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Commuters can zip along the rebuilt part of Eastex Freeway

Houston Chronicle
Aug. 15, 1999

After spending years crawling through construction on the Eastex Freeway, commuters from northeast Harris County are apparently giddy. A car driving 70 mph at mid-day might be the slowest thing on the road. Work continues near downtown at the Interstate 10 interchange and picks up again from Will Clayton Parkway north to Kingwood, causing bottlenecks. In the next decade, the highway will be rebuilt all the way to the Liberty County line. But for the run between downtown Houston and Bush Intercontinental Airport, a swath of concrete up to 17 lanes wide -- including main lanes, a car pool lane and frontage roads -- now keeps traffic running smoothly. It was a long time coming, as the primary contractor took years longer to complete the job than specified by the Texas Department of Transportation. In large part because of the Eastex delays, the department has increased the late penalties it assesses contractors.

The Eastex Freeway, U.S. 59-North, is one of two Houston freeways named by contest. The other was the Gulf Freeway. In 1953 as the first segment of frontage road was opened near downtown, 3,000 entries were submitted by the public. The most popular was Hofheinz Freeway, after Mayor Roy Hofheinz. Second was for the Allen brothers, founders of Houston. Other entries included Texas Taxway and Boogie-Woogie Breezeway. The winner, chosen by a panel of elected officials and newspaper editors, was Eastex Freeway, because the highway would be the gateway to East Texas.

The first public controversy with the new road was its connection to downtown Houston. Before the elevated section was built connecting it to the Gulf Freeway, it stopped at ground level on the northeast end of town where the Astros' new ballpark is being built. The problem was the Union Station rail yard, which cut off four city streets and blocked the freeway exit from the rest of downtown. Starting in 1954, City Council tried to convince the railroads to move the station, but the effort was never successful. In the 1960s, the railroads did agree to move some track so columns for the elevated section could be built over the rail yard. It was known as the Chartres Elevated because it was above Chartres Street, just like the Pierce Elevated is above Pierce Street. By the early 1970s, the last regularly scheduled train stopped serving the station and now the property has been sold for the ballpark. Old lessons sometimes are forgotten, as the exit from the new I-10/U.S. 59 interchange will lead traffic directly toward the right field wall. State planners didn't know that a stadium would be built there when they designed the interchange.

By the 1980s, the Eastex Freeway was crowded and cluttered along the sides with junkyards and other unsightly businesses. The road widening in the 1990s knocked most of it down, but then the construction kept going, and going, and going. Williams Brothers Construction Co. of Houston finished its first six jobs late -- sometimes up to four years late. The late penalty was $2,500 per day. Now, on its job to rebuild the Southwest Freeway in the Montrose area, Williams Brothers will pay $14,000 per day if it is late and get a $14,000 per day bonus for finishing early.

The U.S. 59/I-10 interchange, a complex, $100 million job, should be done by the year 2004. Up north in Humble, construction in the Deerbrook Mall area should be done by 2001. Construction to the Montgomery County line by Kingwood should be done in 2002. Humble City Manager James Baker, who has criticized Williams Brothers for its work habits in the past, said he believed the company was doing an excellent job on its work in the area now. Farther north, the transportation department will reconstruct the highway to the Liberty County line, widening it in parts, throughout the next decade, with most work not slated to begin for several years. In the meantime, it will take care of safety problems that have been a concern to Montgomery County residents. The intersection of Roman Forest Boulevard, site of some terrible accidents, will become a crossover bridge, with a contract award possible next year. Creekwood Lake Drive will be made into an overpass at the same time.

Back in Harris County, the state will fix the clogged intersection of Beltway 8 with the Eastex by constructing direct-connector ramps in an interchange configuration. Traffic backs up so much on Beltway 8 waiting to turn north on the Eastex that many homebound commuters cut through Bush Intercontinental Airport, jamming JFK Boulevard. The contract for a ramp from Beltway 8 eastbound to Eastex Freeway northbound may be awarded by December. Three more will be awarded sometime after 2002, although officials are hoping to move them forward: Beltway 8 eastbound to Eastex southbound; Eastex southbound to Beltway 8 westbound; and Eastex northbound to Beltway 8 westbound.

A half-billion dollars has already been spent improving the Eastex Freeway, and it currently carries less than half the traffic of the Southwest Freeway. The Southwest Freeway also was lightly traveled in the first couple of years after its widening was completed, said Chris Olavson, Houston planning director for the transportation department. That should change as people discover the route, he said. "It will probably see a big jump in two or three years. People who use the Hardy Toll Road and Interstate 45 will switch. When we provide extra capacity, people go, `Hey! I can go 70 mph!' " Olavson said.

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