A decade of megaprojects and hints of the future

The time has come to make end-of-the-decade lists (or, if you’re the Chronicle sports department, end-of-the-21st century lists).

It has been a busy ten years in Houston transportation. It was a decade of huge projects, some controversial, some nearly unnoticed. It’s also been a decade of more modest projects that give a clue to what the next decade (or two or three) might be like. Here’s 11 built projects that represent 2000-2009 in Houston transportation.

Katy Freeway Expansion

After a 2003-2008 rebuilding, The Katy Freeway is now one of the widest freeways in the world, with 8 mainlanes, 6 frontage road lanes, and 4 HOT lanes all the way from 610 to beltway 8. There is no doubt that it has (for now) improved traffic and spurred development. But the cost was significant. The project was originally estimated at $1 billion but ended up costing $2.8 billion; it displaced hundreds of business and an entire street of homes; and it removed a rail line that could otherwise have been used for transit. The Katy Freeway was the culmination of decades of freeway widening. This may be the last project of its kind: the last time that Houston planners thought that that more lanes along were the solution to transportation in a major corridor. 290, the next major freeway project, includes a reserved right of way for transit.

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Hobby and Intercontinental Airports

A decade ago, Houston’s airports were an embarrassment: awkwardly located security checkpoints, low ceilings, carpeted walls, bad food. That was before $4 billion in new construction. Intercontinental got a new terminal (E), renovations and expansions at terminals A, B, and C, a new international arrivals area, a new people mover, a new car rental facility, and a new runway. Hobby got an all-new concourse and a new Southwest Airlines ticket hall. At the same time, Southwest continued expanding, and Continental kept adding international routes. Flying in and out of Houston has gotten a lot more pleasant (except for the ever increasing security procedures.)

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Southwest Freeway expansion

The Southwest Freeway expansion from Shepherd to Spur 527 was a landmark of a different kind: the first Houston freeway to be rebuilt to reduce its neighborhood impact. After intense lobbying by neighborhoods alarmed by a proposed second level of freeway, a mile of elevated freeway was depressed into a trench. It was part of a national trend to rethink how freeways fit into the city that included Boston’s Big Dig and San Francisco’s demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway, but so far it’s unique in Houston.

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West Loop reconstruction

The West Loop past Uptown is one of Houston’s traffic bottlenecks. It was rebuilt from 2003 to 2006 — but while it got extended flyovers (putting lie to TxDOT’s “no added capacity” claims) and new on- and off-ramp configurations, it did not get additional mainlanes. That may be a trend: finding the land to expand urban highways is getting harder and harder. The Uptown District is now counting on light rail to help recreate the Galleria area as a more walkable, less car-dependent place.

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Westpark toll road

Toll roads were the talk of the transportation community all decade. In Houston, we got our first EZ tag-only toll roads along Westpark ($256 million, completed and south to Fort Bend as well as our first toll lanes in a freeway median. With state highway funds running low, they may be the wave of the future.


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Main Street Light rail

The light rail line was cheap compared to the freeway projects — only $320 million — but it’s gotten more attention than any other transportation project in Houston. Nationally, we were known as the place where rail projects never get built; now we’re the busiest light rail line in the country in terms of riders per mile. The next step — approved by voters in 2003, but just barely under construction today — will be one the big stories of the next decade.

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Downtown/Midtown Transit Streets

In fact, the light rail was only just barely the biggest Houston transit project of the decade. METRO spent $215 million and 5 years rebuilding 34 miles of Downtown streets with new pavement, new computer-controleld traffic signals, and improved sidewalks. That construction, which coincided with light rail construction, the collapse of Enron, and the 9/11 recession, was hard on businesses. But, along with the Cotswold Project, which rebuilt streets around Market Square and the courthouses, it’s made Downtown a better place to drive, walk, and use transit and created infrastructure that should last a long time.

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Bayport

The Port of Houston’s brand new container and cruise ship terminal was approved by voters in 1999; in 2004, neighbors and environmental groups failed in their attempts to stop it, and the first container ship pulled in in 2007. The ultimate master plan (pdf) calls for 1,133 acres, with berths for 10 ships, a dedicated rail yard, and room to hold 50,000 containers (in addition to the 10 berths at the port’s older terminal, Barbour’s Cut.) The cruise terminal has been a bad bet so far; it hosted ships for a brief time after Ike but has otherwise stood empty as ships call in Galveston instead. But the container port is busy, and the Port of Houston Authority hopes for more traffic as the Panama Canal is widened to hold larger Asian ships.


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Bikeways

The City of Houston’s bikeway program dates back to 1992, but construction didn’t start until 1999. The $43 million project included 125 miles of on-street bike lanes, 70 miles of multi-use trails (including the just opened MKT train in the Heights and the First Ward) and another 165 miles of signed on-street routes. Houston has bike trails before, but Houston’s project was probably the first time that bicycles were treated (and funded) as a mode of transportation. That became something of a trend, with Bill White bicycling to work on TV, METRO putting bike racks on buses, and the Energy Corridor focusing on bicycles in their master plan.

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KCS Macaroni Line

Thirty years ago, many had given the US railroad system up for dead. But then came deregulation, containerization, and higher trucking costs. Since 1980, U.S. freight railroads have grown market share and nearly doubled the volume of freight they carry. Now, railroads are reinvesting, not retrenching. The most visible sign of that in Houston is Kansas City Southern spending $164 million to lay 90 miles of new track along an abandoned rail right-of-way from Victoria to Rosenberg; the new line opened in June.

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Ashby highrise

The Ashby highrise is a proposed apartment tower, not a highway or transit line. But it has broken new ground in transportation policy. After a politically connected neighborhood protested the project, the City of Houston used a driveway construction permit to block the project, then wrote new rules that prohibit construction that adds to traffic congestion in already congested areas. Those rules require traffic studies for all large projects in the City of Houston. More significant, perhaps, is the precedent: limiting construction based on available transportation capacity. Were that principle applied everywhere in the region, it would be illegal to build new homes anywhere near 290, 288, or 45. Luckily, other agencies like HGAC are starting to conclude that density — done right — will actually reduce traffic.

Houston starts the new decade with a new mayor, planning for new projects (like 290 and Galveston commuter rail), and many more transportation challenges. Tell us what you think the next ten years will hold (or look back, if you like) in the forums.

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