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Green light for delayed freeway;
Construction on southern highway will begin next month

Houston Chronicle
July 10, 1996

The Texas Department of Transportation will start building a new southern freeway next month that was first put on area road plans more than three decades ago.

The eight-lane expressway once called the Alvin Freeway will split from the Gulf Freeway at Calhoun and redefine the eastern border of the University of Houston.

Eventually, in perhaps 10 years, the road will drop south to the Sam Houston Tollway/Beltway 8, paralleling Mykawa. As now planned, it will end on the northern border of Pearland instead of reaching its original goal of Alvin, or even Galveston.

After three decades of delays, some area officials were amazed that work was beginning.

"You've got to be kidding! We haven't been involved in that road forever," said Paul Grohman, city manager of Pearland, when told construction of the first 1.3 miles starts in mid-August.

"We had a lot of our administration who had to be convinced it was finally real," said Ron Shoup, University of Houston director of architectural services.

In September 1965, a consultant reported to the state highway department that the Pearland-Friendswood area "seems to be on the threshold of a tremendous explosion of new residential development."

The Gulf Freeway couldn't handle all the traffic without massive jams, the report said, especially with growth that might occur because of the new NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Clear Lake.

The freeway plans stayed low on the area agenda as other, more pressing projects were built. In 1974, a bout of inflation further trimmed area road plans and in 1976 a consultant recommended the Alvin Freeway be dropped.

By 1982, it was still scheduled for the 1990s, known as the realignment of Texas 35. In 1985, with plans growing solid, the Houston City Council agreed that the University of Houston could close Calhoun to external traffic and use the new freeway as its eastern border.

Some residents protested that the freeway would take an unused chunk of MacGregor Park, which is still true. In 1990, 20 residents attended the last public hearing on the road. Since then, university officials have lobbied the state to move on the project, Shoup said. Last month, with no fanfare, the Texas Transportation Commission awarded a $21.6 million contract to Balfour Beatty Construction to commence work from the Gulf Freeway south to Old Spanish Trail.

"Highway engineers have been trained to have patience, patience, patience," said Chris Olavson, director of transportation planning for the state Transportation Department's Houston district.

In truth, the first section of the new freeway has already been built, although few realized it when it went up with Gulf Freeway reconstruction in the late 1980s. The Transportation Department calls it the Calhoun Viaduct - the raised freeway sections on either side of the Gulf Freeway from just south of U.S. 59 to the Calhoun/UH exit.

Users of the new highway won't have to get on the Gulf Freeway main lanes to get to downtown Houston because the raised lanes that parallel the freeway extend directly to Dowling Street, a few blocks west of the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Construction is expected to take 2 1/2 years and is scheduled to start next month. The new freeway will connect to the existing freeway on a new bridge at the northeast edge of the University of Houston campus by Elgin Street.

The construction contract calls for only a few hundred feet of main lanes, behind Rother's book store, a Pizza Hut and the UH College of Optometry.

The contract calls for northbound and southbound frontage roads to continue farther south along the railroad track, however, over a new bridge at Brays Bayou and along the eastern edge of MacGregor Park to Old Spanish Trail. The right of way for the main lanes would be left as a grassy field until a later contract.

The University of Houston owns about 35 acres in the wedge between the new road and Calhoun. Balfour Beatty's contract calls for it to extend University Boulevard east to the new road, creating a new ""Entrance 1'' to the campus, as well as extending Wheeler Street. The university has no current plans for the wedge of property, Shoup said, although heavy landscaping along the new road would be used to create an attractive edge to the campus.

Balfour Beatty's piece of the highway will be complete in 1999, but the next section of the new road won't be awarded until October 2002, according to current state plans. The final section, an interchange with Beltway 8, won't be awarded until September 2004. An interchange with Loop 610 actually isn't in the plans at all, although it will presumably be added.

Olavson said road planners take the long view of what can be accomplished within budget. Although the state plans no construction south of Beltway 8, Alvin officials said they still dreamed of the freeway they were always promised. An effort to build a GAP Freeway (Galveston-Alvin-Pearland) to a new western bridge onto Galveston Island dissolved several years ago. Since it no longer is planned to go to Alvin, state officials may need a new name for the road once called the Alvin Freeway. Officially it is Realigned Texas 35, but it will probably need a different number as long as the current Texas 35 - Telephone Road - has the designation, Olavson said.

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