By Dug Begley, Transportation writer for the Houston Chronicle
Often called a once-in-a-generation project, the planned $9.7 billion-plus rebuild of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, including a total reconstruction of the downtown freeway system, is expected to take a generation to build.
A child born today would drive along the completed freeway around the time they graduate from high school in 2042, according to a new schedule released by state highway officials.
“Just kill me now,” joked Reuben Shuvalov, 42, who commutes to an accounting job in downtown Houston from his home in Spring.
LONG ROAD AHEAD: A timeline of the massive Houston freeway project
Cleared for development following a two-year pause and lifting of a lawsuit by Harris County, the Texas Department of Transportation is finalizing the sequence of construction across three segments, broken into at least 10 separate projects to remake portions of I-45, key intersections and nearby local streets. Officials updated the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council on April 28, including expected start and finish years.
The mega-project will add two managed lanes to I-45 from downtown north to Greenspoint, in addition to rebuilding the existing interstate and five major freeway interchanges. The project will move I-45 to the east side of the central business district, following Interstate 10 and Interstate 69 around downtown, at times burying the freeway lanes.
In three areas — Midtown near Wheeler, through EaDo near the George R. Brown Convention Center and at North Main Street on the North Side — the design allows for greenspaces or caps over the freeway to help stitch neighborhoods long-divided by the freeways back together.
To drivers, the order of construction, however, may look scattered.
“That is just how the development of how the plans are coming along,” said Varuna Singh, deputy district engineer for TxDOT’s Houston office.
Work will be phased based on numerous factors, including funding, the need for some work to precede other parts of construction, and drainage in some spots prior to construction of depressed sections of the freeway on the east side of downtown.
As a result, the first project considered part of the larger rebuild is an $86.1 million project to upgrade drainage through EaDo, just east of Interstate 69 between I-45 south of downtown and Buffalo Bayou.
“The drainage is the first piece,” Singh said. “That is why we are trying to get it out the door.”
That work precedes construction south of downtown, where the first major project is the rebuilding of I-69 between Texas 288 and I-45, expected to cost $584.8 million and start in 2025. That rebuild, through the area where the two freeways converge, will take roughly five years, during which work will begin on nearby segments to Spur 527 and where I-10 and I-45 separate north of the central business district.
It is that 2027-2031 period when many of the projects will be active work zones that worries some about the effects on downtown jobs and businesses.
“Past freeway projects typically only affected one or two spokes at a time, and downtown employers just dealt with it since it only affected a portion of their employee base,” said Tory Gattis, a senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, which advocates for business-focused downtown development. “But with the normalization of remote and hybrid work, as well as this project affecting all the freeways coming into downtown, it could definitely be the tipping point to major employers following Exxon to the suburbs or just going more remote so their employees won’t have to fight their way downtown as often.”
Along with replacing segments of the aging freeway along I-45 and modernizing many of the 1970s-era interchange engineering, TxDOT agreed to various concessions as a compromise with skeptical federal and local officials.
In addition to bike lanes along local streets, efforts to better compensate lost housing around downtown and partner with agencies to keep more residents in the neighborhoods they call home and reduce property losses where possible, TxDOT is expected to hold semi-annual public meetings on the project where closings, detours and updates will be discussed. A website and active social media sites also are part of the strategy, Singh said.
Longtime critics of the project remain convinced more lanes will only worsen Houston’s traffic woes at the expense of more homes and permanent environmental damage to core communities because of increased pollution from more solo vehicle trips. Opponents said they will continue monitoring the project, as will local officials, even if that lasts years.
“The people who were going to be most impacted were least represented,” Susan Graham, an organizer with Stop TxDOT I-45, said during a March 16 announcement. “As this moves forward, we’ll be making sure what’s in this agreement is done, and maybe more.”