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 that time, of course, things have changed: San Antonio now has 2.5 million people, but Austin has grown into a considerable metropolis of its own, with 2.1 million inhabitants - larger than the municipalities of San Francisco, Boston, Denver or Washington, DC - and a thriving, tech-focused economy.
So maybe it's time for TxDOT to consider finally making that Interstate connection between Houston and Austin. The easiest way to do that would be to upgrade either US 290 or State Highway 71 - both of which are already mostly divided highways - into an Interstate, right? After all, there are already a few stretches of Highway 71 - the bypass around La Grange being an example - that appear to have been built to Interstate standards.
Well, it's actually a lot harder than it sounds:
The U.S. interstate system was essentially built out by 1990, although there have been some additions in the years since. 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.
There's also, of course, the issue of what an Interstate between Houston and Austin would be numbered, because Interstate 12 already exists and Interstate 14 has recently been taken.
TxDOT's near-term plan, instead, is to upgrade SH 71 at major intersections by creating grade separations, thereby eliminating congestion and delay caused by 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.
Speaking as somebody who traveled between Houston and Austin on a regular basis when I was a graduate student in the late '90s, I'm glad that TxDOT finally replaced the interminable gauntlet of traffic lights west of Bastrop with an actual freeway section. More recently, TxDOT has been working on Highway 71 on the east side of Austin, creating overpasses (albeit tolled ones) in the vicinity of Bergstrom Airport that allow motorists to avoid traffic lights.
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.Upgrading State Highway 71 (and US 290, for that matter) to an Interstate-standard highway will be a long, slow, piecemeal process, kind of like we're currently seeing with Interstate 69. It may happen one day, but it won't be anytime soon.
* Alaska (no Interstates to begin with, and Juneau is geographically isolated), Florida (requires two Interstates to travel between Tallahassee and Miami), Missouri (Jefferson City is not connected to an Interstate), Montana (requires two Interstates to travel between Helena and Billings), Nevada (Carson City has a relatively new Interstate connection to Reno, but not Las Vegas), North Carolina (requires two Interstates to travel between Raleigh and Charlotte), South Dakota (Pierre is not connected to an Interstate), and, of course, Texas.