Wave goodbye to what might be Houston’s worst freeway weave.
Drivers on Interstate 10 and northbound Loop 610 will have their own exits to U.S. 290 rather than sharing space following a weekend of final work.
A new long-awaited direct connector will carry traffic between the freeways, ending decades of drivers having to fight their way into the correct lane to continue on Loop 610 or west on U.S. 290.
Drivers, though many with a wary eye on the excruciating slog through the area expected to last until late 2018, celebrated the change, meant to increase safety and ease traffic on all the freeways by untying the slowdown caused by merging motorists.
“Finally!” said Rebecca Davis, 33, who commutes to her job on Hollister via I-10 and U.S. 290. “I hate it. … By 8:15 (a.m.), my day is ruined.”
That’s after one of the worst parts of the trip was changed last year, and even the upcoming work is not the final configuration, after roughly six years of interchange construction.
Photo: Steve Gonzales, Staff
But it is a major change for a freeway segment where congestion is more common than clear lanes.
Loop 610 from I-10 south to U.S. 59 is the most congested roadway in Texas, according to TxDOT. The loop north of I-10 is ranked 16th; U.S. 290 is the 14th-most congested road in the state.
Based on 2015 traffic counts, more than 233,000 vehicles travel on U.S. 290 just outside Loop 610 daily, while the loop carries 283,000 vehicles in the same area.
“It’s just a mess,” said Mary Stawar, 44, who travels Loop 610 each workday.
The upcoming change will make it a little less messy, officials with the Texas Department of Transportation said. But like most anything involving the massive $2.3 billion U.S. 290 widening project and Loop 610 interchange redo, the change comes with the cost of a weekend’s worth of closings and detours.
“It is what we have to do to make it safe for everyone,” said Hamoon Bahrami, construction supervisor for the interchange project.
Access from Loop 610 to U.S. 290 will be severely reduced starting Saturday night. I-10 will be completely cut off from Loop 610 and U.S. 290 until the work is completed.
Crews will hang the new directional signs, stripe the lanes and finish some other final tasks over the next few days, then rearrange movable concrete barriers to funnel traffic to and from the freeways properly, Bahrami said.
The new ramp is basically the reverse of the connection linking U.S. 290 eastbound to I-10, which opened October 2014. That ramp eliminated some inbound congestion by taking I-10-bound traffic out of the core of the interchange, though the ongoing construction has led some to miss the new exit.
Nonetheless, officials have said the ramp is a marked improvement on the original interchange, designed in the 1960s, that forced all vehicles onto Loop 610.
Officials said the switch to the new route will be completed by 5 a.m. Monday, and could open sooner.
Whatever time it debuts, it should have immediate impact, said Frank Leong, area engineer for west-central Harris County for TxDOT.
By separating the Loop 610 and I-10 traffic, both freeways will flow more smoothly, making for an easier trip for everyone. It is not uncommon for Loop 610 traffic to slow to a crawl as congestion at the U.S. 290 interchange backs up to Interstate 10 – clogging that interchange – which in turn backs up into the crush of cars merging on and off the loop at various Uptown area streets.
With the new connection, I-10 drivers headed to Loop 610 or U.S. 290 will use the same exits they use now, except rather than merging onto Loop 610 they will have their own lanes parallel to the loop. That ramp will run alongside the freeway until it splits, with one lane headed to U.S. 290 and another to Loop 610 westbound.
Meanwhile, Loop 610 drivers will do what they have done for the past year and access U.S. 290 from the right side of the freeway. Currently the right two lanes of the loop forced motorists to U.S. 290. That will reduce to one lane, though Leong said that comes with less traffic.
“All they have to do is fight their own people,” Leong said. “Not everyone coming from I-10.”
Bahrami stressed the three freeways and all ramps will have the same number of main lanes after the switch as they had before.
Once the shift is made, workers will focus on rebuilding the center portions of the interchange, including the permanent connection from northbound Loop 610 to U.S. 290, said Karen Othon, spokeswoman for the U.S. 290 widening project.
End in sight in 2018
Photo: Steve Gonzales, Staff
Traffic whizzes along Loop 610 northbound near the U.S. 290 interchange on May 17. A new ramp opening sometime before 5 a.m. On May 22 will address some of the weaving common as commuters jockey for position to access Interstate 10, U.S. 290 and Loop 610.
Traffic whizzes along Loop 610 northbound near the U.S. 290…
Eventually, Loop 610 will have five lanes. It will then split with three lanes continuing on the loop and three westbound on U.S. 290, which is being widened for more than 35 miles to the Waller County line.
From 7 p.m. Saturdayto 5 a.m. Monday: Alternating lane closures on ramp from northbound Loop 610 to U.S. 290.
Total closing of eastbound and westbound I-10 ramps to Loop 610 and U.S. 290.
From Loop 610 to Texas 6, the freeway will be five lanes in each direction with a reversible HOV lane. TxDOT remains in talks with Metropolitan Transit Authority to create an off-peak HOV lane that would only apply outbound in the morning and inbound in the evening to help carpools and buses expedite trips. Othon said those discussions are ongoing.
West of Texas 6, the freeway will be four lanes in each direction, with a reversible HOV lane.
Work is expected to end in late 2018, Othon said, about 18 months later than predicted when construction began in 2011 along northern segments of Loop 610. Throughout the lengthy construction, officials have faced numerous delays related to relocating utility lines, some weather-related slowdowns when heavy rains in 2015 and 2016 turned some job sites into a muddy mess and one portion of the construction having to be rebid after the initial contractor abandoned the job.
Meanwhile drivers have white-knuckled their way along the highway through lane changes, narrow spots, missing or moved exits and busy truck traffic.
“I just want it to be over,” Joe Arnold said as he gassed up his car at U.S. 290 and Hollister.