New state highway should put UH commuters in the fast lane

by David Monroe

News Reporter

The Texas Department of Transportation will begin a three-year construction project in June that will eventually result in a new, eight-lane expressway running just east of the University of Houston, from Interstate 45 to Bellfort, south of Interstate 610.

"State Highway 35 has been on the drawing boards since the 1960s as a way to alleviate traffic flows along I-45 South," said Tim Newton, supervising design engineer for TxDoT.

The new construction will also result in changes for the university. UH plans to redesign the east entrance to the campus to tie into the new highway.

Currently, the only ways to access areas directly south of Houston are on city streets dotted with traffic signals.

A report from TxDoT read, "State Highway 35 will also serve as a major hurricane evacuation route, primarily for Brazoria County and parts of Galveston and possibly Matagorda counties."

Newton said, "TxDoT did quite a few studies in the 1960s and 1970s of traffic flows and found that the area needed an expressway."

SH 35 will be built in two phases. The first phase will begin in June with the construction of connecting ramps and two two-lane frontage roads, running north and south from I-45 to Old Spanish Trail.

"The construction period for this part of the expressway will take about three years to complete and will cost an estimated $20.5 million for the 1.5-mile project," Newton said.

"The second phase of construction will be the main lanes of the expressway. It is planned to be an eight-lane divided freeway with four northbound lanes and four southbound lanes," he said. "This phase is very tentatively scheduled to begin in 2002, but only if the funds are available at the time."

Ron Shoup, director of Architectural Services for UH System Facilities, Planning and Construction at UH, said, "There should be no major disruptions of traffic during the construction period. Traffic has to be maintained during this project, so TxDoT has incorporated into their plans ways to keep traffic moving at all times."

James Berry, associate vice chancellor for UH System Facilities Planning and Construction, said, "As with all road construction, there will be some traffic delays."

But Berry reiterated that TxDoT is doing all it can to plan for smooth traffic flows around the construction site.

Plans for the construction of SH 35 show the road running adjacent to the railroad tracks east of Calhoun Road. Berry said, "Calhoun will be closed off from traffic when the new highway is finished. Calhoun will be reduced to a two-lane, interior street of UH from Entrance 19 to Wheeler."

UH Entrance 1, which currently feeds onto Calhoun, will be extended from its current position to the new frontage road to allow students, faculty and staff access to parking lots.

Berry said the new highway will be "a service to the campus" because SH 35 will allow commuters easier access to and from campus. Students will no longer have to wait at stop lights along Calhoun when entering the campus, but will be able to exit I-45 and drive straight to Entrance 1.

"The construction of Entrance 1 will be added to the total contract," Berry said, "so UH will not have to pay any construction costs."

However, UH will be involved with the city of Houston and the state of Texas in trading small parcels of land to satisfy right-of-way requirements for city and state thoroughfares.

"All the land traded for right-of-way purposes was appraised beforehand," Berry said.

He said all parties involved in the land transactions gave and received land of equal value.

"The land transactions were done not to make money, but in order to allow construction on the highway to begin," he said.

Newton said, "TxDoT decided on a 10-foot right-of-way for the frontage roads, so in order to do this, TxDoT and UH had to swap land."

Bill Brundick, TxDoT's design engineer, said it was necessary for UH to trade land with the city of Houston in order to extend Wheeler from Calhoun to the new frontage road.

Outlying student parking lots 21A and 20B will be adjusted to allow for the construction of SH 35.

"All spaces that are affected by the new highway will be replaced within a year," Berry said.

Projections of the finished highway reveal no UH buildings will be affected, but the building housing Rother's bookstore on Calhoun will lose its warehouse, located behind the bookstore.

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