Inside Houston’s $25 million plan to transform Telephone Road

The city hopes to remake the busy thoroughfare with its first request from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Photo of Jay R. Jordan
This rendering from a 2020 Houston-Galveston Area Council study on Greater Eastwood was included in the city of Houston's application for a RAISE grant to transform Telephone Road starting in 2022.

This rendering from a 2020 Houston-Galveston Area Council study on Greater Eastwood was included in the city of Houston's application for a RAISE grant to transform Telephone Road starting in 2022.

Houston-Galveston Area Council

The city of Houston wants to transform Telephone Road into an oasis of vital transportation options for some of the city's most underserved residents—and is asking that President Joe Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law fund many of the changes. 

It's the first ask from the Bayou City for funds from the infrastructure law. The city filed an application for a Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant April 14 requesting $20.1 million for the project, stipulating that an additional $5.1 million needed for the project will come from the city's budget. 

The plan, officially called the Telephone Road: Main Street Revitalization Project, calls for several safety improvements to the highly traversed thoroughfare between Lawndale Avenue to the north and South Loop 610 to the south, cutting across a number of communities, Brays Bayou, railroad tracks and a freeway. Conceptual designs include protected bike lanes, improved sidewalks, safer crosswalks and converted traffic lanes. 

To the north of the project, the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority is revamping Telephone Road from Lawndale to Polk Street. To the south, the Gulfgate Redevelopment Authority is similarly giving Telephone Road a makeover from South Loop 610 to Reveille Street. The city's planned project fills the gap between the two and will help create a five-mile multimodal stretch of the thoroughfare between the Hobby area and Houston's East End when all is done. 

Here's a copy of the full application, which includes conceptual renderings and cross-sections of what Telephone Road could look like in the coming years: 

For the city's portion, the improvements will be separated into four segments. The first, from Lawndale to Interstate 45, will see Telephone's current four traffic lanes converted to two car lanes, a continuous center turn lane and five-foot protected bike lane on each side of the street. Four-foot sidewalks on both sides of this stretch will not see many changes since the city claims much of the sidewalk is compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, city staff said in the application. In spots where the sidewalks are not ADA compliant, the city will make improvements. 

Further south from I-45 to Wheeler Street will see similar changes, with the road's four car lanes converted to one in each direction and a center turning lane. This portion, however, will include an elevated six-foot bike lane on each side of the street and new five-foot sidewalks, according to the plans. 

This stretch will also include connections to the Brays Bayou greenway, a 30-mile hike and bike trail that runs along the waterway. This crucial gap will help connect people in and around Telephone Road to amenities along Brays Bayou, including Mason Park, MacGregor Park, Herman Park and its attractions, to communities further south in and past Meyerland. 

Between Wheeler and Winkler Drive, current conditions are challenging for many—in particular for Houstonians who bike, walk or roll. On this stretch, there are currently six car lanes divided by a grassy median. The new plans call for two car lanes and a protected bike lane in each direction. The sidewalks here will also be brought up to ADA compliance, and the city says it plans to fill any gaps in the sidewalk. 

The final stretch between Winkler Drive and South Loop 610 will appear the most transformative. There are currently four wide car lanes with barely any sidewalks in either direction. The new plans call for two car lanes divided by a grassy median, with protected bike lanes and five-foot sidewalks on either side of the street. 

In this photo, Houston police investigate after a bicyclist was killed along Telephone Road near Griggs Road on April 25, 2018. 

In this photo, Houston police investigate after a bicyclist was killed along Telephone Road near Griggs Road on April 25, 2018. 

Jay R. Jordan

Not only will the makeup of the street be changed under the plans, seven intersections will be rejuvenated with tighter corners to slow cars, restriped crosswalks and green markings alerting drivers that cyclists may be in the crosswalk. At nine key crossings, the city will also build median refuge islands which allow pedestrians, cyclists and those who use wheelchairs to cross the street more safely. 

"I believe this project is an ideal investment," Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote in a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeig that accompanied the application. "It delivers on my promise of an equitable city, increases safety, expands access to multimodal options, promotes the economic competitiveness of the corridor, [promotes] climate resiliency and reconnects neighborhoods of persistent poverty." 

What is now known as the RAISE grant has been around since its creation as the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant in 2009's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The program receive additional funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that passed in 2021. 

The Houston area has several times received funds from the program dating back to 2012, when the city used a $15 million grant to help fill in gaps in the bike network (the city in 2022 is still working to complete the bike lane network). In 2014, the city used $10 million in TIGER funds to bolster its traffic monitoring capabilities. The same year Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017 and crippled the city, Houston was awarded $9.4 million in TIGER funds for a roadway flood warning system. 

The ongoing Shepherd/Durham revitalization project in the Heights is also funded through the program, although it is technically being operated by the Near Northwest Management District. In the Houston Ship Channel, the Port of Houston Authority used $10 million in program funds in 2013 to extend the Baytown wharf. 

For the Telephone Road project, the city is asking anyone with thoughts to visit this page on the Engage Houston website. Houston is one of likely several hundred local governments to ask for funds. The U.S. Department of Transportation will announce the projects that will receive funding by Aug. 12, according to a Notice of Funding Opportunity

If all goes well for the city's grant application, work could start as early as 2023. 

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