North Houston Highway Improvement Project: The Bigger Picture
By Marie Jacinto
Following introductions by Vice President of Advancement and University Relations Jay Zambrano, President Loren J. Blanchard opened the 11th installment of the President Lecture Series on March 29 to a packed house, saying “UHD is Downtown Houston’s university. No more poignant a point can be made today while learning about the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP).”
He shared that when he came on board as President in March 2021, he was told that the NHHIP was on the horizon. Then, during the 2022 winter break, “Everything started moving. The federal investigation around the highway project was completed, and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the City of Houston signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).”
“We have a tendency be a little myopic in how the project affects UHD,” stated Blanchard. “It is a 25-mile transportation project to improve I-45 between Houston's Downtown and the North Sam Houston Tollway, also known as Beltway 8, which includes segments of connecting freeways.” This project will improve I-45 from Beltway 8 to I-10 and reroute I-45 through the Downtown Houston area along I-10 and US 59/I-69. UHD is the third segment of the project.
Vice President for Administration and Finance Kim Thomas moderated the panel of experts, including J. Allen Douglas, Chief Operating Officer, Central Houston, Inc.; David Fields, AICP, Chief Transportation Planner, City of Houston; and Grady B. Mapes, P.E., Transportation Engineer, TxDOT.
Mapes gave a brief history of the project, explaining that the project was first discussed 20 years ago when studies of I-45 were begun to determine its future and that of the Hardy Toll Road Corridor, stating that congestion results from the geometry on the roadway—the ramps, merges, and weaves for the different interchanges. “We will be able to eliminate some of those issues, including ramps, change of lanes, and points where traffic bottlenecks, to make for more efficient movement,” said Mapes. “We will be able bring the roadways up to today’s standards. New standards take major floods into analysis, reducing flooding so lanes are passable. TxDOT is working with the city to take bends out of Buffalo Bayou to improve drainage.”
Fields spoke on the role of the City: “Transportation is not just transportation; it is a means to other ends. Rebuilding a highway helps us fix historic flooding issues, improve air quality, and provide green spaces. At some point in the future, we will look back to see that by working together, we made Houston a better place that benefits the community.” Long-term, the NHHIP will help Houston with:
- Drainage for certain neighborhoods;
- Safety—eliminating problems with the exiting of freeways with fewer car accidents;
- Civic space and green space for downtown;
- Transit opportunities for METRO; and
- 34 different garden bridges for bikes and pedestrians.
“At Central Houston, we think of Downtown not as the central business district, but as a neighborhood,” commented Douglas. Central Houston has estimated that the NHHIP will create $750 million worth of “civic opportunities,” including a 30-acre, cap park; a green loop around Downtown with trails, parks, and community spaces; and the transformation of the Pierce Elevated into a sky park on the west and south sides of Downtown.
Ultimately, how will the project affect UHD? I-10 will no longer split the campus once it is moved north of the Marilyn Davies College of Business (Shea Street Building), allowing for green spaces and more connectivity on the ground level. Access to highways will remain the same.
Construction for the segment is set to begin in late 2028, and Thomas is already at work on an MOU to address parking concerns and vibrations. With an eye on the future, Blanchard has included acquisition of lands owned by TxDOT, METRO, and private owners in the University’s current legislative appropriations request. Purchasing these properties will increase the UHD footprint and protect the green space around the campus. “We are creating the base for a new UHD when you take a 10-year look out,” concluded Blanchard.
For more information, visit NHHIP.
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.