"I live off 290.” Utter that phrase, and watch a mixture of horror and pity spread across the faces of your fellow Houstonians. Sometimes, they even try to hug you—knowing, as they do, the hell you’ve gone through since June 2011, the start of TxDOT’s expansion of the 38-mile stretch of US 290 between the North Loop and FM 2920. The project has the power to make even the most battle-hardened Houston commuter cringe with fear.
“I’ve been doing this commute for an excessively long time,” Zerin Dube tells us from his car on his way home from work. Dube, an IT manager who lives near 290 and Barker Cypress and commutes daily to his office in the Greenway Plaza area, shifted his work hours from 9-to-5 to 7-to-3 to reduce his commute time, which, as it is, takes 45 minutes. “People think I’m crazy for living out here,” he says.
Harry Ochsenbein lives near Little York and Highway 6 but works at a staffing firm downtown. His morning commute lasts anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, while his trip home, he says, is a “toss of the dice” thanks to frequent accidents resulting from the freeway’s narrow, twisting lanes and frequent construction zones. “It just takes one idiot to really make it fun,” he says.
Random freeway closures and potholes are a part of life in Houston; an October mayoral poll rated traffic-related issues as by far our biggest problem. But the Northwest Freeway is its own beast, something straight out of a Mad Max movie, complete with post-apocalyptic piles of rubble and half-dismantled overpasses covered in kudzu.
“It’s like living in your house when it’s being remodeled,” explains Karen Othon, 290’s public information officer. Her job, surely the least enviable in town, got even more difficult in June of last year, when TxDOT had to find the contractor overseeing the stretch of highway between Tidwell and Pinemont in default after missed deadlines. While the ordeal delayed progress for several months as the department secured a new contractor, according to Othon it didn’t set back the project’s original completion date: the end of 2017. She does admit, however, “It could be December 31.”
Houston’s Northwest Freeway was built in 1975 as an alternative to the old Hempstead Highway, which lies parallel to 290 (and, by the way, could become a tollway in the future). At the time, it would have been hard to imagine that the glorified farm-to-market road would one day be saddled with several hundred thousand drivers each day—a number expected to increase, as the population of the northwest portion of Harris County is predicted to balloon from 698,000 residents to over 1.1 million by 2040.
Over the years, commercial development along the 290 corridor has mostly been restricted to strip malls and chain restaurants. And, indeed, the first sign of new commercial life along the freeway—met by cheers—has arrived via local Tex-Mex group El Tiempo, which announced plans to open its ninth restaurant along the feeder road near Bingle in mid-April.
Encouraged, area residents—having witnessed the transformation around I-10 after the completion of its expansion in 2014—are dreaming of gleaming new storefronts and, God willing, a new grocery store. The boom in home sales throughout Oak Forest, which sits adjacent to 290, has only added to the feeling that the area’s on the rise, with both Tacos A Go Go and Union Kitchen opening brand-new outposts on T.C. Jester and Ella Blvd., respectively.
While Oak Forest homeowner Leslie Cerquera finds her 40-minute commute to her finance job in Greenway Plaza annoying, she has faith that change is around the bend. “The big wish is for Northwest Mall to get a face-lift like Meyerland Plaza did several years back,” she says. “With so many large neighborhoods in the area, the clientele is there.”
Then there’s the other dream: that one day, long-suffering commuters will get a break. Ochsenbein, for one, is crossing his fingers that the new lanes will shave perhaps 15 minutes—“30 on a good day”—from his daily drive. As for Dube, his hopes are simple.
“Maybe I’ll be able to take my time in the morning,” he says, “have some breakfast, have some coffee, and enjoy the drive instead of cursing.”