Pain and We Hope Gain When It Comes to Houston Traffic Projects

The highly debated Pierce Elevated is one piece of a complicated construction puzzle Houstonians are being forced to endure.
The highly debated Pierce Elevated is one piece of a complicated construction puzzle Houstonians are being forced to endure. Photo by M&R Glasgow
In 2018, the bulk of the construction that had been ongoing for years along the Northwest Freeway between the North Loop and Beltway 8 wound down. There have been a few minor tweaks since then but, in general, the nightmare for many people, myself included, was over.

I found myself driving down 290 one evening looking at the wide lanes and seeing the ease in traffic and wondering if it was worth it. From a pure congestion standpoint, of course the ends justified the means. But the means were so God awful, I was too exhausted by the thought of it all to enjoy it.

So, this week, when I read about a $25 million grant from the federal government to the city for huge planned changes to Shepherd and Durham between Interstate 10 and the North Loop, part of me looked the plans over and grinned. Another part of me, and I'm not alone judging by the many Twitter responses, groaned thinking about the snarl of traffic and construction I'll have to deal with between 2022 and 2025 (expected construction time for Phase I between 15th and the North Loop).

The plan includes reducing the number of lanes on Shepherd and Durham so sidewalks can be widened and protected bike lanes added. Because that stretch runs through the Heights and can easily be connected to existing hike and bike trails, it makes a lot of sense. More importantly, it seeks to mitigate some of the significantly dangerous conditions along a corridor that often feels more like a freeway bypass than a pair of north-south neighborhood streets.

In March, a woman struck and killed two pedestrians including one in a wheelchair at Shepherd and 10th Street. I, personally, had my truck totaled in 2016 by a woman who ran a red light going north on Shepherd at 11th in the rain while reading her phone. Fortunately, I was uninjured, but had I not hit my brakes and struck her directly on her driver's door instead of the back half of the car, she might not still be alive.

Increasingly, Houstonians want better and more transportation options. We still want to drive, but we also want progressive alternatives from better sidewalks and bike paths to light rail, rapid bus service and commuter rail to the suburbs.

Those things, however, come not only with high price tags but with long, tedious construction, which brings with it its own safety concerns and traffic problems. In the end, we are creating better options, but it sure doesn't feel that way until, and sometimes even after, it is done.

Consider for a moment that we are at the beginning of two of the largest highway construction projects in the city's history. The Southwest Freeway and West Loop interchange, one of the most dangerous highway intersections in the state, is at the very start of a massive project that will take seven years including the addition of rapid bus service along Post Oak and ripple effects as far north as the I-10/610 interchange.

Then, there is the big daddy, the overhaul of Interstate 45 from Beltway to Beltway, one of the biggest and most significant transformations of the city, nevermind traffic, in its history. Yet to be determined sections that ring downtown will literally reshape the way our city looks and functions. The project will take more than a decade and is still the subject of heated debate surrounding just how it will impact nearby neighborhoods and even if the undertaking is worth it.

With those projects on the horizon, it seems a little petty to bemoan a construction project that isn't even underway and will only impact a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of road through one of the city's most fashionable and pricey neighborhoods. If you've spent any time on Shepherd or Durham over the last few years, with the myriad number of new restaurants and a brand new H-E-B, you understand how beneficial and painful this will be.

The reality is our forefathers — some farther away than others — got us in this mess to begin with. We spent decades dumping resources into highways built to move low wage workers from their houses to chemical refineries. We invested, or, more accurately, allowed developers to invest, in huge, sprawling suburban neighborhoods while neglecting not just the city's inner core, but all the areas in between. In fact, those areas between the Loop and the Beltway are likely to be the source of the city's most rapid growth over the next 30-40 years and discussion of how to support them over that time period has barely been broached.

Through the ignorance and, let's be honest, greed of those who sought to benefit the most, we just kept pouring concrete, ignoring traffic, pollution, flooding and, God forbid, the aesthetics of the city we live in. Who cares as long as people get from their garages to their work parking lots as fast as possible, right?

Of course, most of us who are dealing with this issue weren't around when these things were decided. We weren't sitting in the back rooms where developers made deals to earn billions at the expense of future commuters and fellow Houstonians. We are now stuck with their legacy and the sometimes disjointed attempts to repair the damage.

In the end, it will probably be worth it, but it is going to be painful. Still, someone has to clean up the mess and suffer the indignities that come with it. Houston will be better for it. I hope future generations appreciate it.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke