Texas transportation officials have unveiled a bold plan to reconfigure a major interstate through downtown Houston that would place lanes below ground level, alleviate congestion and give the city a dramatic face lift.
The Texas Department of Transportation estimates the cost to expand and realign Interstate 45 at more than $6 billion, a price that would include changes to Interstates 10 and 69. A portion of I-45 near Minute Maid Park, where the Houston Astros play, would be “depressed,” allowing for the possibility that a large public park or some other green space could later be built on top of it.
The project must be vetted by several state and federal agencies before any work can begin, which could be at least five years away.
Houston motorists have long bemoaned interstates with too few lanes, pitches and curves that slow drivers and stymie traffic flow, and narrow configurations that can make drivers feel like canned sardines.
“Almost without fail there are accidents at all times of the morning,” said Paula Lenz, executive director of the North Houston Association. “It’s an ugly deal.”
Lenz, whose nonprofit association represents businesses and other groups north of downtown, said the segment of I-45 through Houston is one of the most congested in the state and one of the worst for accidents.
“We’re always advocating ways to achieve improved mobility regionally, potentially through ways other than simply adding more lanes to roadways,” Lenz said.
I-45 is a primary north-south artery in Texas that links Dallas to Houston, and links Houston to the popular destination of Galveston. TxDOT figures from 2013 show the interstate in north Houston saw 272,000 vehicles a day. Meanwhile, the population of the Houston-Galveston region is expected to increase by an estimated 3 million people from 2000 to 2035, according to the agency.
The agency’s plan for I-45 is broken into three segments, with the first one calling for new frontage roads north of downtown Houston, along with managed lanes, otherwise known as toll lanes.
The second segment, along a portion of interstate close to downtown, also would add lanes and would include bikeways and walkways along frontage roads. A stretch of primary travel lanes and managed lanes would run below street level, giving planners the opportunity to add green space above, similar to what’s been done with Klyde Warren Park in Dallas. Any greenway would be funded through some public-private collaboration separate from the Transportation Department plans, according to Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District.
“Any improvements would have to make a material difference in how people flow through this area,” said Eury, explaining that most interstate traffic through central Houston is on its way elsewhere, with a relatively small percentage actually headed for downtown.
The third segment of the project would essentially move I-45 eastward where it shares a portion of I-10 before curving southward. Parts of I-10 and I-69 would be straightened and, most significantly, a portion of the Pierce Elevated, which constitutes a section of I-45, would be removed, allowing for neighborhoods to reconnect.
“Anyone would tell you that the Pierce Elevated has not been an urban amenity,” Eury said, adding that it’s “loomed as a barrier over the years.”
Jim Weston, president of a community group called the I-45 Coalition, said the scope of the project introduces a number of questions. For instance, people living along the corridor are concerned they may lose land as TxDOT expands rights of way to accommodate future work, Weston said.
State engineers over the months have dropped some aspects of the project while quickly introducing new components. “In some respects it just seems like they’re rushing it through,” he said.
“I don’t know if I’m for it or against it at this point,” Weston added.