived and worked in Houston, the Dallas area and in South Florida, all of which have toll lanes, I’ve used them regularly because it’s usually a lot faster to go that way. Another big difference is that Houston doesn’t have much in the way of geographical constraints – it’s flat, there aren’t many lakes or rivers, and there are no borders nearby – so you can build a road almost anywhere in Houston.
Here it’s a different story. You are very constrained by the geography and you have to make the decision then to go vertical to build roads, which means putting them on structure and that is very expensive.
Q: How much more expensive is it to “go vertical”?
It’s two and a half times. And then that depends on how pretty you want to make the structure. You can make it three times as expensive, easily.
Q: What is the status of the expansion of Transmountain Road – another key part of completing the loop?
The northeast side of Transmountain is about 40 percent done and Transmountain to the west is at about 7 or 8 percent.
Other areas in the state that have the same kind of congestion that we do have the ability to divert traffic. Then they can get in and maintain the base roads and structures.
Trying to shut I-10 down to do maintenance is very, very difficult, because we don’t have the alternative routings that most cities do. So that is why it is important to get the loop all completed. Sometimes it is not a matter of money; it is just a matter of getting the infrastructure in place so you can go back in and do the basic maintenance.
Q: How might the Sierra Club’s lawsuit against TxDOT and its request for an injunction impact the project?
Obviously if they get a preliminary injunction, it will stop us and it will impact the project. If they don’t, it won’t. There’s a follow-on project to that to improve the access to the state park at the main entrance.
Q: Some have raised concerns that the designs for the expansion of Transmountain would make it very dangerous for drivers to enter the park. How might TxDOT make the entrance safer?
There are three ways that come to mind right away. One is at grade access, one is an underpass, taking the left turn traffic underneath, and the other is an overpass, taking the left turn traffic over top.
There is a lot of emphasis on looking at the underpass simply to cut down on the amount of structure out there and blocking views.
At the end of this month or the middle of next month we should have the alternative concepts available for the public.
Q: It does seem like there is road construction just about everywhere – on Spur 601, Transmountain Road, the Border Highway and I-10.
I’m still trying to catch up myself. It’s like drinking out of a fire hose but I haven’t drowned yet. In the future, a new spur, Spur 276 will provide a full bypass for the I-10 corridor and for Downtown.
Spur 1966 is a project that could go this year. It will connect Schuster to Paisano, going across I-10 with a new roundabout at the university. That project is basically ready to go.
Out here at the America’s interchange that’s just outside the office, we have two new direct connectors that are in the process of being designed right now. The designs should be done in the next three or four months. We will build if we can ever get the money for them.
It would be good to build the direct connectors that go across I-10 right now, while we’ve got everything else under construction. They’re a lot more difficult to construct later.
Q: Some say that a city can’t build its way out of a congestion problem by expanding roads and such. Coming from Houston, a city that has a commuter rail system, what role do you think transit can play here in El Paso?
Transit always has a place. You have to fit transit to both the geographic layout and you have to fit it with your budget. There is definitely room for bus rapid transit, improving bus stations and potentially a trolley route.
You can turn streets into pedestrian malls and put the light rail down the mall. That separates the light rail from the cars, which is always a good thing. It all goes back to planning and doing really good base-level planning and building the transportation infrastructure to match the land use policy.
Q: The city just completed a massive planning effort, recently publishing Plan El Paso.
What really needs to be done now is to go back and see how the transportation infrastructure fits that plan, or how it needs to be modified to support that plan.
For example, a challenge with the type of walking neighborhoods City Council supports is that you still have to design the roads for trucks because trucks bring everything to the stores in the neighborhood.
Q: How would you compare driving in El Paso to Houston?
Well, the drivers in El Paso rate somewhere between the drivers in Dallas and the drivers in Houston. The drivers in Houston are a lot like South Florida drivers, which means you have a wide range of speeds and people who don’t pay any attention. Dallas drivers are very considerate and drive at moderate speeds.
Here you have drivers that drive fast and very fast. Having to build roads that are safe for drivers who may not be quite as defensive as perhaps they should be adds to the challenge of building roads here.
Q: How might you do things differently at TxDOT?
What’s going to be a little bit different in the future is how we get public input. I believe that you have to involve all stakeholders right from the beginning in the planning process.
You involve people in the difficult decisions as you go through that planning process, so that the public, politicians, everybody understands why certain decisions are made.
You are going to see us reaching out a lot more to involve everybody in the process –the city, the county, neighborhood groups, developers. In the end, we will have a better and more maintainable infrastructure.
Q: That brings to mind the massive negative reaction to new roundabouts in El Paso.
A lot could have been done earlier on. In that case, it was the city. But if we had gotten together and shown people why roundabouts are better than traffic signals in some cases – how you can sign them, and how you can develop crosswalks that are safer for people – it would have been a lot better than dumping on a bunch of folks at a public meeting.
Right from the start of planning, we are going to be asking more people to step in. We will be holding more public information sessions on projects.
Q: But it’s often hard to get people excited about a transportation meeting.
That’s true. We can do a better job at advertising why we are asking people to step in – how it may affect them. Transportation infrastructure is something we all take for granted, but it’s something we all use all the time.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.