The frontage road along Hwy. 146 in Kemah has long been prime real estate for business as the route acts as an economic artery that pumps tourists to the nearby Kemah Boardwalk—and with the widening of the highway nearing completion after four years of work, officials have big plans for the area’s future.

However, the project has not been without its challenges and headaches, as several business owners have seen downturns in their sales and profits, which have resulted from less traffic coming to the area due to construction.

Entrepreneur Barry Terrell said the project, carried out by the Texas Department of Transportation, has taken a toll on all three of his businesses along Hwy. 146.

It’s similar for Seabrook’s Habanero’s Taco Co., said Maria Denis, daughter of the business’s owner.

“We’ve noticed that the construction and the traffic does cut off most people coming here,” Denis said.

The full story

With the four-year Hwy. 146 project set to be completed in the coming months, TxDOT officials said they hope the project will reduce traffic congestion along the busy corridor and provide a better hurricane evacuation route.

Both Seabrook and Kemah also have a laundry list of new plans and developments for the area following the highway’s completion, with eyes set on how it could open the area up even further.

Several developments could see progress in 2024, such as The Edge at Seabrook Town Centre, a multipurpose project with retail and living space located off Hwy. 146. However, local business owners in Kemah and Seabrook said they believe they’ve borne the brunt of the project’s economic impact.

Terrell estimates business was down by 50% across his three restaurants throughout construction, all of which sit near Hwy. 146’s frontage road.

“GPS won’t tell you to go this way,” Terrell said, referring to traffic congestion and road closures caused by the project, which in turn affected his business’ foot traffic.

Meanwhile, on Denis’ end, Habanero’s Taco Co. is now the lone occupied business in a strip mall along Hwy. 146.

Isaac Saldaña, a Kemah City Council member and Community Development Corporation president, said he felt the compound pressures of COVID-19 and Hurricane Nicholas in 2021 had made a “significant” impact on the local business community.

“Some of the smaller businesses have suffered,” Saldaña said. “We have lost some really good ones. ... People just get the mentality that you’re not going to fight traffic and come down here.”

Seabrook set aside $800,000 to help offset the economic impact of the project but will not end up using it because sales tax revenue stayed fairly flat, City Manager Gayle Cook said.

“It ended up being stable,” she said. “With time we actually saw increased sales tax revenue.”

Despite the challenges, with the project nearly behind the communities, officials are hopeful that traffic numbers will rebound soon, and out-of-town visitors will begin coming again.

Kemah officials are also working on plans to help incentivize economic growth in the area.

“We just want people to start coming back this way,” Saldaña said.

Two diners enjoy dinner at T-Bone Tom's during rush hour traffic. Courtesy Rachel Leland

The specifics

In February 2019, TxDOT began widening Hwy. 146 from Red Bluff Road in Seabrook to where it meets Hwy. 96, just south of Kemah. The $214 million project sought to widen the highway from six to 12 lanes and add an expressway bridge.

The remaining portion of the project, which includes building frontage roads, sidewalks and traffic signals, won’t be fully completed until spring, TxDOT Public Information Officer Bambi Hall said. The project was originally slated for completion before December, but was stalled by weather delays and material constraints. A further delay was announce on Feb. 21.

In 2023, TxDOT started widening another 5.5-mile section of Hwy. 146 south of Seabrook and Kemah that runs between FM 518 and Dickinson Bayou.

A closer look

Traffic congestion and keeping Hwy. 146 as an effective hurricane evacuation route were reasons for the project, according to a 2018 study by the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

A 2005 TxDOT traffic count showed the annual average daily traffic on Hwy. 146 in the project’s vicinity could increase by 56% from 2005 to 2035—from 40,900 vehicles per day to 63,700.

While traffic is expected to rebound in the coming years, the project itself has spurred a downtick in traffic of about 20% for both Kemah and Seabrook along the highway’s frontage roads, according to TxDOT data from 2018 and 2022.

Going forward

While the widening has been tough on businesses in the area, officials think the project could help with future plans. City documents from Seabrook show plans to develop along the newly updated corridor—something 86% of respondents in a 2022 survey said they wanted to see more of.

The Edge, for example, will add more than 300 living units, and 19,000 square feet of mixed-use space, according to city documents.

“We’re going into a new era for Seabrook, and we’re looking forward to developing the corridor in ways we couldn’t before the expansion,” Cook said.

Meanwhile, the Kemah Community Development Corporation is working on a Rediscover Kemah campaign to help act as an economic stimulus using local events, Saldaña said.

“Despite all the issues we’re having, Kemah’s coming back,” Saldaña said.