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A rare quiet interlude for area's first freeway
Next major upgrade: Causeway in 2002
June 27, 1999
Houston Chronicle

When Houston's first freeway segment opened in 1948, the postmaster brought up a practical concern: He couldn't deliver mail along the road because it had no name. A contest was held and 13,000 entries received. Only one person suggested the name chosen by a panel of judges. And so Mayor Oscar Holcombe awarded $100 to bank employee Sara "Sally" Yancey, who didn't own a car, for christening the Gulf Freeway. "It seemed pretty obvious to me," she said.

The road was an absolute marvel when it was completed in 1952 -- a 50-mile link from downtown Houston to Galveston Island with no traffic lights. In the almost half-century since then, it has been celebrated as the road to the beach, the road to Hobby Airport, the road to NASA and the road forever under construction. It was U.S. 75 and then Interstate 45-South. Actually, this is a quiet time for the freeway, construction-wise. Other than some frontage road work to relieve flooding at FM 518 in League City and FM 517 in Dickinson, the path is clear. And it really hasn't been under construction continuously since it opened. "From 1952 to 1968, there was nothing going on. People don't remember," said Chris Olavson, Houston planning director for the Texas Department of Transportation. The rest of the years have seen the relentless addition of lanes, brought on by the relentless growth of traffic. At its busiest point, just south of the South Loop, it carries 250,000 vehicles per day.

Within a year of its opening, the freeway had already exceeded its traffic projection for 1960. Speeds were dropping, and officials closed several of the entrance ramps close to downtown during rush hour to keep traffic moving. Today, the state transportation department is taking a breather to plan its next moves. Due to age and wear, the Galveston Causeway will be next major project. The dual, 1.7-mile bridges will be replaced beginning as soon as 2002. There are no planned improvements for the freeway north of Beltway 8, but the state is wrapping up a major study for south of Beltway 8 to the island. It has no timetable and no designated funds, meaning construction could be a decade or more away. (Major projects on the Southwest and Katy freeways and the West Loop will come first.) But it at least has developed plans:

Widen the freeway to 10 lanes from Beltway 8 to FM 518 and eight lanes from FM 518 across the causeway to Harborside Drive.

Make sure the causeway bridge lanes are reversible to give extra lanes for hurricane evacuation and major events like Mardi Gras.

Greatly improve all interchanges, which are now overmatched for traffic. Notorious problems include FM 2351, NASA Road 1 and El Dorado feeding Baybrook Mall.

Extend the high-occupancy-vehicle lane south to FM 518 as a nonbarrier-separated, lefthand lane running in each direction.

Most of those are standard highway improvements, typical of any freeway. But as the state held public meetings and looked into the traffic issues, it found there was much more to be done to relieve congestion south of Beltway 8. It realized that Texas 3 was a potential traffic savior, running exactly parallel to the Gulf Freeway, said state project manager Roger Gonzalez. To keep localized traffic off the freeway, Texas 3 will be widened and will get shoulder lanes, improved intersections and a parallel bike trail. Its intersections with FM 2351, El Dorado, Bay Area Boulevard and NASA Road 1 might even become interchanges. Park & Ride bus service into Houston might be expanded into places that have declined to join the Metropolitan Transit Authority. One lot would be built in Friendswood and two more in Galveston County. Finally, local cities and counties would be asked to extend several area roads that would allow people to avoid using the freeway for local trips. These include Beamer, Jasmine, Glenwest, Baybrook, Pineloch, El Dorado and Rex. For now, these are unfunded plans, just beginning a long process of engineering and design work.

Back in 1939, Mayor Holcombe had been thinking ahead, too. As the Houston Electric Co. shut down its old street car lines, it faced a legal obligation to rip up the tracks. Holcombe said he would allow the company to simply pave over them if it would donate the right of way to the city. This included a large chunk of the Galveston-Houston Interurban. "I felt sure we would be able to use that right of way, and equally confident that someday a major, multilane highway would be constructed," he recalled in 1952.

Today, Houston has a dozen freeways and tollways, each with its own character. The Gulf Freeway, while stuffed to the gills at rush hour, is not the slowest. But it is somehow always crowded in both directions, even when running at full speed. It also carries more special event traffic than other freeways -- for beach weekends, Mardi Gras, Dickens on the Strand and the air show at Ellington Field. "You just have to be really smart about the times you travel," said Dickinson City Councilwoman Judy Vance Svoboda. "And really smart about how to get from A to Z."

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