Ice House

Seabrook's Highway 146 Expansion Takes Its Toll on Local Businesses

The Highway to Hell is getting an upgrade, but an estimated 60 storefronts have to move for it to happen.

By Emily Juhasz June 22, 2017 Published in the July 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Vinny Schillaci will have to move the famous Neptune's Subs.

Image: Troy Fields

highway 146 starts at Livingston, then runs down to Baytown and, south of that, Seabrook, Kemah and, finally, Texas City. Residents of Seabrook and Kemah refer to the four-lane thoroughfare as Bayport Boulevard, but a more appropriate name might be Highway to Hell.

The road's speed limit of 35 miles per hour doesn't stop drivers from racing down it when there’s no traffic—but that’s a big when. Most of the time, 146 is completely congested. And, much to residents’ frustration, once they get on, there’s no easy way to get off.

So most were pleased when the state announced plans to revamp the highway from Seabrook to Kemah, expanding it to a 6- to 12-lane freeway and adding express lanes, access roads and grade separations to help facilitate traffic—all of which will turn it into a commuter’s dream.

But while Kemah’s businesses are largely unaffected by the three-year, $200 million project, the same cannot be said for Seabrook. Ahead of construction kicking off next year, an estimated 60 storefronts have to move. Some have already done so or are making plans, while others are waiting for an official deadline to figure things out. We popped by to ask a few how they’re holding up.

Vinny Schillaci, who moved to the area from Albany, New York, opened the famous Neptune’s Subs on Highway 146 in 1978. What started out as a tiny space with two tables and three barstools now offers seating for 40 people, along with a patio and delivery service. Sitting at a wooden booth inside the restaurant, you can feel the decades of memories made here.

Yet Schillaci seemed to take the loss of his shop philosophically. The area, he remarked, has changed anyway; back in the day, people were happier, and they’d stop by to pick up a sub and end up hanging out and catching up with other locals. “It had the charm of a small town, but it’s not like that anymore,” he said, adding that the project has caused a lot of uncertainty. “They give you 30 days,” he said. “I can’t sign a new lease at a different location until I know for sure when I have to move.”

Down the street at Locked and Loaded Arms, Carl and Kim Ball said they see the push to move as an opportunity. In early 2018, the two certified Texas License to Carry instructors will migrate their current store, which they’ve occupied for more than four years, into a space 10 times larger—a 13,000-square-foot center complete with shooting range.

“The Seabrook location has been really good for business, but we’re hoping the expansion will lead to a positive outcome,” said Carl. “We’ve already picked out a new location in La Porte.”

Mike Fast, owner of Laredo’s Tex-Mex Café, told us he isn’t thrilled at the prospect of a move. He purchased the restaurant back in 2010 from the family that originally opened the place in 1969.

“I’m sad that this is happening, but at the same time, it has to happen because traffic is so bad,” he said. “I don’t have a new location picked out and won’t be able to until I know when I’m going to have to move, and exactly what kind or how much assistance I’m going to get.”

Figuring out the perfect time to pack up, as well the area’s increasing rents, seemed to weigh on Fast. “What would really kill me,” he said, “is to move to a new location, spend three times the money on rent, and have this building just sit here empty for another six months or longer.”

Whatever happens, Fast said, he wants to stay in Seabrook. And despite all the traffic trouble, he wouldn’t mind delaying progress for a while. “Even though it has to be done,” he laughed, “it won’t hurt my feelings at all if they push the expansion back another two or three or even five years.”

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