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A $259M Makeover for Houston’s Most-Congested Freeway Interchange

by: Erica Bender
To encourage speedy project completion, a combination of incentives and disincentives are woven into the prime contractor’s contract. (Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation)
To encourage speedy project completion, a combination of incentives and disincentives are woven into the prime contractor’s contract. (Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation)
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Houston District oversees infrastructure improvements across a six-county territory containing approximately 6.8 million people. A strong, diverse economy is laying the groundwork for the population to reach 10.7 million by 2045, making it increasingly imperative for TxDOT to address the dozens of major traffic chokepoints in the region.

Right now, TxDOT’s attention is on the I-610 West Loop/I-69 Southwest Freeway interchange in Houston – one of the state’s worst areas of gridlock.

“This project has two interstate highways that are ranked as the most-congested highways in Texas,” explains Danny Perez, Public Information Officer for TxDOT’s Houston District. “The I-610 West Loop has been ranked as the No. 1 most-congested highway in Texas and the I-69 Southwest Freeway has been ranked No. 2.”

According to TxDOT’s website, I-69 (formerly U.S. 59) provides access to downtown Houston as well as destinations along the inner loop and residential/commercial areas. I-610 is a 38-mile-long loop circling downtown Houston. The west portion of the loop in the vicinity of the interchange provides access to Memorial Park, the Galleria, and the City of Bellaire.

Fixing Growth-Induced Traffic Gridlock
Preliminary construction activities began in mid-September 2017, led by Houston-based Williams Brothers Construction Company, Inc. At the official groundbreaking ceremony in November 2017, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg Jr. commented on how this non-tolled interchange project is integral to Texas Clear Lanes, a comprehensive congestion-relief program authorized by Governor Greg Abbot back in September 2015.

“Texas’ strong economy is generating unprecedented population growth and to keep this momentum going we have to address some heavily congested areas in some of our largest cities,” Bugg shared with a crowd of spectators that included local, state, and federal officials. “This project will certainly address current and future demand and it will significantly improve mobility and continue economic growth for many years.”

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The estimated $259 million project includes $87.5 million in Texas Clear Lanes funding. Over the past several years, Texas Clear Lanes has allocated billions of dollars to reduce congestion in the state’s five largest metro areas: Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. These burgeoning communities are home to 97 percent of the state’s most congested roads and represent roughly two-thirds of the total population in Texas, according to a January 2016 presentation by TxDOT.

“During the design phase of the I-610 West Loop/I-69 Southwest Freeway interchange project, the average daily traffic counts were approximately 300,000 cars a day. With Houston projecting continued growth, the average daily traffic counts are expected to trend upward as well,” Perez adds.

A Plan to Improve Safety, Mobility
TxDOT spokespersons indicate that improvements to the I-610 West Loop/I-69 Southwest Freeway interchange area are intended to ease congestion, increase operational efficiency, and enhance safety and mobility.

The construction scope focuses heavily on realigning the existing one-lane direct connectors and reconstructing them as two-lane direct connectors. Other activities consist of upgrading the existing interchange to meet current design standards, increasing sight distances and vertical clearances of bridges, eliminating major weaving in merge areas, and adding shoulders on the I-610 West Loop mainlane bridge over I-69. To keep water off the mainlanes, crews are building detention ponds between I-69 and Westpark Drive, which is west of I-610.

Construction is being phased and includes both night and weekend road closures. TxDOT’s contract with Williams Brothers Construction includes incentives and disincentives to help speed project completion.

“We are making great progress and taking every opportunity to accelerate work where we can,” Perez says. “Our goal has always been to complete this project as quickly as possible while also minimizing impacts to the traveling public.” At present, all work is expected to wrap up by 2024.

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According to Perez, phases 0 through 3 had been successfully executed by summer 2020. These activities included utility relocations, construction of various frontage roads and connector ramps, roadway widening, and installation of three sound walls. One noise barrier is located along the southbound frontage road of I-69, just west of McCue Road at the northwest corner of the interchange, and the other two are located along the southbound I-610 frontage road, just south of I-69.

The prime contractor is now working to complete phases 3 and 4. These activities focus on the Chimney Rock Road exit ramp, the northbound/southbound connectors between I-610 and I-69, and the Newcastle Drive/I-69 northbound frontage road intersection. Most recently, crews completed work on the new I-610 southbound connector ramp to I-69 northbound.

Perez indicates that phases 5 through 7 will likely impact traffic the most. These phases include the construction of new I-69 northbound/southbound connectors to I-610 northbound and a new I-69 southbound connector to I-610 southbound, as well as work on the I-610 northbound/southbound mainlanes over I-69.

“At this time, we do not have a set timeframe for phases 5, 6, and 7. We could see movement on these phases sometime in 2022/2023. There are a lot of factors that could impact when this work begins, including weather,” he states.

Strategic Solutions
Performing roadwork in any urban environment comes with inherent challenges – including space limitations that create logistical issues for construction and increase the difficulty of ensuring the safety of workers and travelers.

“Spacing is a major issue on this project,” Perez confirms. “We are building the new connectors in the same footprint as the old connectors. This is where coordination and phasing really help to maximize the use of resources and time and minimize the impacts on the traveling public.”

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He shares some examples of how the project has been optimized. “While we hang beams for one connector, we may utilize the same road closure to do a bridge deck pour,” he says. “Additionally, we were able to place all utilities in a single trench to have all utilities in the same area.”

Coordination with approximately 20 utilities was required for the effort. “The electric companies are relocating their own facilities,” Perez notes, explaining that this helps to avoid potential conflicts. Both open-cut and trenchless excavation methods were used to install below-ground utility infrastructure. “Open cut and bore are the most common on this project,” he adds.

In addition to utility relocations, crews have made enhancements to the existing storm sewer system, which contains components that are anywhere from five to 20 years old.

“This project improves the storm sewer system by placing larger-capacity storm boxes (e.g., 10 feet by 8 feet or 12 feet by 4 feet dual runs, side by side) along many of the new frontage roads,” Perez notes. “Additionally, we are upgrading the two existing pump stations with much larger pumps, increasing well capacities, and even constructing an entirely new pump station to help mitigate stormwater concerns.”

A Team Effort
A host of TxDOT personnel, contractors, stakeholders and other entities have been essential to planning and executing this multiyear, multifaceted effort. “A project this size takes many key players to make this work successfully,” Perez emphasizes, noting that monthly group meetings have helped to ensure all activities are properly coordinated and streamlined.

Along with Williams Brothers Construction, he mentions key players on the design team such as Aguirre & Fields, LJA Engineering, Inc., AECOM, Dannenbaum Engineering, and WSP. Another valuable team member, 1 Priority Environmental Services, is providing lead abatement services. Others involved in the project include stakeholders in the Uptown Houston business district, representatives from the cities of Bellaire and Houston, and members of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, also known as METRO.

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Though face-to-face meetings have been limited lately due to COVID-19, virtual collaboration through digital technology platforms have kept things moving forward.

“Due to the pandemic, the technologies being utilized the most are teleconference apps such as Microsoft Teams,” Perez says. “In order to ensure the safety of everyone around us, the contractors and TxDOT personnel are able to hold quick meetings to discuss constructability concerns or agree on conflict resolutions.”

Technology also plays a vital role in keeping the public informed of construction impacts, whether through social media alerts or information shared on websites. “We feel we have gone above and beyond to make sure those impacted get the latest updates,” Perez says. “Though we anticipate a 2024 completion, we are definitely striving to complete this project as quickly as possible. The prime contractor has made great progress and we want to keep this momentum going as we know how vital this interchange is to the Houston community.

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