Downtown Houston I-45/I-69/I-10 Freeway

System Rebuild Passes First Step


July 26, 2018

Dug Begley, Houston Chronicle


State transportation officials this week voted to seek proposals for an overhaul of the downtown Houston highway system, centered on the re-routing of Interstate 45, keeping the project on track to start in 2020.


Though not a final approval to build what could be the region’s largest freeway project in a generation, Texas Transportation Commission members on Thursday authorized transportation officials to solicit proposals “to design, develop, construct and possibly maintain” the downtown segments of the I-45 project.


“I am glad this is moving forward because this is desperately, desperately needed,” Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin said.


The current schedule projects a contract award for construction in March 2020, though officials still are waiting on final federal approvals after a complete environmental report for the project is prepared next year.


The freeway rebuild, estimated to cost at least $7 billion, with $3 billion of that dedicated to downtown alone, calls for relocating I-45 to flow parallel to U.S. 59 on the east side of the central business district, eliminating the raised portion along Pierce Street, known locally as the Pierce Elevated. The rebuild also redesigns interchanges between I-45, U.S. 59, Interstate 10 and Texas 288.


The changes, notably untying some of downtown’s most troublesome bottlenecks and adding some lanes, would dramatically improve travel times in the downtown area, according to HNTB, the engineering firm that has consulted with TxDOT on developing the project.


Transportation commissioners cheered the relief the project promises.


“We will do a lot to improve the lives of Houstonians in approving this,” Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said, noting the project addresses eight of the 100 most-congested freeway segments in the state.


Despite the congestion relief, the project — which ultimately plans to widen I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway — has faced intense scrutiny and some opposition as local groups and officials fear it further could divide and disturb some communities and that it fails to fully accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians by dividing downtown from EaDo and Third Ward.


The project also has faced some concern because of its use of managed lanes north of I-10.
Lawmakers allow state transportation officials to authorize at least three projects, each valued at $150 million or more, for design-build, in which, typically, a team of companies do the final engineering and then construct the project with oversight from the Texas Department of Transportation.


Normally, TxDOT or an outside engineering firm designs a project, then officials choose another company to build it. The rational for using the design-build process is the belief that combining design and construction into a single proposal helps the state save money by opening more of the project to competition.


The project also can be built more quickly, said Katherine Holtz, TxDOT’s program director for comprehensive development agreements. Because designers and builders work as a team, she said, the process of making minor changes to the design is sped up and construction companies do not have to wait for another state approval and contacting process.


Thursday’s approval stated the downtown design will be developed as “a non-tolled project.” The use of tolls has varied during the I-45 rebuild’s history, as managed lanes are a key component of the project north of I-10 to the tollway. Officials described them as similar to the Katy Managed Lanes, which allow HOVs to use the lanes for free while solo drivers pay a toll to use them.


Tolling, however, has fallen out of favor since voters approved the use of oil and gas severance tax revenues and money from the state’s economic stabilization fund for congestion relief. As a result, lawmakers and transportation officials have strictly used state funding for non-tolled projects, including delaying funding for projects in Austin and Dallas because of their mixing of money for a combination of toll and free lanes.


As tolling fell from favor, Houston area transportation officials began describing the lanes as “MAX Lanes” aimed at managing congestion. Though tolls have not been completely ruled out, TxDOT officialsearlier this year stressed the plans also do not rely on tolling the lanes, hoping future investment of state dollars will be available to build the project.