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East Freeway's 2 sides
No rush-hour jam but the construction!
Houston Chronicle
July 25, 1999

In Houston, it is officially known as the East Freeway. In Baytown, they prefer Baytown-East Freeway, and have convinced radio traffic reporters to call it that. Once upon a time, it was the much-anticipated Port Arthur Short Line. Then Beaumont got into the act and Interstate 10-East veered north to Beaumont instead of heading straight into Port Arthur, which had to settle for two-lane Texas 73. A dirty trick.

Whatever it's called, the freeway east from downtown Houston is known for big trucks, industry and some frightening construction zones, but has one of the fastest-moving rush hours in town. That's because few people in east Harris County traditionally have worked in downtown and the Galleria / Greenspoint area. Instead, they work near their homes in the area's petrochemical and other industrial plants. Maybe even at the massive Budweiser brewery. That means they aren't all headed in the same direction, and they work on various shifts instead of crowding the freeway at the same time. The average afternoon rush-hour speed in 1998, from the San Jacinto Street entrance at downtown Houston to Texas 146 in Chambers County, was an even 60 mph, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. That was the exact same eastbound speed for non-rush hour. "I seldom ever hit a complete stop," said Tracey Wheeler, president of the Baytown Chamber of Commerce. Unless there is a stall or accident, and the road backs up like any other freeway. "We have a lot of people who work here and live in Houston," making a reverse commute, Wheeler said.

The biggest issue for many I-10 East users is not congestion, but construction-zone safety. Residents of Mont Belvieu and Baytown were outraged two years ago over a string of serious and deadly crashes in a highway job at Texas 146. In August 1997, state troopers had counted 35 major accidents in the previous 18 months just in the two-mile construction zone on I-10. Residents said the lanes were too narrow and sight lines extremely limited. When traffic backed up, the last in line was in mortal peril from vehicles behind it. The Texas Department of Transportation said trucks were simply driving too fast for the conditions. The department says the situation has improved, but Baytown officials still complain that state troopers do not patrol the area often enough.

The I-10 construction at Texas 146 will be complete by next spring. But motorists can't let their guard down. A new job has already started -- an eight-mile, $58 million widening of the freeway to three lanes in each direction from Baytown's Spur 330 east nearly to Texas 146. That job won't be complete until the year 2002, and it makes for some claustrophobic lane markings. The problem, said state highway engineer Quincy Allen, is giving work crews enough room to do their jobs while still routing two lanes of traffic in each direction. It's just a tight squeeze, he said. In downtown Houston, crews are already at work on a $100 million reconstruction of the I-10 interchange with U.S. 59. Beginning in June 2001, a contract will be awarded to improve and widen the East Freeway to beneath the East Loop from North Wayside to Mercury.

Houston City Council gave the freeway its name in Houston, and the post office acknowledges the designation East Freeway in addresses. In Baytown, former Mayor Emmett Hutto didn't like that. So in 1990, Baytown City Council passed a resolution asking the state transportation department to name the road Baytown-East Freeway from downtown Houston to the Chambers County line. Harris County Commissoners Court passed a resolution of support. But the transportation department only gives its roads numbers, not names, so nothing was done. Baytown can name its portion of the road whatever it wants, but the Baytown city clerk has no record of such a resolution. The Baytown post office just calls it Interstate 10. In any event, Hutto asked radio traffic reporters to call the road Baytown-East Freeway, and they do -- mentioning the city of Baytown every time there's a wreck on the freeway.

Whatever it's called, I-10 East is the land of the 18-wheeler. About 14 percent of vehicles on the freeway near Houston are trucks. At Cedar Bayou in east Harris County, one in four vehicles is a truck. The freeway has an intriguing history. The original "short line" was the 1930 brainchild of chambers of commerce in Houston, Baytown and Port Arthur. Such an expressway would be an hour shorter than taking U.S. 90 to Beaumont, then dropping down to Port Arthur. After World War II, when construction began, the road was known as Texas 73. Then Beaumont asked for a fork in the road at Winnie, with one piece leading to Port Arthur as Texas 73, the other leading northeast to Beaumont as Texas 124. The city got its wish, and in the mid-1950s the dirty deal happened. The federal interstate highway act called for all cities with populations above 100,000 to be served by an interstate, said Port Arthur City Councilman Bob Bowers, who is also chairman of the Port Arthur chamber's highway committee, a former state highway engineer and historian of local roads. Beaumont was just over 100,000, Port Arthur just under. So Interstate 10 followed the Texas 124 fork. It now jogs north toward Beaumont at Winnie, bypassing Port Arthur. "The people in Port Arthur think we were robbed. Being on the interstate is terribly important," Bowers said. After 69 years, Texas 73 into Port Arthur is only now being widened to two lanes in each direction, with work expected to be complete next year.

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