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Interstate 45 South, the Gulf Freeway

Last updated May 28, 2001

Also see: Interstate 45 north | Downtown Houston photos | Historic photos of Gulf Freeway

Interstate 45 south, the Gulf Freeway, was Houston's first freeway, with the first section opened to traffic in September 1948. By 1952 the Gulf Freeway was a freeway or divided highway all the way to Galveston. As Houston's first freeway, it is very well documented in the archives. See lots of interesting Gulf Freeway photos at the Houston historic photos section. Much of the Gulf Freeway was constructed on the right-of-way of the old Houston-Galveston Interurban streetcar line, which shut down in 1939.

Freeways constructed during this period were of inferior design, and with growing traffic volumes, it quickly became necessary to expand and reconstruct the freeway. TxDOT usually rebuilds freeways one small segment at a time as money becomes available. For a very long period of time, some section of the Gulf freeway was always under construction, giving it a reputation as a freeway that is perenially under construction. As a kid going to Galveston around 1978, I remember long stretches where traffic was detoured to the feeder roads for main lane reconstruction. When I received my driver's license in 1983, the double-deck section just southeast of downtown was under construction.

Well, the long streak of construction finally ended around 1998, when construction in the area of Beltway 8 was completed. Since then, the Gulf freeway has been free of any construction. More work is planned, of course. South of Beltway 8, the freeway will be expanded to 10 general purpose lanes and 2 HOV lanes to FM 518, and the entire length to Galveston will have a minimum of 8 general purpose lanes. That construction probably won't begin for at least 5 years. But as soon as 2003, the NASA 1 bypass freeway will start construction, causing a construction disruption in that area. So motorists will enjoy a couple more years of construction-free travel on the Gulf Freeway.

On June 27, 1999, the Houston Chronicle did a feature story on the Gulf Freeway.

Freeway History
1942 The 1942 Major Street Plan for Houston and Vicinity identified the Gulf Freeway Corridor as the city's best corridor for a new freeway. The closure of the Houston-Galveston Interurban rail line in 1939 freed up right-of-way. See for the actual text from the document.
September 1948 The first section of the Gulf Freeway is opened southeast of downtown Houston. The name "Gulf Freeway" is determined in contest.
1952 The Gulf Freeway is complete to Galveston. Although there are no traffic lights on the route, it is not a full freeway for most of its length, but a four lane highway.
1952-1968 No major improvements to the Gulf Freeway/Highway in this period.
August 16, 1967 The last section of the Pierce elevated over US 59 is opened, connecting the Gulf Freeway to the North Freeway (IH-45 north)
1975 Interchange at IH-610 is completed. The Gulf Freeway had always been open at this location, but the IH-610 main lanes were completed, closing one of the last missing links in Loop 610.
Late 1970's As late as the late 1970's, the facility was still not a full freeway all the way to Galveston. (There were at-grade intersections.) Around 1980, full freeway status was achieved.
1984 (approx) The double-decked freeway southeast of downtown in completed.
1997 The impressive 5-level stack at Beltway 8 is completed.
1998 The Gulf Freeway is free of construction, after a 30-year run of continuous or near-continuous construction.
2003 Construction is scheduled to resume with the NASA 1 bypass freeway and a $75 million replacement of the Galveston Causeway with a new 8-lane bridge.
2005-2010 Construction should be underway sometime in this period to expand the freeway from Beltway 8 to Galveston. From Beltway 8 to FM 518, 10 main lanes, 2 HOV lanes (concurrent flow, non-barrier-separated), and six feeder lanes are planned. From FM 518 to Galveston, 8 main lanes are planned.

Photos start from the south end (near NASA) and proceed northward towards downtown.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway     IH-45 Gulf Freeway
(high resolution 108k) Looking north from the Bay Area Boulevard overpass. This section of freeway is approved to be expanded to 10 main lanes and 2 HOV lanes. Photo taken 22-May-2001.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway  IH-45 Gulf Freeway
Looking north at the the impressive 5-level stack at Beltway 8, which was completed in 1997. For more views of this stack, see BW8 stack page.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway     IH-45 Gulf Freeway
(high resolution 162k) Looking north from the Fuqua overpass, just north of Beltway 8. Photo taken 22-May-2001.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway     IH-45 Gulf Freeway
(high resolution 162k) Looking north from the side of the freeway near Edgebrook. This section of freeway is very difficult to photograph because it is flat and there are no overpasses over the freeway.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway
(high resolution 112k) Driver's view Looking north near Monroe, with an HOV connection in the background. Photo taken 22-May-2001.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway     IH-45 Gulf Freeway
(high resolution 141k) Looking north at the interchange at IH-610, which was completed in 1975. Although completed in 1975, it was designed long before that, probably in the 1950's. It exhibits many long outdated design practices, such as exits from the left side of the roadway and merging onto the left side of the roadway, as can be seen in this photo. Photo taken 22-May-2001.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway     IH-45 Gulf Freeway
(high resolution 138k) Driver's view looking north near telephone road. Notice that there is no interior emergency lane on the freeway. Freeways where HOV lanes were added in the early 1980's exhibit this substandard characteristic. Photo taken 23-May-2001.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway     IH-45 Gulf Freeway
(high resolution 136k) Looking north over the merge at IH-45 and SH-35 (which is currently signed as Spur 5). This is the transition zone to the double deck freeway just to the north. Photo taken 23-May-2001.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway
(high resolution 136k) Another view looking north over the merge at IH-45 and SH-35, this time from the west (southbound) side of the freeway. Photo taken 23-May-2001.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway
(high resolution 92k) On the upper deck of the freeway near Scott Street, looking northbound. Photo taken 23-May-2001.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway
(high resolution 156k) Driver's view looking north on the lower level near Scott Street. Photo taken 23-May-2001.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway     IH-45 Gulf Freeway
(high resolution 108k) Driver's view looking north at the end of the double deck freeway approaching downtown Houston. The upper deck can be seen dropping to ground level at the right. All the upper deck lanes exit onto downtown streets. Photo taken 23-May-2001.

IH-45 Gulf Freeway
(high resolution 82k) Driver's view looking north with a view of the Pierce Elevated. Pierce street is at ground level on the right. Photo taken 23-May-2001.

 
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