Traffic on the Hwy. 146 bridge between Kemah and Seabrook has become a nightmare during peak travel times, officials admit, as businesses close or relocate to make room for planned road improvements.
Since 2014 average daily traffic counts on the bridge have increased 46 percent. Texas Department of Transportation data from 2016 shows an average of 52,787 vehicles cross the bridge daily.
“From 4-6:30 [p.m.] each and every day, it’s basically a parking lot,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman said.
The road serves as a throughway for a booming population commuting to and from work, including the ever-growing Port of Houston, and tourists trying to reach the Kemah Boardwalk. The highway is also an official hurricane evacuation route, making it an important corridor for Bay Area residents.
But the road’s significance means traffic. However, TxDOT early next year will start work on Hwy. 146 that will double its capacity and alleviate congestion. Work is set to finish in late 2023.
“We’re actually going to see some light at the end of the tunnel,” Morman said.
As it exists today, Hwy. 146 has five lanes—two northbound and two southbound lanes with a shared center turn lane.
TxDOT’s planned $201 million project will widen the corridor from Red Bluff Road to Hwy. 96 to accommodate at least six lanes of traffic—three northbound and three southbound lanes, according to TxDOT renderings.
But the biggest change planned for the road is the construction of separate—and completely free—express lanes.
The lanes will run from East Meyer Avenue to Hwy. 96 over and along the west side of the existing highway. A new bridge will be built along the west side of the existing Hwy. 146 bridge for the express lanes to go over Clear Creek, TxDOT Public Information Officer Deidrea George said.
The expressway will allow motorists to circumvent traffic trying to reach local businesses and other stops, George said.
“Instead of stopping at the boardwalk and all those little tourist attractions, if they don’t want to, they won’t have to,” she said.
Once the work is done, Hwy. 146 will be up to 12 lanes wide at some points, which is more than double its existing size, George said.
“It definitely allows us to get more capacity in that area,” she said.
The expressway will be useful during natural disasters, especially considering Hwy. 146 is an official hurricane evacuation route, George said.
“When anyone is trying to get out in an emergency, you would benefit from
another lane,” George said.
That is important for an area with few other options, Morman said.
“There’s really no alternate route—or at least not a good one,” he said.
It will be some time before motorists get any respite, however; construction will take an estimated five years to complete, George said.
The project has been in discussions since at least 2003, according to TxDOT documents.
“We’ve done everything we can to urge them to move as quickly as possible,” Morman said.
According to TxDOT engineer Melody Galland, the first phase of construction will be widening the northbound lanes of the existing highway. The second phase will be widening the southbound lanes.
Contractors will then build the expressway, starting with the northbound lanes, Galland said.
TxDOT hopes to keep all existing lanes open during construction, but it will not be known if that is possible until TxDOT meets with the contractor, which is scheduled for later this year. Other project details will be known at that time, George said.
TxDOT has plans to widen Hwy. 146 north of Red Bluff Road to Spencer Highway. Eventually, Hwy. 146 will connect with Grand Parkway, a 180-mile highway loop through Harris County and six counties surrounding it, in both the cities of Mont Belvieu and Baytown, George said.
Business woes and wins
More than two dozen Seabrook businesses have either closed permanently, relocated or are in the process of finding a new home as a result of the upcoming Hwy. 146 work, according to Seabrook officials.
TxDOT has acquired the land, most of it in Seabrook, necessary to widen Hwy. 146. At least 26 business were in the path of planned construction and had to go, Seabrook Economic Development Director Paul Chavez said.
Benjamin’s Automotive and Hill’s Liquor have relocated to other parts of Seabrook. Tookie’s Burgers moved across the bridge to Kemah. Neptune Subs and a Waffle House permanently closed, and others are in limbo as they search for new locations, according to Seabrook data.
TxDOT compensated affected businesses for their troubles, George said.
Not only have businesses been uprooted, but others are on hiatus as they wait for construction to pass them. Businesses do not want to move to the area or expand or redevelop in the middle of heavy construction motorists are trying to avoid, Chavez said.
“It has certainly been an interesting challenge for all of us here,” he said.
Ryan’s Express Dry Cleaners moved 2 miles north from where it sat along Hwy. 146 just north of NASA Parkway to Red Bluff Road. The move has not done the business any favors, employee Sabrina Sauceda said.
“It’s like a ghost town out here,” she said. “We lost a lot of business.”
Sports bar Fatty’s is relocating next door to make room for the Hwy. 146 work. The business will have to downsize to fit into the smaller space, Sauceda said.
The forced relocations have not been all bad, though.
A CVS Pharmacy that relocated to 2242 Repsdorph Road has seen much higher-than-average sales. The business has never done better in Seabrook because it is now conveniently positioned in the middle of high-end residences, Chavez said.
“We’re expecting to see that with a lot of businesses that go into Repsdorph,” he said.
Seabrook budgeted for a serious drop in sales tax income because of businesses affected by the Hwy. 146 work.
“That has not occurred, which is great,” Chavez said.