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The Southwest Freeway, US59. The Busiest Freeway in Texas.

Last updated 28-January-2002 (correct traffic volume number)

See also: Beltway 8 stack Interchange | I-69 Houston routing | Schematics of elevated-freeway-into-trench project | Detailed history of Sharpstown and the Southwest Freeway

The story of the Southwest Freeway is closely intertwined with the story of Sharpstown, a typical 1950's and 1960's suburban community where I grew up. The Southwest Freeway was routed through Sharpstown because the developer of Sharpstown, Frank Sharp, donated a 300 foot wide right-of-way strip through his land. The feeder lanes through Sharpstown were opened around 1960, and the freeway main lanes were opened in 1965. Sharpstown was actually designed around the southwest freeway, in contrast to other neighborhoods where freeways were uninvited. Other sections of the freeway followed soon afterwards in the 1960's. For detailed history of the Southwest Freeway, Sharpstown, and the notorious Frank Sharp, see the history section below.

Frank Sharp may never have envisioned that the freeway through his model suburban community would someday become one of the world's busiest freeways. In 2000, it registered 337,000 vehicles per day just outside of the west Loop 610. This volume puts the freeway right up into the upper tier of the nation's busiest freeways. Los Angeles has numerous freeways in the 330,000 vehicles/day range, including the San Diego and Santa Monica Freeways. However, the world's busiest freeway is the 401 freeway in Toronto, Canada, which has a volume of about 395,000 vehicles per day.

The Southwest Freeway also became Houston's leading corridor for activity. It passes close to the Galleria/Uptown business center, Richmond Avenue entertainment district, past Greenway Plaza, next to Compaq Center, near Rice University, near the Museum District, and near the elite neighborhoods of West University Place and Southampton. It also passes near the "Gulfton Ghetto", a massive apartment complex just east of Sharpstown that degenerated into a huge slum area by the mid 1980's.

Sadly, Sharpstown has been victim to the suburban decay that has afflicted all of southwest Houston (except Bellaire). But picturesque new suburbs are sprouting up along the Southwest Freeway further southwest in Sugar Land and booming Fort Bend County. The explosive growth in the Southwest Freeway corridor will ensure heavy flows of traffic. Major reconstruction and expansion of the Southwest Freeway began in 1989. Currently, the segment through Sugar Land (in Fort Bend County) is being expanded to 8 main lanes plus HOV. Further southwest, there are plans for expansion. And Sharpstown sustained somewhat of a rebound starting around 1999 or 2000, with rising property values. If only someone could wave magic wand and get rid of those low-income apartments in Sharpstown, Sharpstown would be the next Bellaire.

US59 is also the route of future I-69. The exact routing through Houston has not been determined, but chances are good that I-69 will actually be routed around Houston on the Grand Parkway.

US59 Southwest Freeway Map US59 Future Interstate Corridor

The Southwest Freeway and Sharpstown History
The story of the origins of Sharpstown in a classic 1950's tale of new suburbia, big plans for sprawling freeway networks, and the new concept of the indoor, air-conditioned shopping mall. It all came together for the first time in Houston in Sharpstown, a 4000 acre development masterminded by Frank Sharp. Unlike most other stories of budding suburbia, however, the Sharpstown story ends with the Sharpstown Scandal, a scandal centering around Frank Sharp that effectively cleaned out the upper levels of Texas government. For details on the scandal and its heavy impact in Texas, click here.

Of course, a freeway is highly prized by land developers. Frank Sharp donated a 300-foot-wide right-of-way strip for the freeway, and his proposal for the freeway was adopted on September 27, 1957, with an agreement that construction would begin within 12 months. The map below shows a potential western route for the Southwest Freeway that was considered. The route would have veered westward just east of the present-day interchange and Fondren road. It would have run roughly parallel to Beechnut road to the vicinity of Wilcrest, and then veered south-soutwestward to join US 90A near the present-day intersection of 90A and Eldridge, where the Schlumberger corporate campus is located. Interestingly for me, the western route narrowly misses the house that I grew up in, and would also have consumed the land that became the Schlumberger campus, where I worked for 6 years. Clearly, the western route was intended to service the R.E. Bob Smith Ranch, which was just west of Sharpstown, as well as the Dr. J.B. Spiller tract. It appears that the western route would have received more donated right-of-way, but the east route is straighter and more direct, and it was adopted.


Map courtesy of the Houston Chronicle Archives.

In 1994, a book was written about the Sharpstown Scandal: Sharpstown Revisited: Frank Sharp and a Tile of Dirty Politics in Texas.
For a brief history of Sharpstown and a detailed excerpt from the book, click here.

September 27, 1957 Frank Sharp's proposal for the routing of the freeway is adopted. Routing inside Loop 610 had probably been previously adopted.
November 1958 A Houston Chronicle Article dated 3-April-1959 reports that construction began in November 1958.

July 26, 1961

Dedication ceremony for the 10-lane freeway from the downtown split to Shepherd. The ceremony is held on the elevated freeway above Montrose.

August 1, 1962

Dedication ceremony for the freeway to Sharpstown Mall (Bellaire Blvd.). The ceremony is held on US 59 underneath IH-610.

1962 The four-level stack at IH-610 is completed. This was Houston's first four-level stack.
1960's Freeway completed between downtown Houston and southwest Houston. Inside I-610, freeway has 8 main lanes and 6 feeder lanes.
Approx 1974 Freeway completed to Sugar Land. (I can remember this construction!)
Approx 1975 Final elevated segment completed through downtown.
Approx 1976 4 lanes freeway completed from Sugar Land southwest to Richmond/Rosenberg
Late 70's
Early 80's
Houston's energy boom turns US59 into a traffic disaster
1992 Major reconstruction and expansion completed from Shepherd (southwest of downtown) to Beltway 8. The freeway has 10 lanes + 1 HOV inside Loop 610, 12 lanes + 1 HOV from Loop 610 to the Westpark curve, and 8 lanes + 1 HOV from the Westpark curve to BW8.
1991/1998 Beltway 8 5-level stack is completed in two phases.
1997 Widening of 1-mile section outside BW8 to 10 lanes + 1 HOV is completed.
1999 Constuction begins on widening to 8 lanes + 1 HOV from US90A to SH 6. Contract value is $126 million.
2000 Long-span arched bridges are installed over the trench near downtown.
2001 Next section outside Beltway 8 (1 mile SW) widening to 10 lanes + 1 HOV is completed.
2002 Elevated freeway near the Museum District will be depressed into a trench.
Approx 2003 Widening to 8-10 mainlanes from SH6 to 99 (Grand Parkway) to begin.

Photos start near downtown and proceed southbound/outbound

Southwest freeway
A0. (click for high resolution) Looking west at the freeway trench and long-span arched bridges. The widening and addition of the four arched spans was nearing completion in September 2001. Photo taken 8-September-2001.

Southwest freeway
A1. Looking west over the Kirby overpass. Photo taken June 2000.

Southwest freeway
B. Looking east towards the Buffalo Speedway overpass. The central elevated HOV ramp was completed in 2000. Photo taken September 2000.

Southwest freeway
C. US 59 just inside Loop 610. This section of freeway was originally opened around 1962 and then expanded and reconstructed in 1992. Looming in the background is the Williams (formerly Transco) Tower. At 900 feet tall, it is generally reported to be the tallest office structure in the United States that is not in a central business district. This view looks west-northwest. Photo taken June 2000.

Southwest freeway
D. Houston's first 4-level stack at the intersection in US59 and I-610, completed in 1962. This view looks west along the Southwest Freeway. This interchange is slated for improvements starting around 2002. The I-610 feeders will be built through the interchange, below grade. A contract was awarded in August 2001.

Southwest freeway
E. The freeway at Chimney Rock. At this point, the freeway had a traffic count of 371,000 vehicles per day in 1998. This view looks west. Photo taken December 22, 2000.

Southwest freeway F. (click for high resolution) Northbound motorists are treated to a great view of the Galleria area skyline as they come over the Westpark overpass. This view looks northeast. Photo taken 8-September-2001.

Southwest freeway
G. (click for high resolution) Looking northeastward at the southbound main lanes at the Westpark overpass. The connector ramp from the Westpark Tollway will pass overhead in the near foreground. Photo taken 8-September-2001.

Southwest freeway (click for high resolution, 170KB) H. Driver's view approaching the stack at Beltway 8, going southbound. Photo taken 21-July-2001.

Southwest freeway (click for high resolution, 110KB) J. Driver's view going southbound just south of Wilcrest. This section of reconstructed freeway was opened in the summer of 2001. Notice the two interwoven entrance/exit ramps. I'm somewhat shocked that this new section has only 8 main lanes. It should have 12 main lanes. There appears to be enough concrete to add a main lane in each direction. Photo taken 21-July-2001.

Southwest freeway
K. Driver's view adjacent to the interwoven entrance/exit ramp between Wilcrest and West Airport. Photo taken 21-July-2001.

Southwest freeway
L. Driver's view of the recently completed expanded section between West Airport and Kirkwood. The center section includes extra concrete for a future HOV lane. Photo taken 21-July-2001.

Southwest freeway
(click for high resolution, 113KB) M. View of the construction in progress at US 90A. View looks southwest. Photo taken 21-July-2001.

Southwest freeway
N. At Williams Trace Boulevard in Sugar Land is the the "Future Interstate Corridor" sign. Photo taken 21-July-2001.

Southwest freeway
(click for high resolution, 107KB) O. Looking southwest towards the Brazos River crossing. This section of freeway will be expanded to 8 main lanes and 2 non-barrier-separated HOV lanes, plus 3 lane feeder roads. Photo taken 21-May-2001.

 
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