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I-610 West, the West Loop

Last updated 14-March-2001, created December 2, 2000

Photos | Schematics | Aerial View 1965

610The West Loop is Houston's second busiest freeway (after the Southwest Freeway). It passes through the "Uptown Houston" commercial area, which includes a dense concentration of office buildings and the Galleria retail complex. It is often referred to as the West Loop parking lot because of the severe congestion that occurs between I-10 and US59.

The West Loop south of I-10 is still in its 1960's configuration. It has 8 main lanes and 6 feeder lanes. The pavement has been in terrible condition for years, and TxDOT has been patching up the concrete, trying to stretch the life until a major reconstruction can occur. The reconstruction has begun on the south end of the West Loop and will play out over the next 5 years.

The reconstruction will give 610 west a dubious distinction: It will be one of the only major freeway reconstructions to occur in Houston without a major capacity expansion. Ironically, the West Loop needs capacity more than any other Houston freeway (except I-10 west). What went wrong?

The Failure of Expansion Plans for the West Loop:
How Could this Happen in Houston?
Every major freeway reconstruction project in Houston has added capacity, to a minimum of 8 or 10 mainlanes, 6 feeder lanes, and 1 reversible HOV. (I can only think of one project, a repaving of south loop east in the 1980's, that did not add capacity.) But the West Loop expansion will be a "no capacity added" project. What happened?

In the early 1990's, TxDOT had a number of alternatives under study for the corridor. All these options and the two leading candidates were presented at a public meeting, which occurred in late November 1991. I was at that meeting.

The preferred candidate was the "collector-distributor" option. It retained the eight-lane freeway in the center, and then added a 4 lane collector facility on each side of the freeway (8 more freeway lanes.) The feeder lanes would be increased to 4 in each direction. The total lane count was 24 lanes. It was just barely feasible to squeeze this many lanes into the corridor because of extensive development along the freeway, including high-rise structures.

The second option added two elevated structures.

Attention focused on the "collector-distributor" option, which was immediately known as a 24-lane freeway even though the proposed freeway actually had about 16 main lanes. A large amount of opposition immediately developed. Leading the opposition were Houston City Council Members Sheila Jackson-Lee and Jim Greenwood. Jackson-Lee, a black woman representing a low-income district, was strongly pro-transit and anti-freeway. Greenwood, a white male, was an architect (I'm nearly certain, but not positive), and like most architects he was anti-freeway and promoted causes like today's new urbanism. Both of them bashed the 24 lane plan at the meeting. There are no neighborhoods near the controversial 24 lane option, but citizens from Bellaire just to the south opposed it because they felt it would increase traffic through their city.

But possibly the most lethal opposition came from the Parks People. The objective of the Parks People is to increase the amount of park space in Houston. The West Loop cuts through the western edge of Memorial Park, a wooded area with over 1000 acres. A significant amount of right-of-way from Memorial Park would be needed. There was a minor problem. When Memorial Park was donated to Houston, one of the stipulations was that the land would be used as park space and for nothing else. This stipulation was not observed in the 1960's when the freeway was originally built through the park.

Now the Parks People were going to stand on a matter of principle to prevent the loss of any park space. It became like an extremist organization, unwilling to negotiate and ready to fight to the death. I remember that the leader of the organization was a women who appeared to be well into her 70's. She was dedicated to preventing the loss of any Memorial Park land, but she couldn't care less about the tens of thousands of people who suffered on the West Loop every day, and surely she didn't care about the younger generation who would have to deal with the traffic.

The 24 lane option was basically dead on arrival at the public meeting. Wrangling continued for the next several weeks. On March 13, 1992, the Houston Chronicle reported the following: "The chances of expanding the West Loop to 24 lanes are 'very slim' because of mounting citizen opposition, Mayor Bob Lanier said Thursday." See the full article.

By June 1992, all plans to improve the West Loop were dead. On July 16, 1992, the Houston Chronicle reported the following: "Plans to transform the West Loop into a 24 lane superstructure have been put on hold because of a lack of funds and likely will not be considered soon, the top state highway official for the Houston area said Wednesday." See the full article.

So ostensibly, the project was cancelled because of lack of funds. But in reality, TxDOT was not willing to take on any opposition, and no one in Houston's political establishment was willing to take this project and move it forward. The Mayor of Houston at this time, Bob Lanier, was a road and freeway champion. Surprisingly, he let the West Loop project fall by the wayside. I guess he decided it was just not worth any political capital. Too bad.

The next several years were spent trying to develop a plan that would be acceptable to all parties. In the meantime, the freeway continued to crumble. By the late 1990's, the condition of the pavement was reaching a crisis point. There was no time for a major study that would probably take years to reach consensus on any added capacity. The pavement would have to be replaced, even if it meant that no capacity would be added. Hence, the west loop reconstruction was designated a a "No Capacity Added" project so it could move forward quickly.

So what did this really mean? It meant that although a lot of lanes would be added, each direction of traffic would be reduced to the original 4 lanes at some point in each of the two discrete segments (between I-10 and US59, and south of US59.) South of US59, the reconstructed freeway will have 4 lanes in either direction for only a very short distance (one overpass). In the heavily congested section between US59 and I-10, most the the freeway will have 4 lanes in each direction.

As part of the compromise that was eventually reached, substantial improvements will be added to the interchanges at US 59 and I-10. Ramps will be added, merging lanes will be added, and the entrance/exit configurations will be greatly improved. The 610/I-10 interchange will be totally reconstructed as part of the I-10 expansion. This is detailed in the schematics. The most controversial item in the reconstruction is the addition of the I-610 feeder roads through the 59/610 interchange, which was originally completed in 1964. The City of Bellaire fought the feeder road extension, but they were not able to stop it. The terminus of the Westpark Tollway will be part of the new feeder road. HOV lanes will not be part of the new facility. As of mid 2000, the Uptown Houston Association, a business group, was still trying to get an HOV lane included from I-10 to Post Oak Boulevard. At that time, it appeared unlikely that the HOV lane would be added.

So how much will the planned improvements help? They will be a huge improvement, especially on the southbound lanes at US59 and northbound lanes at I-10. But they won't be enough to eliminate traffic congestion. I guess Houstonians will just have to live with eternal gridlock. Since the life of new facility should be 30 years, I'll be just reaching retirement when this facility comes up for review again.

The Good News: The West Loop did not Start a Trend
Fortunately, this sad episode in Houston transportation was not repeated in the years following 1992. In fact, everything has been turning out just the opposite of the West Loop experience. Every major study since 1992 has recommended major freeway expansion, most notably the I-10 expansion, and the Harris County Toll Road Authority has taken the lead in building new tollways. It just goes to show that even in Houston, you can't win 'em all.

Freeway History
1942 The so-called "Defense Loop" appears on the 1942 Major Street Plan for Houston and Vicinity. Right-of-way acquisition was underway for the north segment. Loop 610 followed the planned 1942 alignment, except for the southern segment.
1946 Planning for the full loop (minus the eastern segment) is underway. The facility is designated as Loop 137.
1956 The Interstate System plan includes a "C" shaped loop 610, excluding the eastern segment between IH-10 east and TX225.

Early to mid 1960's

West Loop constructed. See a 1965 aerial view showing the freeway about 50% complete.

1964 Four-level stack at US59 opened. Houston's first four-level stack.
1968 West Loop completed.
1970 The Galleria shopping center opens at 610 and Westheimer. In the next 10 years, the West Loop corridor sees an explosion of retail and office development.
1971 The interchange at the west loop/south loop transition was opened. Additional ramps were added in the 1980's to complete the interchange.
Late 70's/early 80's The West Loop succumbs to severe traffic congestion and is frequently called the "West Loop parking lot"
1983 The landmark 900 ft tall Williams Tower (formerly Transco Tower) is completed adjacent to the West Loop.
1992 A major freeway expansion is proposed and killed.
1998 A study recommends a massive expansion of I-10, including full reconstruction of the I-10/610 interchange to add capacity.
Mid-to-late 1990's The freeway pavement crumbles, requiring extensive repairs.
1999 Reconstruction begins on the south segment of the West Loop.
2000 A final public hearing is held for the reconstruction between US59 and I-10, which is a "no capacity added" project.
2001-2003 The freeway will be reconstructed in four separate projects.

Reconstruction Schedule (see map above)
(updated 14-March-2001)
The award amounts and dates are from the TxDOT UTP and are subject to change.
Segment Start Date Cost, millions Limits
1 1999 $23.5 Braeswood to S. of Bellaire
2 June 2001 $31.5 S of Bellaire to S. of Westpark
2 June 2001 $29.6 US 59 interchange improvements
3 2002 $33.8 N. of Richmond to S. of Post Oak
4 2003 $31.7 S. of Post Oak to I-10
5 2003 $59.0 I-10 interchange reconstruction
Total: $209.1  

Photos taken September 30, 2000, except as noted

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610 at the Westheimer overpass, looking north. This is normally a severe gridlock zone.

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610 at the Bellaire overpass, looking northward with the 900 ft tall Williams (formerly Transco) Tower in the background.

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Looking southward along 610 from the vicinity of Post Oak Blvd. Notice the high-rise structures encroaching all the way to the freeway right-of-way. This was one complication in the proposed expansion.

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Looking northwestward over 610 from the vicinity of Post Oak Blvd towards the Riverway office buildings.

610 610
610 through Memorial Park. The need to acquire park right-of-way for the proposed expansion was one factor that doomed the expansion.

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The 4 level interchange at 610 and I-10. This view looks east with I-10 at the ground level and 610 at the top level of the interchange. This interchange will be fully reconstructed to widen I-10 and most of the connector ramps starting in 2003 in a $59 million project.

610 610
The short section of the West Loop north of I-10 was reconstructed in the early 1990's. The freeway has 12 lanes, with concrete available for two more lanes (the concrete is presently striped off.) An elevated HOV facility can be seen in the background.

610 610
Reconstruction and widening is underway on the south segment of 610 West. The bridge over Beechnut Street is shown here. Two lanes are being added to the existing 4 northbound lanes. Photo taken June 2000.

 
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