According to proposals on the table at the Texas Department of Transportation, the highway system around Downtown Houston may be subject to a significant transformation. This well may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the city to reconnect neighborhoods long bifurcated by highway IH-45 while also improving traffic capacity of the highways. How to change and improve the highway system is of great debate. As the Department of Transportation follows through on its federally required processes to propose and examine alternatives to the expansion of IH-45, also called the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, it’s winnowing the options quickly. Now is the time for residents to learn and speak up.
On November 14 and 19, 2013, the Texas Department of Transportation held its third set of public meetings about the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. The stated purpose of the project, in the works for more than ten years, is to reduce traffic along IH-45 between Beltway 8 North and its intersections with Highways US-59 and SH-288 in Downtown Houston. It divides IH-45 into three segments: Beltway 8 to IH-610, IH-610 to IH-10, and IH-10 to IH-45’s intersection with US-59 and SH-288, including the Pierce Elevated.
The expansion of IH-45 has been a concern for state, federal, and local agencies for several years not only because of current traffic congestion and high rate of accidents, but also expected area population growth, aging infrastructure, and unmet safety standards. As of an August 2013 study by the Texas A & M Transportation Institute, the section of IH-45 through Downtown is ranked one of the twelve most congested highways in the state, and it has significant traffic delays during both peak and off-peak times. (US-59 in that same Downtown loop is ranked 2nd.) The traffic is predicted to get worse. According to the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s 2035 Regional Transportation Plan Update, between 2000 and 2035, the population of the Houston-Galveston region is expected to increase by 3 million people, or by 65 percent. Employment growth between 2000 and 2025 in segment three (IH-610 to Downtown) is expected to top 50 percent. In addition, IH-45 does not meet current highway safety standards, and is designated an emergency evacuation route -- more emergency than evacuation, however, when gridlocked.
The Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT), along with 20 federal, state, and local agencies, including the City of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department, the Houston Downtown Management District, and the East Downtown Management District, have been assembled to weigh in on the transformation of IH-45 to accommodate Houston’s incredible growth and the traffic that comes with it.
At the November meetings, which are part of the federally mandated National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, representatives from TXDOT presented the top three alternatives for each segment of IH-45 selected from the six options presented in Public Meeting #2 held in October 2012, and solicited feedback on the alternatives evaluation screening process, i.e. how to choose from the three alternatives.
The alternatives for segments one and two involve different ways to widen IH-45, while the alternatives for segment three, in the heart of Downtown, are more radical. Alternative 10 proposes to widen the elevated portion of IH-45 from six to ten lanes, reducing the lane count of Pierce Street, and to add four elevated express lanes to IH-10. Alternative 11 reroutes IH-45 northbound and southbound lanes to the east along US-59, adding six elevated lanes behind the George R. Brown Convention Center as well as six elevated lanes to IH-10, with the Pierce Elevated removed and surface streets used for Downtown and inner-city access. Alternative 12 keeps four elevated southbound lanes, turning the rest of the Pierce Elevated into parkway, and adds four elevated northbound lanes each to both IH-10 and US-59.
Two of the three alternatives for segment three involve removing partially or fully the Pierce Elevated, which generally has slow speeds and divides Downtown from Fourth Ward and Midtown. Its removal could signal a fluid re-integration between Downtown and its immediate neighbors.
Given the experience of other cities that have decommissioned highways, real estate currently flanking the Pierce Elevated all the way to its connection with IH-10 would likely rise tremendously in value. The neighborhood immediately west of Downtown would also take a boost. Developers and businesses along the corridor would have ample reason to celebrate. Several government-owned properties would also rise in value, such as the Downtown post office, a 16-acre property at the corner of Bagby and Franklin, currently on the market, and the 18-acre courthouse, police, and jail complex on Riesner Street.
However, the alternatives also propose widening US-59 to the width of a football field along its north-south stretch behind the George R. Brown Convention Center to accommodate the realignment of IH-45. With new mass transit, the soccer stadium, more commercial enterprise, and its prime location near Downtown, the area of East Downtown is experiencing a renaissance. A massive elevated highway could negatively impact East Downtown’s growth as well as serve as an ever-widening barrier between the two parts of Houston.
After the 2013 public meetings, area residents voiced their deep concern about the impact of a greatly expanded elevated highway merging US-59 and IH-45 on the surrounding neighborhoods. Because TXDOT is early in its planning and no budget has been set for this project, it can be especially responsive to community involvement and public comment. Receiving and responding to community feedback is part of the federally mandated NEPA process; now is the time when involvement from both residents and business can influence the direction of how Houston’s Downtown highways are transformed.
Community feedback or not, the planning process for IH-45 is marching forward at the Texas Department of Transportation. It holds meetings about once a year to take comments from the city’s residents and businesses. At Public Meeting #4, to be held in the fall of 2014, TXDOT will present the preferred alternative chosen from the three alternatives for each segment, as presented at the 2013 Public Meeting #3. To voice your concerns about or support for the reshaping and redevelopment of Houston’s highway system, with the attendant impacts and benefits for our city’s neighborhoods, please visit http://www.ih45northandmore.com/email.aspx.
Read Torie Ludwin's previous article for OffCite from April 8, 2014, "Will the Urban Highway Reclamation Movement Come to Houston?"