Sam Houston Tollway / Beltway 8
Views of Main Lanes on the Eastern Segment, US 59 North to Interstate 45 South
Last updated May 28, 2001
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This section of Beltway 8 is part tollway, part freeway. The segment from US 90 to US 59 North consists of feeder roads only.
This section features the ship channel bridge, formerly known as the Jesse Jones Toll Bridge, and now known as the Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge. This bridge was a financial fiasco and was on the threshold of default when the Harris County Toll Road Authority bought it out for the staggering price of $225 million in 1994. How did this happen?
First, it was built with faulty traffic projections. Actual traffic was nowhere near what was needed to support the facility.
Second, the timing of the facility was unfortunate in terms of bridge-building technology. Construction began in 1978. A concrete box girder was the best design at the time, but also a very expensive design, costing $102 million in 1978 for this narrow bridge. If the bridge had been built a few years later, it would have been built as a cable-stayed bridge for about half that price.
And third, junk bond refinancing of the bridge. As default loomed for the bridge around 1990, it was refinanced with high-interest-rate junk bonds. There may even have been two refinancings. By 1994, all options were running out to save the bridge financially. The owner of the bridge, the Texas Turnpike Authority, was facing default on the bonds. Then the savior arrived - the well-funded Harris County Toll Road Authority. By this time, the market value of the junk bonds was $225 million, even though a comparable cable-stayed bridge could be constructed for less than the half the price.
So why did the Harris County Toll Road Authority pay $225 million for the bridge? In my opinion, it was to maintain a clean credit rating for the state of Texas. A default could have made it more difficult to sell bonds for future tollway projects. Texas sent a message that Texas takes care of its bondholders. In this case, the investors who bought the junk bonds made out like bandits. I'm sure there was some political payoff going on with bondholder payoff. But in the end, everything worked out. The Harris County is now rolling in money due to the success of the western and northern Sam Houston tollway, so the steep price tag really turned out to be no big deal in hindsight.
Tollway/Freeway History, eastern segment
| City of Houston planning documents identify the need for an outer loop.
| Late 1950's
| The beltway is added to Houston's official freeway plan as a full freeway. The eastern section of Beltway 8 is constructed exactly where shown in the 1950's document.
| Late 1960's?
| A section of Beltway 8 feeder roads is constructed from SH 225 to Spencer Highway. The right of way is unusually narrow - about 200 feet.
| The Texas Turnpike Authority sells $102 million in bonds to build the toll bridge. It is a concrete box girder with a main span of 700 feet and a vertical clearance of 175 feet.
| May 1982
| The tollway bridge is opened. Traffic falls way below projections.
| 1994 (approx)
| The section of Beltway 8 freeway from IH-10 to US 90 is opened.
| May 5, 1994
| The Harris County Toll Road Authority bails out the Texas Turnpike Authority and buys off the outstanding bridge bonds for $225 million.
| July 1996
| The tollway from SH 225 to IH-45 is opened.
| The Harris County Toll Road Authority authorizes a revenue and design study for the section of freeway which does not have main lanes - US 90 to US 59N.
Photos start from the north end and proceed southward.
(high resolution 143k) Looking north, north of US 90. This is the only section of Beltway 8 that still consists of feeder roads only. Notice the wooded area that has been retained in the right-of-way. 22-May-2001.
(high resolution 84k) Looking north where the feeder roads cross a railroad just north of US 90. 22-May-2001.
(high resolution 106k) This is the current end of the main lanes just south of US 90. 22-May-2001.
(high resolution 95k) Looking north at the exit at Wallisville Road. This section of Beltway 8 is a freeway. 22-May-2001.
(high resolution 154k) Looking north at the exit at Wood Forest Road. 22-May-2001.
(high resolution 152k) Looking north from just south of the 4-level stack at Interstate 10 east. 22-May-2001.
(high resolution 204k) Looking eastward at the Beltway 8 bridge. This bridge is actually very difficult to photograph, because most of the land around the bridge is vacant, inaccessible, or is private. The bridge was completed in 1982. 22-May-2001.
(high resolution 91k) View of the bridge from the north approach. 22-May-2001.
(high resolution 106k) Driver's view approaching the bridge from the north. Notice that there is no emergency shoulder on the bridge. Even though this bridge is relatively new, design standards were compromised. 22-May-2001.
(high resolution 106k) Driver's view at the bridge apex. I always get a claustrophobic feeling when I cross this bridge because it is so narrow. 22-May-2001.
(high resolution 157k) Looking north from just south of Texas 225 (the LaPorte Freeway). The Sam Houston Tollway between 225 and interstate 45 has four main lanes, and nearly all of it looks just like this photo. 22-May-2001.
(high resolution 97k) Driver's view looking west near SH3, which is just east of Interstate 45. 22-May-2001.