Beginning in Galveston, the Gulf Freeway aims directly for the heart of Houston. Once Downtown, IH 45 forms the west side of the Downtown loop along the Pierce Elevated. North of Downtown, IH 45 is the North Freeway, a workhorse freeway that is the poster child for freeway development in Texas (many would argue it is a visual eyesore with the overwhelming commercial activity).
The first section of the Gulf Freeway opened in 1948 from Scott Street to Telephone Road. The freeway was extended to South Loop 610 in 1951, then extended (as expressway) to Galveston in 1952. The expressway sections were upgraded in phases during 1959 (South Loop 610 to Fuqua Street), 1964 (Fuqua Street to FM 1959), and 1976 (FM 1959 to Galveston). The loop around downtown between Allen Parkway and Pierce Street opened in 1955, with the full freeway between IH 10 and Pierce Street open in 1962. The Pierce Elevated (Pierce Street to Scott Street) opened in 1967, followed by the US 59/IH 45 interchange in 1974.
The North Freeway was constructed very quickly. Crosstimbers Road to Parker Road was the first section to open in 1959, followed by North Loop 610 to Crosstimbers Road in 1961. The section north of Beltway 8 through Spring also opened in 1961. The link between Loop 610 North and Downtown opened in 1962, followed by the link between Parker Road and Beltway 8 in 1963.
IH 45 underwent a number of construction projects to widen the freeway during the 1980s and 1990s. The freeway, however, remained narrow and clogged. The North Freeway has a parallel road, the Hardy Toll Road, to ease congestion, but most of the traffic takes IH 45 to avoid tolls.
The North Houston Highway Improvement Project will realign IH 45 on a parallel alignment to both IH 69/U.S. 59 and IH 10 around the east side of Downtown Houston. The Pierce Elevated will be subsequently demolished.