Pierce Elevated plan will change face of downtown

In just a couple of years, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) will embark on a massive effort to remodel the downtown freeway system known as the Pierce Elevated. The project will move I-45 onto the opposite side of downtown Houston, running parallel to US-59, right by Minute Maid Park.

While transportation officials laud the congestion relief, the effort has drawn intense scrutiny and some opposition as local groups and officials fear it could negatively affect communities in proximity to downtown like Third Ward and East Downtown.

“We need to be able to move traffic better and the Pierce Elevated has inadequate capacity to accommodate the improvements,” said TxDOT spokesperson Raquelle Lewis. “We are trying to address transportation demands for today and the future. That’s the goal of this $3 billion project.”

Completed in 1967, the elevated stretch of Interstate 45 running along the southern and western perimeter of downtown known as the Pierce Elevated, has been a major source of traffic congestion. As a result, TxDOT’s plan would move the entire traffic flow away from the southern and western sides of downtown and demolish the bridge-like freeway.

The move will create a less tangled, less accident-prone route through downtown to accommodate Houston’s booming commuter population. It’s expected to spark a 50 percent reduction in delay during peak hours around downtown and will also increase the speed to 55 miles per hour, which should help move traffic along quicker.

“The Houston district is comprised of a six-county region with 6 million people and our 6 million customers have 5 million cars,” Lewis said. “Demographers project our region’s population is expected to continue grow at exponential rates.”

According to Lewis, TxDOT studies project that by 2040, more than 500,000 motorists will be traveling in the corridor every day.

Removing the Pierce Elevated eliminates an unsightly boundary between downtown and Midtown. Capping options would create massive new greenspaces north of I-10 at North Main and east of the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Much like Kyle Warren Park in Dallas or the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway in Boston, these areas would offer room for a variety of innovative amenities.

The downtown greenspace would build upon the civic energy created by Discovery Green, BBVA Stadium and the Toyota Center, and connect the East End with downtown. They would also mesh aesthetically with the proposed land bridges for Memorial Park. By building these spaces, the city could create an entire system of over-highway parks and recapture prime spaces now given solely to cars.

The plans also call for putting a portion of the freeway below ground level, which could affect the Astros game parking that currently exists underneath US-59. The plans will also impact several properties between Chartres and St. Emmanuel, including the Lofts at the Ballpark, in order to build the wider freeway.

Though the plan has its critics, Lewis said it was not developed without thorough research.

“This project is the result of more than 10-plus years of study, where continuous public engagement has been critical to the elmination and refinement of the alternatives,” Lewis said. We are federally required to evaluate and mitigate any adverse impacts and the results are documented in what we refer to as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

TxDOT anticipates releasing the final EIS before the end of this year.

Houston MayorSylvester Turner, who supports the TxDOT program, has launched a committee to explore business opportunities and how those opportunities are unlocked. The mayor said he has put together a task force to look at ways to create new public spaces as part of that project.

“The I-45 downtown segment has been a source of congestion for years, and that congestion is only worsening as our population increases, to the detriment of our economy, our air quality and our individual pocketbooks,” Turner said.

“This reconstruction will alleviate substantial pressure throughout our city’s transportation network. The proposed realignment of the freeway will unify downtown and spur potential economic development. And I support the repurposing of the current Pierce Elevated into a linear park – a bigger, better version of New York’s High Line.”

TxDOT, for its part, has no real stake in the plan since funding for any future park concepts will not come from its coffers. The group Central Houston, Inc. has been studying the economic benefits of the project. They found that potential economic development opportunities could total $5 to $9 billion, but proposals to take advantage of those opportunities are still years away from being accepted.

Construction won’t begin until late 2019 or 2020.

For now, much like the rest of the freeway plan, everyone is in a holding pattern, but there is no doubt that the sweeping changes proposed in TxDOT’s expansion and the rival Pierce Elevated park plans would have a dramatic impact on the entire downtown area.