Unlike most major cities, Houston sustained very few freeway cancellations. Consequently, the old freeway planning maps very closely resemble the actual network today.
The 1942 Plan: No Freeways Yet
Source: Major Street Plan for Houston and Vicinity, 1942, Report of the City Planning Commission
The 1942 plan was the first major revision since the comprehensive and ambitious 1929 city planning document. The 1942 plan does not include freeways. However, it does discuss the need for freeways and identifies some corridors that would allow economical freeway construction.
The first possibility became the Gulf Freeway, the first section of which opened in September 1948. The second opportunity became Memorial Parkway. The third ultimately became the IH-45/IH-10 merge.
FREEWAYS AND PARKWAYS. While the above type thoroughfares serve adequately on many major streets, their relative inefficiency, due to the congestion caused by adjacent business development, frequent interesections, parking and double parking movements, and general local use, has made them quite inadequate in many locations. This condition is especially true in the face of increases in traffic loads during the past decades. The average principal thoroughfare of today requires that traffic, particularly during peak loads, must work its way slowly mile after mile through local traffic and local business.
The answer to this problem is the freeway and the parkway. These thoroughfares do not provide access to adjacent property and are entered only at designated intersections. As a result, we find that parking is eliminated, and traffic is able to travel at more constant speeds without confusion.
Freeways and parkways cannot ordinarily be developed within a city except where a railroad or stream and a large percentage of vacant, inexpensive land make possible the acquisition of wide rights of way with few intersections. Many larger cities have already undertaken the development of these limited access express thoroughfares, notably Los Angeles and New York. In the latter city costs of such developments have been extreme, while in Houston, today, many such opportunities may be exploited at comparatively small cost. Such developments would provide relief for the present with provisions for future needs.
One of the best of our possibilities for a freeway is the proposed expressway over the G.H.E. or Old Galveston Interurban. Between St. Bernard Street and the east city limits a great majority of the route is through acreage with few intersections. The development of this limited access way on a 230-foot right of way would not only greatly relieve present congestion on Telephone Road, but give us our first up-to-date trafficway designed for the sole purpose of providing efficient movement without interference from purely local business and residential use.
Another very worthwhile opportunity for the development of a parkway, which would serve many thousands of people and relieve congestion on adjacent major streets, lies along Buffalo Bayou between the Civic Center and Memorial Park.
A third evident possibility for the development of a freeway lies along White Oak Drive from the Milam Street Bridge to Houston Avenue, a distance of over one mile without a single grade crossing.
Houstonians will notice some very interesting planned roadway alignments that were not implemented. For example, Richmond and Westheimer were planned to merge together just west of Post Oak. There was a diagonal connector road between Westheimer and Alief (Westpark) road, cutting through the land that became the Greenway Plaza office development. Weslayen was planned to cross over Buffalo Bayou, proceed into Memorial Park, and terminate at Memorial Drive.
(click for high resolution image) This map of "Loop or Bypass Thoroughfares" from the 1942 document shows the beginnings of the "Defense Loop", which ultimately became Loop 610. In 1942, the loop was planned as a throughfare, not a freeway. A 1941 bond issue allocated $50,000 for right-of-way acquisition on the north segment. About $20,000 had been spent as of 1942, and Harris County passed a resolution on September 18, 1942, to appropriate necessary funds to complete right-of-way acquisition after the full $50,000 was spent. The north, east, and west alignments were adopted for Loop 610, but Loop 610 was routed further south for the southern segment.
The 1949 Plan
Source: Economic Evaluation of the Gulf Freeway, City of Houston, July, 1949
Houston's first freeway was the Gulf Freeway (later IH-45), which opened in September 1948 as a 5-mile long facility. A report on the Gulf Freeway, published in 1949, included the following map, titled "City of Houston Proposed Freeways." Some interesting observations from this map:
- The North Freeway (IH-45), Eastex Freeway (US 59) and IH-10 are shown in their ultimately-built locations.
- The west, north, and east sections of Loop IH-610 are shown on their ultimately-built locations. The ultimate alignment of the south loop was about a mile (1.6 km) south of the one shown in this map. The loop is designated as a "bypass route", not a freeway.
- The Southwest freeway (US 59) does not appear on this map. What is now designated as US90A ("old US90" on the map) is numbered as US 59.
- The South Freeway (TX 288), Northwest Freeway (US 290), and still unbuilt Northeast/Crosby Freeway (US 90) do not appear on this map.
- The city limits of the City of Houston were basically contained within the planned Loop.
Source: Annual Report, Houston City Planning Commission, 1952
This annual report notes that the 1942 Major Street Plan was under study for major revision, so there is only a minimal treatment of transportation in this report.
However, in this document we see the first signs of the outer Beltway, which is now Beltway 8/Sam Houston Tollway. The report discusses a recent document about the Proposed Outer Belt Drive:
The report (about the Proposed Outer Belt Drive), consisting of a brief description of the need, reason for location, and means of development, along with illustrative maps, was prepared as a basis of fixing a location for a minimum 120-foot-wide loop thoroughfare located four to five miles beyond the present city limits and extending entirely around the city of Houston.
By 1959, the Outer Belt Drive would be assigned full freeway status.
The 1955 Plan
Source: City of Houston Annual Report 1954 (published 1955)
This is Houston's first major freeway plan. Houston's original freeway network was officially proposed in 1952, and is similar to the 1949 map above. During 1953 and 1954, Loop 610 (excluding the East Loop), the Northwest Freeway, the Katy Freeway outside Loop 610, the Southwest Freeway, the South Freeway, and the LaPorte Freeway were all added to the plan. Two freeways, the Northeast/Crosby Freeway and the East Loop, were listed as proposed additions. Some interesting observations from this map:
- The extension of the LaPorte Freeway, Texas 225, into downtown (the Harrisburg Freeway) is not shown on this map. The Harrisburg Freeway was cancelled in the early 1970's.
- The South Freeway alignment is shown to be along Almeda Road.
- Buffalo Drive (now Allen Parkway) is shown as a freeway.
- All the freeways shown in this plan were actually built or will be built, except for the Allen Parkway Freeway, which does include several grade separations.
Here is some interesting text from the 1954 Annual Report:
This is the first Major Street Plan which has included a designation for freeways. The location of freeways has been worked out jointly between the City and State, with the important cooperation and help of Harris County and the Highway Committee of the Chamber of Commerce. Success in connection with the planning and development of the freeway system has been largely due to the splendid coordination of all agencies concerned. From the beginning, the State Highway Department, the City and County governments, and the Highway Committee of the Chamber of Commerce have worked closely and unselfishly. The Highway Committee has worked as a coordinating agency and has organized the important presentations whch have been made to the Highway Commission regarding expansion and development of the freeway system.
(Above) is a map entitled "Plan for Freeways." This map shows the original freeway system as proposed in 1952, amounting to a total length within the city of 41.5 miles. During 1953 and 1954, with the official approval of the Highway Commission, 43.7 miles of freeways were added within the city. Approximately five miles of this distance, consisting of Buffalo and Memorial Drives, is being built by the City. Memorial Drive is being financed to a great extent by Harris County. There remains approximately 4.5 miles of the proposed freeway system within the City of Houston that is yet to be designated by the Highway Commission.
As a basis of fixing the location and width of right-of-way for the expansion of the freeway system, numerous preliminary studies have been made of alignment and possible development. These studies have been checked by other Departments and the State Highway Department and revised where necessary. Many of these studies were converted into building lines for the protection of the needed right-of-way by action of the City Council. Following is a list of such studies made during 1954.
- North Loop Freeway - State Highway 73 to West 18th, showing suggested first and second stage development.
- South Loop Freeway - building line drawings, Post Oak to Gulf Freeway.
- West Loop Freeway - Katy Highway to Brays Bayou.
- Southwest Freeway - preliminary studies for alignment, Chartres to Fort Bend County Line.
- Beaumont Freeway - revision of alignment, Port Arthur Freeway to San Jacinto River.
- Almeda Freeway - re-study and revision of alignment from Old Spanish Trail to county line.
- East Loop Freeway - revision of alignment between Port Arthur and LaPorte Freeways.
- Katy and Hempstead Freeways - revision of the interchange at the North Loop Freeway.
- Interchange - preliminary study for interchange at junction of Port Arthur, Beaumont, North Loop, and East Loop Freeways.
The 1959 Plan
Source: Major Thoroughfare and Freeways Map, City of Houston, 1959
The 1959 map shows detailed alignments for nearly all of Houston's freeways that were ultimately constructed. Some interesting observations from this map:
- The following freeways are not included in the 1959 plan: extension of the LaPorte Freeway, Texas 225, into downtown (the Harrisburg Freeway); the Mykawa/Alvin freeway (SH 35); the Bay City Freeway (now SH 122); the Red Bluff Freeway; and the Grand Parkway.
- The South Freeway alignment is still shown to be along Almeda Road and to the west of Almeda Road.
- This plan includes Beltway 8. Beltway 8 was ultimately constructed where shown in this map, except for the segment through Jersey Village in northwest Houston.
- The alignment of the Southwest freeway is listed as "not definitely adopted" south of US 90A in Sugar Land.
- All the freeways shown in this plan were actually built.
I have seen a 1968 map/artists depiction that shows the Grand Parkway and also includes the West Freeway, which began near Beltway 8 and Richmond and proceeded west and southwestward to the Grand Parkway near FM 1093. This map also showed the 249 freeway north of Beltway 8, which was actually constructed in the 1990's. In addition, this map showed a large reservoir in far northwest Houston, near the Grand Parkway between IH-10 and US 290. I recently visited the City of Houston Planning Department to obtain a copy of this map. Houston's longtime map custodian knew of this map (and says he has a copy hanging on his wall at home!), but he could not locate a copy in the planning department. It appears that a large collection of old maps was discarded when the planning department moved to its present location a few years ago. What a shame. However, there is at least one copy of that map still in existence, so eventually I will get a copy for this web page.
As for the West Freeway, it appears that it was never officially adopted and was nothing more than a line on a map. However, it was prophetic. The Westpark Tollway will roughly follow this route, all the way to the Grand Parkway, and will extend further into Houston than the 1968 map envisioned.
1971 - The Houston Plan at the Peak of Freeway Planning
Source: Houston-Galveston Regional Transportation Study 1971 newsletter
Most regional freeway plans included the maximum number of freeways around 1970, before the 1970's freeway cancellation bloodbath started. At its peak, Houston's plan was surprisingly modest. I would say it was realistic - maybe even ahead of its time. Some interesting observations from this map:
- The Grand Parkway is included in this plan. Of course, the alignment shown is very preliminary.
- All Houston's cancelled freeway's are shown on this map as future freeways. This includes the Harrisburg Freeway (225 LaPorte Freeway inside Loop 610), the Bay City Freeway between IH-610 and BW8 (which may ultimately constructed as a tollway), the Red Bluff Freeway (for which feeder roads were constructed), and the Alvin freeway (SH 35) south of Beltway 8.
- Two possible alignments for the Alvin freeway (SH 35) were under consideration.
- Two cancelled freeways in Galveston, the West Bay Freeway and the north bypass, are shown on this map.
The 1971 plan also included a recommended cross section for future transportation corridors. It was an incredible 550 feet (168m) wide. It included a 170 ft (52m) wide central section that was reserved for future bus or rail transit. The design of the South Freeway (TX288), which began construction in 1975, was heavily influenced by this recommendation. Although the South Freeway corridor is only 400 feet (122) wide, it includes a wide central median that is reserved for future use.
To view the full image along with the informational text, click here. (118k)
1974 - Few Changes from 1971
Source: Houston-Galveston Regional Transportation Study 1974 newsletter
The 1974 plan is basically the same as the 1971 plan.
1978 - The Grand Parkway is Deleted
Source: Houston-Galveston Regional Transportation Study 1978 newsletter
The Grand Parkway is the first casualty of the 1970's freeway cancellations, as it is deleted from Houston's official freeway plan in 1978 and removed from the planning map. Note that a short segment of the Grand Parkway in southeast Houston between TX 146 and the proposed Alvin Freeway (TX 35) remains on the map as a "proposed noncommitted facility," although it is not labelled as the Grand Parkway on this map.
1979 - The Bay City Freeway is Deleted
Source: Houston-Galveston Regional Transportation Study 1979 newsletter
The Bay City Freeway is removed from the 1979 map.
1982 - Few changes from 1978
Source: Houston-Galveston Regional Transportation Study January 1982 newsletter
Some interesting observations from this map:
- The southeastern section of the Grand Parkway remains on the map. The rest remains deleted.
- The Hardy Toll Road does not yet appear on the map. Later in 1982, it would be approved by voters.
1985 - The Full Grand Parkway is restored to the plan
Source: Houston-Galveston Regional Transportation Study January 1985 newsletter
Some interesting observations from this map:
- The full Grand Parkway is restored. The alignment shown for the western segment between IH-10 W and US59 S is basically accurate. The eastern alignment, scheduled for construction in 2003, will actually be much further east than is shown on this map.
- The Hardy Toll Road appears on the map. The west and north Beltway 8 are now shown as tollways.
- The 249 freeway does not yet appear on this map. It was authorized in the late 1980's and constructed in the late 1990's.
- Several cancelled freeways remain on this map. The Harrisburg freeway (225 inside Loop 610) was cancelled in the 1970's but remained in official plans until the 1990's. The Alvin Freeway (SH 35) south of Beltway 8 is shown as a "planned facility", but it will not be a freeway. (35 will be a freeway north of Beltway 8, but there are no near-term or medium-term plans for its construction). The West Bay Freeway is shown on this map, but it is dead. In my opinion, it was never really alive. Finally, the Red Bluff Freeway is shown. The feeder roads for the Red Bluff freeway were constructed, but there are no plans to build the main lanes.
Changes since 1985
- The Westpark Tollway will be constructed. It did not appear on any official planning documents prior to 2000.
- The Hardy Toll Road extension to downtown Houston should begin construction in late 2001 or in 2002. This segment was discussed during the 1990's, but I don't know if it appeared in any official plans.
- The Hardy Toll Road airport connector was completed in 2000.
- The 249 freeway does not yet appear on this map. It was authorized in the late 1980's and constructed in the late 1990's.
- The NASA 1 bypass freeway will be constructed, starting in 2003.
- The Bay City Freeway has been brought back to life as a tollway. In November 2000, voters approved funds for its construction outside of Beltway 8, and it will almost certainly be built. Also in 2000, a study was initiated by the Harris County Toll Road Authority to investigate the construction of the segment between IH-610 and Beltway 8. If this segment is constructed, the full Bay City Freeway, now called the Fort Bend Parkway, would be restored.