(Above photo: The Sam Houston Tollway toll plaza near West Little York and US 290, July 2014)
Beltway 8, also known as the Sam Houston Tollway throughout all of West Houston, is an 88-mile loop freeway encircling Houston entirely within the boundaries of Harris County. The freeway was constructed during the 1980's as rapid development and settlement in the "outskirts" of Harris County in the 1970's called for a secondary loop addition to the congested freeway system. Planning stages for this new freeway went as far back as the 1950's, but not until the late 1970's did it begin to take shape.
It began on the west side of Harris County with a surface road known as West Belt Dr., which resembled an early freeway in its infancy; two frontage roads divided by a wide grass median. Over the Houston Ship Channel, the first section of the toll road, a bridge, was completed and opened in 1982 by the now defunct Texas Turnpike Authority (TTA). However, the remainder of the Beltway 8 road was never improved. The TTA voted against upgrading the road to freeway standards, leaving Harris County to foot the bill for such an undertaking.
Harris County could not afford to construct and maintain another freeway at the time, but in 1983, voters approved a referendum to release up to $900 million in bonds to construct both the Sam Houston Tollway, and the Hardy Toll Road. The Sam Houston Tollway would be the main lanes of the beltway, which, in the early 1980's, was still just divided frontage roads. Harris County created the HCTRA (Harris County Toll Road Authority) shortly after the referendum to oversee the construction of the new tollway, and manage the revenue generated by tolls to upgrade and maintain the freeway. Throughout the 1980's, construction on the main lanes of the Sam Houston Tollway took place on the west side of town, slowly overtaking the old West Belt Dr. In 1988, the Beltway 8/Interstate 10 interchange was completed, and a ceremony was held in 1989 to commemorate the opening of the tollway main lanes between I-10 and US 290.
In July of 1990, the section of the tollway between US 290 and I-45 was opened, right on schedule and millions under budget. Over the next two decades, the Beltway 8 loop would be gradually completed, piece by piece. The last segment to be completed was the stretch between Interstate 69 (US-59) and the Crosby Freeway , in 2011.
SOME INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT BELTWAY 8
* Just north of US 290, you may notice that the main lanes of Beltway 8 skirt around the city of Jersey Village. This was not part of the original road plan. During the planning stages of the tollway's construction, the city of Jersey Village would have been pierced by the path of the new beltway. Community residents strongly opposed the passing of a freeway through the heart of their residential community, and ultimately it was decided that the new tollway main lanes would go around Jersey Village, rather than going through it. This is why the path of Beltway 8 north of 290 makes such a radical turn to the east, then west again.
* In 1989 during the opening ceremony for the newly completed segment of the tollway from I-10 to US 290, the Bangles performed at the event.
* There are no surviving signs of the old West Belt Dr. in Houston, but there is a road sign for a fire station along the frontage road south of the toll plaza that gives the address as West Belt Drive. The only other vestige of the pre-tollway days is a stretch of the old North Belt Dr. that was left behind after completion of the main lanes in the late 1980's. (way up on the northeast side of town) Just east of Interstate 69 (US-59), there is a segment of the old divided road that dips south of the present-day freeway. It is named Old North Belt Drive, so it isn't hard to find. The road is covered in more detail on my abandoned/realigned roads page.
* South of Memorial Dr., the tollway right of way cut right through an existing neighborhood, creating several dead ends on Figaro and Traviata St. This is easy to miss while driving along the frontage roads, but residents of Figaro and Traviata who lived there before the construction of the tollway might have a different story to tell about their neighborhood. The street known as Boheme Dr. was left open, and is now the point in which the southbound frontage road briefly ends, and transitions to the east side of the freeway for some distance. This complicated and confusing arrangement is probably the best working scenario that HCTRA could come up with to result in minimal impact on the nearby neighborhoods. To this day, the design has yet to be improved upon.