One of the largest ongoing transportation projects in Cy-Fair is nearing an end.
After more than seven years, work on a $2.5 billion project to widen Hwy. 290 from Loop 610 to the Waller County line—a total of 38 miles—is down to the final steps, according to officials with the Texas Department of Transportation.
Once completed, the highway will feature five main lanes in both directions between Loop 610 and
Hwy. 6, four main lanes in each direction between Hwy. 6 and the Grand Parkway and three main lanes in each direction between the Grand Parkway and Waller County. The project also includes one barrier-separated reversible high-occupancy vehicle lane in the center of the highway from Loop 610 to Mason Road.
After several new highway main lanes opened at the end of 2018, work to open all main lanes is down to the final few steps, TxDOT Public Information Officer Deidrea George said.
“The remaining Hwy. 290 main lane construction includes the completion of the [west]bound main lanes from Mueschke [Road] to just west of Mason [Road] and the extension of the HOV [lane] from Huffmeister [Road] to [the Grand Parkway],” George said.
Tim Lomax, who works with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, said he believes the widening project will not completely eliminate congestion on the highway, but it will lead to a notable improvement in quality of life for people who live and work in the area.
“The reasons we do transportation improvements is to have transportation not be something people have to think about every day,” he said. “More people will be able to make choices based on where they want to go, when they want to go [there] and what they want to do, as opposed to, ‘I don’t want to go there because traffic will be bad.’”
In addition to benefiting commuters, several transportation experts said the widening project will benefit local businesses and incoming development as well.
Although TxDOT officials were not able complete all main lane work by the end of 2018, they did open widened main lanes along portions of the highway.
On Dec. 17, TxDOT opened an additional eastbound main lane between Barker Cypress Road and North Eldridge Parkway, as well as one additional westbound main lane between FM 529 and Hwy. 6. The HOV lane was also extended an additional 2.5 miles westward in December, and it now ends west of Huffmeister.
In addition to the work on the westbound main lanes between Mueschke and Mason roads, work that remains in 2019 includes drainage work in the center of the highway from Hwy. 6 to Mueschke, after which the new HOV barrier will be put in place and main lanes opened in their final configuration, George said. Crews will also apply a concrete surface treatment to reduce pavement noise, she said.
In Cy-Fair, frontage road work includes work on the westbound frontage road between Mueschke and the Grand Parkway, George said, which is expected to be completed early in the year.
Work is also ongoing on a project to connect Hwy. 6 and FM 1960 with an overpass over Hwy. 290, included within the $2.5 billion budget for the Hwy. 290 widening. Work in 2019 will include the demolition of the existing Hwy. 6 bridge and the construction of a new bridge that will travel over Hwy. 290, Hempstead Road and Wortham Boulevard, George said. Work is expected to carry on through the end of 2019, she said.
“After the existing bridge over the railroad is removed, TxDOT will construct the Hwy. 6 southbound ramp bridge over the railroad,” George said. “Once constructed, this ramp will provide an option for one lane of traffic to cross over the railroad on the bridge.”
A new direct connector from Hwy. 6 northbound to Hwy. 290 eastbound is also expected to open in early 2019, George said.
Effects on traffic
Although the completion of the widening project is expected to reduce congestion levels, Lomax said the effects during rush hour could be offset by a boost in the number of people driving on the highway.
Lomax—who helped produce TTI’s 2018 list of Texas’ most congested roadways, which included portions of Hwy. 290 ranked inside the top 25—said people who are avoiding Hwy. 290 because of construction will start using it again once the project is completed.
In addition, drivers who leave for work earlier or later to avoid rush hour are likely to readjust their habits once construction is complete, adding more drivers to the road during peak hours, Lomax said.
“I say this with great certainty because this is what we saw on the Katy Freeway,” Lomax said, referring to the portion of I-10 that runs west from downtown Houston, which was widened to 24 lanes at its widest point in 2009. “People will move back to the time of day they want to travel and the route they want to travel.”
However, drivers still have a lot to look forward to, Lomax said. Traffic speeds outside of rush hour are expected to see a marked improvement. Drivers will likely be able to reach the speed limit—which ranges from 60-65 miles per hour—during midday hours. Speeds for drivers between Hwy. 6 and Beltway 8 hovered around 50 miles per hour during midday hours in 2017, according to TTI data.
Accidents on the highway are also expected to cause less chaos, Lomax said.
“You’re going to get shoulders on both sides of the road, so that’s going to be a lot better if you have stalls or a minor crash,” he said.
Even rush-hour drivers are expected to see improvements over current conditions, Lomax said.
“You’re still going to be in stop-and-go traffic, but rush hour will last for 90 minutes or two hours instead of three [hours],” he said.
Jeff Collins serves with Transportation Advocacy Group in Houston as well as on the transportation committee of the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce. He said he has been driving Hwy. 290 throughout the construction and saw a notable improvement in traffic flow in 2018 as well as more incoming development.
“You can bet undeveloped tracts between [Hwy.] 290 and [Hwy.] 249 and near the Grand Parkway will see plenty of activity,” he said. “We just need to make sure this growth is handled right.”
Lomax said the completion of the highway-widening project will also be a boon to businesses in the area. People from elsewhere in Houston who avoided Hwy. 290 could start making more trips in that direction, and employers along the highway could find a greater pool of potential employees to draw from.
The anticipation of the project’s completion has spurred an interest in developers who want to build in the area, said Keith Edwards, a land broker with Caldwell Companies. New businesses coming to the Hwy. 290 corridor include Star Furniture and Costco, and residential communities such as Tealpointe Lake Estates and Amira have been announced on larger tracts north of Cypress.
Edwards said he has been facilitating land deals in the Houston area for 40 years with a big focus on the Cy-Fair area. He said demand for land in Cy-Fair is strong, and transportation projects like Hwy. 290 have a lot to do with that.
“The area is doing excellent,” he said. “But when the freeway construction is completed, it’s really going to be a game-changer.”
Edwards said the high demand for land has made it increasingly difficult to find a good tract—one he described as being located outside of the flood plain and having utilities already in place. As a result, developers are snatching up smaller and smaller tracts and doing what they can with them, a trend Edwards said he expects to continue until Cy-Fair is fully developed.
“This is driving the growth farther and farther from Cypress to Waller, Tomball [and] Magnolia,” he said. “I think FM 2920 [at] Hwy. 249 all the way around to Hwy. 290 … that’s going to be the next growth pattern. You can still find some larger 200- to 500-acre tracts. You don’t find that in Cy-Fair.”
Archie Dunham, a developer with Dunham Pointe, a planned 2,500- to 3,000-home master-planned community along Hwy. 290, said he expects the completion of the Hwy. 290 widening project to create even greater demand among people looking to build in Cypress.
Dunham said he has residential and retail builders asking him about availability within the community.
“We have high expectations that we will have a major school campus on the property, significant residential homes, [and] commercial and retail much like you have on the other side of the freeway,” he said. “You can let your imagination go from there.”