As part of the Northern Houston Highway Improvement Project, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has proposed a large-scale plan to add lanes along Interstate 45 (IH-45) and reconfigure downtown freeway access. The proposed changes could make up the largest freeway rebuilding project ever undertaken in the Houston area.

The restructuring of IH-45 has been under consideration for several years because of traffic congestion, high rate of accidents, expected area population growth and unmet safety standards. In an August 2013 study by the Texas A & M Transportation Institute, the section of IH-45 through Downtown was ranked one of the the twelve most congested highways in the state.

The freeway rebuilding project divides the IH-45 into three segments: Beltway 8 to IH-610, IH-610 to IH-10 and IH-10 to the intersection of US-59 and SH-288, including the Pierce Elevated. TxDot has proposed various ways to restructure all the segments, but the third segment, in the heart of Downtown has received the most attention because of the Pierce Elevated’s possible demolishment.

Three options have been proposed to reconstruct the Downtown segment, two of which involve the partial or full removal of the Pierce Elevated.The first alternative is to widen the elevated portion of IH-45 from six to ten lanes, reducing the lane count of Pierce Street and add four elevated express lanes to IH-10. The second alternative is to reroute IH-45 northbound and southbound lanes to the east along US-59, adding six elevated lanes behind the George R. Brown Convention Center as well as six elevated lates to IH-10, with the Pierce Elevated removed and surface streets used for Downtown and inner-city access. The third alternative is to keep the four elevated southbound lanes, turn the rest of Pierce Elevated into a parkway and add four elevated northbound lanes each to IH-10 and US-59.

Certain members of the Houston community have received the removal of the Pierce Elevated positively. Architects are suggesting that instead of tearing down the Pierce Elevated at an enormous cost, the freeway structure can become a base for an elevated linear park–a Houston version of New York’s High Line. Three architects at Page Southerland Page envision the parkland to be 1.97 miles long and cover 37.7 acres. The space can be used for pedestrian and bike paths and perhaps even grander attractions, such as a golf range or a bike-in theater. Essentially, Pierce Elevated’s removal could offer Houston the opportunity to create something significant.

Public meetings were held to present information on the proposed options of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project and receive public feedback on highway improvements. TxDOT says it plans to present the results of an environmental study in early 2016.

Co-authored by Maithili Bagaria and Justin Hodge.