Before work on the five-year project to widen Hwy. 146 through Seabrook and Kemah began in February, residents had grave concerns.
“[They said], ‘You’re putting a concrete monster in the middle of the city,’” Seabrook City Manager Gayle Cook said.
Other worries included over 70 businesses permanently closing or relocating to make room for the project, boating channels and ramps closing, and increased traffic congestion from the project.
While those issues are still top of mind, Seabrook and Kemah officials are optimistic about not only what the half-decade-long project will do to alleviate traffic congestion and increase safety but help draw more business and development to the small communities.
“A lot of people were trying to figure out how to stop it, and it was a scary project,” Cook said. “We may have hard times, but the end project is going to be amazing.”
SEABROOK’S ECONOMIC ADVANTAGE
The Hwy. 146 project will widen the four-lane highway between Red Bluff Road and Hwy. 96 to six lanes and add a bridge of four express lanes adjacent to the existing bridge’s west side. It is a project that has been on the books for decades, and now that it is here, Seabrook is ready, Cook said.
“We’re not looking back anymore; we’re looking forward,” she said.
A total of 76 businesses were either closed or relocated throughout 2017 and 2018 to make room for the Hwy. 146 widening. Seabrook officials view this as a rare opportunity for owners to combine affected parcels and create new retail shops and other developments on vacant land. Developers could even buy entire city blocks and develop them, which would exceed anything done in Seabrook before, Cook said.
Officials will be closely watching the “hard corners,” or the intersections where Hwy. 146 meets other major roads, such as NASA Parkway. Such areas are ripe opportunities for developers to create attractions near high-volume traffic, Cook said.
“I would be surprised, with some of the offers we’re starting to see, owners not taking advantage of it,” Cook said.
The Seabrook Economic Development Corporation will conduct a marketing campaign to boost the businesses still in town. The corporation will use electronic message board signs to let motorists and residents know shops and restaurants are still open throughout construction work, Cook said.
The city has taken proactive steps to prepare for the massive project.
Over five years ago, the city set up a stabilization fund of about $800,000 to make up the expected decrease in sales tax revenue, which it is already seeing. In March 2017, the city collected $165,551 in sales tax compared to $124,609 in March 2018, according to Seabrook data.
Seabrook has begun lowering its projected sales tax revenue so the city does not budget for expenses it cannot sustain, Cook said.
“We’ve really been economically frugal of making sure that we are prepared the best that we can be for what is happening with the businesses that got took out by the project,” she said.
Three years ago, the Seabrook City Council updated the city’s comprehensive master plan to take the project into account. The plan included a list of items the city wanted to complete to prepare for the project, including updating the building standards for developments along the corridor, Cook said.
The City Council on Feb. 5 passed ordinances establishing the Hwy. 146 Main District and Hwy. 146 South District, two areas of the city along the length of the widening project that have different building standards that will unify what kind of materials developers can use and how their facades can appear, Cook said.
“Aesthetically, we’re doing things. We’re going to look different,” she said.
Seabrook will take advantage of the new concrete structures that will be in place to support the widened and new bridges. The city plans to paint the walls and traffic and light poles white and underpasses blue to reflect the feel of a sailboat. The walls will be engraved with sailboats, too, Cook said.
Ship-theme bollards, which are short vertical posts, will separate sidewalks from roads. Overpasses will feature Bay Area-theme coping, and at intersections, walls will be engraved with the city’s emblem. Backlit star medallions will be installed on the pillars that hold up overpasses, according to city documents.
During the construction, the Texas Department of Transportation will occasionally close either one of the two boating channels that run beneath the Hwy. 146 bridge between Seabrook and Kemah. Crews will close the channels to install the pillars that will hold up the Hwy. 146 express lanes, Cook said.
“They’re working with us very closely to make sure the boating community is interrupted as least as possible,” she said.
Once complete, Seabrook could be better off economically than ever before. With Hwy. 146 being a possible Grand Parkway connection, there is a potential to draw in more visitors and residents, Cook said.
“I think we’re gonna have honestly a stronger economic base in that corridor when it’s finished,” she said. “How many cities actually get to completely redevelop on this scale?”
Kemah businesses were not required to relocate for the Hwy. 146 project, but the city faces challenges of its own, said Wendy Ellis, city administrator and economic development director.
“We’re cautious because we have to manage it and work really hard to stay connected and keep everything moving during the construction period,” she said.
The Kemah Boardwalk, which features amusement rides and hosts several summer events, is a huge tourist destination along Hwy. 146, and Kemah is doing everything it can to let locals and residents from the surrounding areas know it is still open for business, Ellis said.
The city will invest up to $100,000 in a marketing campaign to communicate with the region the best way to reach Kemah and its destinations despite the construction, she said.
So far, Kemah has not seen a drop in sales tax revenue. The city collected $4.1 million in sales tax revenue last year compared to $3.5 million in 2014, but Kemah officials want to avoid a dip now that construction is underway.
“We are taking proactive steps to curb any downtrend,” Ellis said. “We want people to know they can get there without the frustration that sometimes goes with a construction project.”
The city has allocated for additional police officers to help with traffic control during busy times, she said.
“We feel like we’ve gotten a pretty good process to be able to help some of the traffic in,” Ellis said.
Like Seabrook, Kemah is taking advantage of the project, too.
The city in March started construction on Ralph Gordy Avenue, a new road that will create a new access point for those who want to access retail and entertainment destinations and open the city up to new development. It will also serve as an alternative route between FM 518 and Hwy. 96 during the construction, Ellis said.
“We’ve really been working,” Ellis said. “We have 110, 115 acres … between [Hwy.] 96 and [FM] 518 that we can still develop. We think there will be some great opportunities for that.”
Kemah and Seabrook lost boat ramps to the Hwy. 146 project. It was originally expected the boat ramp closures would be temporary, but they are likely permanent, so Kemah will soon search for a new boat ramp location, Ellis said.
The city’s marina will remain open.
“For Kemah, we’re really fortunate because we have the boardwalk marina on the east side of 146 so you can still get out into the bay from the Kemah marina and not be impacted by any of the construction,” Ellis said.
TxDOT is meeting with both Seabrook and Kemah officials monthly to keep them updated on lane closures and other construction information. So far the cities have not seen any more negative traffic effects than originally expected, said Deidrea George, TxDOT public information officer.
However, some commuters have reported concerns.
Teresa Kumelski is one bicyclist who used to ride over the Hwy. 146 bridge daily, but construction has made cycling unsafe, she said.
Hwy. 146 does not have a bike lane, but before construction began, the road featured a wide shoulder that made cycling possible. Crews have restriped the road and reduced the shoulder width to keep four lanes open during construction. George said.
“As of now, we ask that they not use it as a bike lane,” George said. “That’s something that we’re working to get to them once they project is over.”
Once complete, the widened Hwy. 146 will have a 14-foot-wide dedicated bike lane on the highway’s east side, but for months, cyclists will have to find alternative routes, George said.
This could be challenging for locals who bike to work at the boardwalk and other nearby destinations, Kumelski said. She would prefer if TxDOT restriped the road or lowered the speed limit to make it safer for cyclists.
“...A big part is they don’t think about alternative transportation,” she said. “Nobody takes these things seriously, which is frustrating for bikers.”
Kemah officials and residents know the project will be challenging, but once complete, the widened Hwy. 146 will improve the area, Ellis said.
“When it’s all done, it’s going to be so much better for traffic,” she said.