The nagging question always pops up for anyone who sets out for Houston on Texas 71 or U.S. 290 and, not far down the road, runs into a red light: Why in the world is there not an interstate highway between the state capital and Texas’ largest metro area?
Why did highway builders choose to route Interstate 10 not through Austin but instead to San Antonio? Looking at the map, I-10 dips south out of the way and adds at least a few miles to the trip westward to El Paso and California beyond.
The answer, which I’ll get into in a second, is embedded in history and population. But it’s worth knowing that the Texas Department of Transportation is in the final stages of a decadeslong effort to at least make that 170-mile trip from Austin to Houston free of traffic lights.
Right now, there are just five traffic signals left on Texas 71 between Interstate 35 in South Austin and I-10 in Columbus, all of them between Austin and Bastrop. And TxDOT has engineering plans and money set aside to eliminate four of those lights by adding overpasses over the next four years. The fifth one — at FM 1209 just west of Bastrop — is in the cross hairs as well, but the timing of its removal is less certain, TxDOT Austin district engineer Terry McCoy told me.
Now back to why there’s no interstate heading southeast to Houston from here.
Plans for a national grid of superhighways had been kicking around for at least 20 years before Congress in 1956 managed to pass a landmark bill, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, that funded the final engineering and construction of such a system. President Franklin Roosevelt, according to “The Big Roads,” a history of the interstate system published a few years ago, in the late 1930s sketched out his version of an interstate system from his Oval Office desk.
And the plain fact is that when this routing work was going on, Austin didn’t have the people or the prominence it does now. San Antonio in 1955 had almost 500,000 people, while Austin had 160,000 and virtually no industry to produce the sort of truck traffic that was to be a major user of this cross-country highway system.
San Antonio did.
“That’s where the traffic wanted to go,” said Richard Ridings, a senior vice president with the venerable engineering firm HNTB Corp. The company was deeply involved in the original design of the interstates, said Ridings, who has been working in civil engineering for 55 years. And anyone looking at the big picture back then would have started with the port of Houston and its cargo headed inland.
“They wanted to get that stuff north, and they wanted to get it west and east,” Ridings said. “At the time, Austin was almost an afterthought.”
Since then, of course, the population and commerce disparities between Austin and San Antonio have narrowed. The greater San Antonio area now has about 2.5 million people, Austin about 2.1 million. So San Antonio has gone from three times the size of Austin to being about 20 percent larger.
The U.S. interstate system was essentially built out by 1990, although there have been some additions in the years sincel. But turning Texas 71 into an interstate between Austin and Columbus, a distance of about 90 miles, would be tremendously expensive and disruptive.
Interstates have certain standards of curvature and slope that could require some rerouting, but, most of all, interstates are what is known as controlled-access highways. Meaning, no driveways. If you want to get on or off an interstate, you have to take a ramp.
That means that either no businesses, homes, farms or ranches can connect directly to the highway for miles at a time or, as is the case on Interstate 35 through the heart of the state, there are frontage roads.
Texas 71, other than in Austin and through Bastrop’s commercial district, has no frontage roads. And it has scads of roads and private drives entering it throughout the other, more rural sections. So to turn it into interstate now would require TxDOT not only to acquire a lot of right of way for what would be a wider highway in many places, but also to pay some property owners for lost access to the road.
Or, more likely, to build many, many miles of frontage roads. Either way, the cost would be enormous. This isn’t a project that’s going to happen in the foreseeable future.
What TxDOT is doing instead — trying to eliminate traffic lights little by little — is the next best thing.
During my youth in Austin, through the mid-1970s, a trip to Houston included going through Bastrop, Smithville, La Grange and Columbus, including a few lights in each town and the odd right or left turn. The towns broke up the trip and were interesting to look at out the window, but going through them added a lot of time to the trip. By the early 1990s, TxDOT had completed loops around all those towns and few traffic lights remained east of FM 973 in Del Valle.
But little by little, as development stretched southeast of Austin, traffic lights were added first to that Bastrop bypass and then to several other spots along the way. About 15 years ago, TxDOT began to take those on, building overpasses and associated frontage lanes at several spots in Bastrop and major roads along the way like Texas 21. More recently, TxDOT installed a deep underpass on Texas 71 at Riverside Drive and a short tollway to bypass traffic signals at Texas 130’s frontage roads.
But lights remain at Ross Road and Kellam Road in Del Valle, at Tucker Hill Lane and Pope Bend Road about halfway to Bastrop, and at FM 1209.
TxDOT has set aside $48 million to build overpasses at Ross and Kellam — work set to begin as soon as fall 2019 and be done by summer 2021 — and $52.6 million for overpasses at Tucker Hill and Pope Bend. That second set of projects, TxDOT hopes, will start in fall 2020 and be done by summer 2022. All of this, TxDOT officials caution, could be delayed somewhat by environmental clearance work and acquisition of right of way.
The FM 1209 overpass, TxDOT estimates, would cost an additional $35 million. That money has not been nailed down.
McCoy, by the way, said he would like to make similar progress on U.S. 290, the northern route to Houston, but it has far more traffic signals standing in the way.
So, something like five years from now, a driver might be able to get to and from Houston on Texas 71 without hitting a red light.
That’s assuming, of course, that yet another traffic signal or three aren’t added in the meantime.