Sunday, April 29, 2007

Of Freeway Walls and Windy Man

I-610 Southbound Feeder at Bissonnet St. in Bellaire

As with most cities, Houston's freeways always seem to be under construction. However, since I moved away from there in 1992, there seems to be an new concern about aesthetics. All the new freeways are being built with attention to how they look and fit in with the surrounding neighborhoods.

Let's start out with the photo above. I took this while sitting at the stop light on the southbound feeder of the West Loop (I-610) at the intersection with Bissonnet Street, which crosses from left to right. In this photo, you can see the brick retainer walls used at the interchange. This is not an inexpensive proposition at all.

In actuality, this photo is not technically in Houston, but rather in the city of Bellaire, a small town completely within the Houston city limits. This is a town that in recent years has undergone gentrification in a big way, as small homes built in the 1940s & 50s are torn down and replaced by huge custom homes. This same phenomenon is occurring near Denver University's campus as well. While the transition is taking place, many older homes are sold for very high prices just for the purpose of tearing them down. One of the reasons Bellaire is so desirable is its proximity to the Texas Medical Center. I don't know if the interchange is partly paid for by Bellaire taxes or not, but it is known for its extremely high tax rates, along with its tree lined boulevards.

This photo gives you a peek at another phenomenon of Texas' freeways; the Texas Turnaround. Since the feeder streets are one way, traffic engineers have implemented U-Turn lanes under or over a freeway just before the cross street intersection happens. This allows motorists to get to the opposite side feeder going back the other way without waiting through the lights at the cross street and feeders. I can tell you from first hand experience, this is a simple, but major improvement.

Another new freeway wall design of note in Houston is the reconstruction of the Katy Freeway (I-10 on the west side of town). I did not take the following photo and don't remember where I got it, so if the owner objects, I will remove it. I actually hope to get a shot of my own when I get back down there. In any case this is the new freeway design on the Katy. Different intersections have the big star in different colors. Very striking, and maybe a bit overwhelming.

Katy Freeway retainer wall

The city of Sugar Land southwest of Houston has its own new freeway design as well. The Southwest Freeway (US 59) now has California-style HOV lanes with solid stripes in the middle, rather than full-blown, separated HOV lanes. The new design includes tall pillars topped with the city symbol, a crown within a Texas star. The crown alludes to the Imperial Sugar Company, the business that started Sugar Land and gave the town its name. In the photo below, you can see a Jeep Grand Cherokee coming out of the Texas Turnaround to head back northeast on the Freeway feeder street.

Freeway walls have not been without controversy in another part of Texas. Lubbock, home to Buddy Holly, Mac Davis, and other music notables, has a state highway loop, Texas 289 (Martha Sharp Freeway), that circles the city. I was there in June of 2004 and saw some of the construction for myself. One thing I saw there caused a tremendous controversy by some fundamentalist Christian wackos. Unfortunately, I didn't shoot a photo of it myself, but here is the official picture from the TxDOT web site:

Lubbock's "Graven Image", the pagan Windy Man

The issue was that TxDOT had carved images in the walls, one of which was known as the Windy Man. He was basically a depiction of the head of old man Winter, blowing air. Well, the fundies decided this was a pagan abomination to the Lord God, creator of heaven, earth, and Waffle Houses; what with it being a graven image of a pagan deity or some such thing.

Now you have to understand that Lubbock has the well deserved reputation of being the most conservative city in America, so apparently that includes religious conservatism. So after the image was continually being defaced and vandalized, no doubt by good Christian folks, TxDOT decided to remove them. This cost the taxpayers of Texas more than the cost of installing them during freeway construction.

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