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South Freeway the least used, But traffic building on city's last free expressway

July 11, 1999
Houston Chronicle

A few years ago, someone got the bright idea of surveying 1,349 guests at a local auto show on their knowledge of local freeway names. At the top of the scale, 80 percent were able to identify the Katy Freeway as Interstate 10-West. At the bottom, only 25 percent were able to identify the South Freeway as Texas 288. That's fine with the folks who use Houston's least-congested freeway. The fewer drivers who know about it, the better.

A line on planners' maps for decades, the South Freeway did not open until the 1980s. It was Houston's last free expressway. (texasfreeway.com comment: That statement is not true. The free 249 freeway was constructed in the late 1990's. The upcoming US90 northeast freeway will be free. The future 35 freeway will be free.). It drops south from downtown, passes the Texas Medical Center and heads straight for Brazoria County, where it is considered a godsend. It took the Texas 288 name from the older road now designated as the extension of FM 521. It cut nearly in half the time needed to get from Angleton to the Astrodome.

Regular commuters say the freeway has become more crowded in the past two years but is still a picnic compared to the others. At its northern end, eight lanes and frontage roads carry 151,000 vehicles per day. Compare that with the Katy Freeway outside the West Loop, where just six lanes and frontage roads carry 216,000. In the afternoon rush hour, no outbound segment of Texas 288 moves slower than 55 mph once it clears the interchange with U.S. 59, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. In the morning, no inbound segment moves slower than 40 mph. If there were any proof needed that this is a significant statistic in Houston, consider the advertising campaign of Silverlake, a planned community at Texas 288 and FM 518 in the Pearland area. If a person worked downtown or in the Medical Center and lived in Silverlake instead of a planned community in Montgomery or Fort Bend counties, brags one ad, "I could see the 5:30 news for once. Play ball with the kids before supper. Or lay on my lawn and scream, `Eat your heart out, road rats!' "

Funny thing about a freeway corridor whose fans boasts about how empty it is: It may not stay that way. "Traffic is like water. It finds the path of least resistance," said Alan Mueller, a senior project manager for Pearland's city manager. While the Pearland area has been averaging more than 1,300 new housing starts per year recently, the bigger slug of new traffic may be from elsewhere, Mueller suspects. He believes commuters from Fort Bend County are taking Texas 6 east to Texas 288 to avoid the Southwest Freeway. Certainly that is a trick of many commuters from the mature Meyerland/Westbury area who want to avoid taking the West Loop and Southwest Freeway into downtown. They take the South Loop over to Texas 288. Even more of them will do it as construction begins on the Southwest Freeway in the Montrose area.

On Texas 288 outside of the South Loop, there really isn't much to see. The freeway becomes rural more quickly than any other in Houston, Mueller said. Even inside the Loop, the view is uncluttered and pleasant. That's not an accident. For starters, there is a good view of the downtown skyline. More importantly, the frontage roads extend south only to MacGregor, eliminating cluttered development. And no billboards are allowed, thanks to a City of Houston scenic easement. Finally, the road is surrounded by grass instead of concrete. The 100-foot median strip in the middle is reserved for a future six-lane expressway that could run without exits from the South Loop to downtown.

As the last freeway to be built in town, Texas 288 benefited from the lessons learned on all the others, said Chris Olavson, the Texas Department of Transportation's Houston planning director. One negative on the freeway has been flooding. Olavson said a recently improved pump station at the South Loop interchange should solve the problem of what happens when it rains hard there. Closer to the Medical Center, at the crossing over Brays Bayou, officials of the Harris County Flood Control District wish the highway department hadn't built so low over the bayou. The Texas 288 bridge is an obstruction that slows the bayou's runoff of floodwaters, said Burton Johnson, project manager for the flood control district's Brays Bayou project. Although it could cost tens of millions of dollars to raise the freeway bridge, the flood control district and Army Corps of Engineers are seriously considering it, he said. They would bear the cost, not the state transportation department.

Because Texas 288 is so new, the transportation department has no plans for major expansions or repairs inside Beltway 8. In Brazoria County, it may build overpasses for safety at some smaller intersections. The next major improvement affecting the freeway eventually will come at its mixing-bowl interchange with U.S. 59 and Interstate 45 close to downtown Houston. The transportation department is starting a one-year study on how the busy crossroads might be improved, but has identified no funding to build it.

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