Plano Readies Roads for First Wave of Toyota Employees, and the Traffic That Comes with Them

Editor’s note: Starting May 15, Toyota begins moving about 250 employees a week into its new corporate campus in Plano. Throughout this week, The Dallas Morning News examines the impact of the highly-anticipated move on Plano, traffic, housing and charitable giving.

On a recent weekday morning, the area around Plano’s $3 billion Legacy West development was swarming with construction workers finishing out future restaurants, apartments and sprawling headquarters for several major corporations.

But it was easy going on the streets. Traffic isn’t too bad — yet.

The opening of Toyota’s North American headquarters here next week brings the first major wave of employees who will be testing the city’s plans to accommodate thousands, and eventually tens of thousands of people all driving, walking and using buses to get to work.

Plano officials say there’s no reason to panic. They’ve been tinkering and tweaking to prepare. The reality, though, is there will be growing pains.

“We’ve done a lot of advanced planning over the years for that particular area, so we have the network, we have the roads, we have the strategies, we have the future timing plans,” said Lloyd Neal, the city’s transportation engineering manager. “There are a lot of unknowns still, but we are planning for it.”

The city has been working to ease congestion around the mixed-use development that will be home to companies like Toyota’s North American headquarters, Liberty Mutual and JPMorgan Chase.

Toyota alone will bring in more than 4,000 employees by year’s end. Altogether, major companies are expected to employ more than 15,000 people in the area. And 6,000 to 8,000 are expected to live in the area by the time it is fully built out in about 10 years.

Late last year, the city wrapped up a yearlong traffic study. Recommendations included improving intersections and widening roadways.

Long-term ideas include large-scale infrastructure projects. The city hopes to study several interchanges for future construction, like State Highway 121 at Legacy, adding an additional eastbound right turn lane at State Highway 121 and southbound Dallas North Tollway and widening Legacy Drive to six lanes north of State Highway 121, though that project is already part of the city of Frisco’s master plan. But those would not happen within the next decade.

But even all of that will only do so much.

“Demand will increase to a point where infrastructure improvements alone will not be able to provide capacity needed for efficient operation,” the study said.

A survey of workers already in the Legacy area shows, unsurprisingly, that the long-term trend is for people to make numerous trips in their cars. The city hopes they can encourage people to do something different.

“The idea is for them to park once. That is really the thrust of all of this is — to park once. So if you are an employee of Toyota, you park in your parking lot and for lunch you can get on a shuttle,” said Peter Braster, the city’s special projects director. “The idea is to eliminate the most trips we can.”

The city is turning to the businesses to work together to encourage employees to pursue alternate transit options like shuttles, buses, ride-sharing and carpooling. Various stakeholders are working together to establish a Transportation Management Association.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments has funding mechanisms in place to help start-up the non-profit private group, which would be kind of like a homeowners’ association, except here businesses and governments could have a “collective voice to solve transportation concerns,” the study said.

Braster said the city expects to hear if it is awarded a two-year grant from NCTCOG in August. Plano is also working with Dallas Area Rapid Transit on possible traffic solutions, especially for lunch time hours.

“We are working with DART with the idea of a backbone shuttle system through Legacy,” said Braster.

Getting the timing right

In the short-term, the city is retiming traffic signals across all of Plano to improve coordination and cut down on stoplight delays. Work in the Legacy West area was finished in March.

“We are in the tuning stages of that work,” said Matt Tilke, the city’s senior traffic engineer.

“When we do a retiming project, typically we would count vehicles and then develop the timings based on the actual demand,” he said. “Legacy is a challenge because the vehicles aren’t there yet. So for right now … there may be some timing quirks.”

Turn-lane improvements are also being made, which for now adds to the construction tangles in the area, Tilke said. Some major roadways are temporarily closed, and that’s not helping.

“We will reach a balance point,” Tilke said. “One of our major problems right now is that Headquarters Drive is closed between Communications Parkway and Dallas North Tollway.”

Headquarters Drive is likely to remain closed until the end of the year when construction at Liberty Mutual is complete. The Tennyson Parkway bridge over the Dallas North Tollway is in the process of being demolished and replaced by the North Texas Tollway Authority, which is also causing congestion, as is the construction of an additional fourth lane in each direction on the tollway.

“Legacy Drive is completely over capacity” as the closures temporarily shift traffic to that road, Tilke said.

DART has also created new bus routes, linking Legacy West to the Parker Road rail station in downtown Plano and consolidated existing routes to circulate within Legacy West.

Plano officials say it is too early to determine how successful the routes will be.

“One of the things we don’t know with traffic is that we can project the number of cars based on employees, but we really don’t know where they are going to live yet,” Braster said. “Traffic, while it evens itself out like water, is directional. We know where they are going, we don’t know where they are coming from.”

In 2015, when 350 employees at Toyota first moved to North Texas, many relocated to McKinney, Little Elm, North Dallas, Frisco, Plano and other cities to the north. But the North Texas housing market is booming in part because new residents are looking for housing in many places.

Toyota officials said they aren’t ready to discuss specifics about how they are working with the city to address traffic and congestion concerns.

“While we’ve done due diligence in the planning and construction process to try to alleviate as much congestion as possible, we also offer a variety of flexible work arrangements including flexible start and end times,” Toyota officials said in a written statement.

The increased traffic, and pains taken to absorb it, means one certain thing to city officials.

“These are all indications that Plano is a city in its own right,” Braster said. “It’s no longer a suburb.”

Headquarters Drive, right, will be one of the primary access roads for Toyota workers, who start moving into the company’s new North American headquarters in Plano next week. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)