The two roads being connected by the new bridge were both named in the list of the 100 most congested roadways in Texas in 2019, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, with the section of Hwy. 6 between Hwy. 290 and I-10 ranking No. 99 and the section of FM 1960 between Hwy. 290 and Hwy. 249 ranking No. 39.
By alleviating a bottleneck of traffic, the bridge will have benefits to both of those roadways, as well as to the Hwy. 290 frontage road, TTI Research Fellow Tim Lomax said.
“If you eliminate that bottleneck, you may see a little more congestion across the whole corridor, but the trip through that area will be much smoother, much less frustrating, and the rest of the roads will be able to handle the volume they were designed for,” Lomax said.
With the bridge open, the remaining work at the intersection is largely limited to the northbound Hwy. 6 frontage roads, which are expected to open around the end of November, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the $41.4 million project. Developers and business owners are eagerly anticipating what they think will be a resurgence in the number of people who frequent businesses in the area.
“Activity is already picking back up,” said Mary Caldwell, senior vice president of the Caldwell Companies Leasing Team, which is leasing the commercial development Cypress Crossing. “People aren’t going to avoid that intersection like they have in the past.”
Bridge work reached a point late this summer during which construction vehicles were able to drive on the bridge itself, and workers could be seen from below by drivers passing through the intersection on frontage roads.
As of late October, the remaining work largely consisted of paving the approaches on both ends, putting up the signage, painting new stripes and finishing the concrete-raised center median that will go along the length of the bridge, said Deidrea George, a public information officer with the Texas Department of Transportation, which is leading the project.
The coronavirus pandemic did not have any effects on the construction timeline, George said. During the construction period, which started in fall 2019, a segment of northbound Hwy. 6 has been completely shut down, forcing drivers to follow a detour to get to FM 1960 that involves taking the Hwy. 290 frontage road to North Eldridge Parkway and making a U-turn.
"The last portion of this project, the Hwy. 6 northbound frontage road, is still under construction but will open at the end of the month," George said in a Nov. 2 press release.
In addition to the four-lane bridge, the project also includes new Hwy. 6 frontage roads and a new one-lane southbound bridge allowing drivers who exit Hwy. 290 to Hwy. 6 to bypass Hempstead Road and a set of Union Pacific Corp. railroad tracks.
A direct connector going from northbound Hwy. 6 to eastbound Hwy. 290 also opened this spring ahead of major lane closures.
Expecting traffic relief
Traffic counts at the intersection steadily increased between 2015 and 2017, according to TxDOT data, rising from about 53,000 to 59,000 cars per day on FM 1960 and from about 47,000 to 51,000 cars per day on Hwy. 6.
By 2019, traffic counts hit 53,000 cars per day on Hwy. 6 but dropped to 57,000 cars per day on FM 1960, which Lomax said could likely be attributed to people avoiding the intersection.
Both roadways see major delays on a daily basis, especially for traffic heading in the direction of Hwy. 290 between 3-6 p.m., according to TTI data. For drivers headed northbound on Hwy. 6, delay hours rise from roughly 5,000 at noon to more than 27,000 at 5 p.m.
“Typically, what happens is you sit for a long time to get through the interchange, and then, downstream of there, conditions weren’t so bad,” Lomax said.
Part of the study also involves calculating the cost of congestion, which Lomax said is a measure of the value of the extra travel time along with the effects that stop-and-go traffic has on engine efficiency. The annual cost of congestion on the Hwy. 6 road segment was estimated at $32.3 million in 2019, and the cost on the FM 1960 segment was estimated at $30.5 million.
The cost does not include vehicle maintenance caused by poor pavement conditions or the cost of congestion to businesses relying on smooth travel, Lomax said.
There are additional projects in the area officials said could have benefits on overall congestion as well. A $15 million Harris County project involves adding left and right turn lanes on FM 1960 at North Eldridge Parkway. That project is set to be completed in 2023.
Even with the completion of these major project, Jeff Collins, co-chair of the Transportation Advocacy Group in Houston, said it will be crucial to ensure transportation remains a priority moving forward.
“We definitely have to keep transportation funding in the forefront,” he said. “You have to keep up with development. The state of Texas still has a lot of people moving here, so we will have a lot of need for transportation and road improvements to get people to and from work.”
No development slowdown
Lomax warned some congestion will remain in the area due to broader development and population growth, which has not shown any signs of slowing down.
Several developments are either underway or have recently been completed at the site of the new bridge. EastGroup Properties completed work on the $5.7 million Northwest Crossing, a 278,000-square-foot logistics project on Hwy. 6, in September. Transwestern will finish work on Huffmeister Plaza in December, which will bring 142,000 square feet of office space to the nearby Huffmeister Road.
EastGroup Vice President Kevin Sager, who oversees Houston operations, said the Hwy. 6 mobility improvements benefit projects like the new EastGroup industrial space.
“Prospects are very excited by the project’s high-end aesthetic look, high visibility on Hwy. 6 and excellent access via Hwy. 290,” he said.
Caldwell said she has high hopes for Cypress Crossing, the commercial real estate project underway at the intersection. Her team is working with an Asian restaurant and a breakfast and brunch concept, she said. A hotel will also open soon at the site, and the recently signed Tiff’s Treats will open by the end of the year, she said.
The completion of the bridge is expected to be a boon, Caldwell said.
“You can make all the renderings in the world of the bridge, but that’s nothing compared to once people can actually see it and drive on it,” she said.
For local business owner Aileen Garcia, who said she lives in Copperfield and works for a Farmers Insurance location near the Willowbrook area, the construction has been unavoidable. She said she looks forward to a time when her commute is less of a headache.
“I’ve had to make detours a lot to try to avoid the intersection,” she said. “Once my bridge is completed, my commute to and from the office will definitely be shorter.”