Toll road building accelerates in Houston
By John Tompkins
Officials working to build new tolled highways in the Houston area will have to step things up after the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Transportation Committee approved 87 toll projects.
Two of those projects, Highway 99 — the Grand Parkway — and the expansion of Highway 35 from Alvin to Houston, were among the highways to receive funding.
“These are projects that can go forward,” said Norm Wigington, spokesman for the transportation department.
Senate Bill 792, which was signed by Gov. Rick Perry last week, would give local entities the option to construct, develop and operate toll roads in their jurisdiction. The bills allow these projects to move forward outside of a freeze on privatized toll projects approved by the Legislature in April, Wigington said.
Many of the projects that were approved to move forward got the green light because they were far along in the planning process, he said.
“It would not have been appropriate to cut them off as well,” Wigington said.
Highway projects ordinarily are financed through a formula in which the federal government pays 80 percent, the state 10 percent and local entities 10 percent, Wigington said. The projects approved last week will be funded through privates sources, likely with bonds, and then paid off 100 percent by the collected tolls, he said.
The Highway 35 project would cost an estimated $2.1 billion while the entire Grand Parkway project would cost $5.1 billion, Wigington said.
“The sooner you get it, the less money you spend on financing,” he said. “If we get these highways built sooner, we could improve mobility.”
The county would get the first option to build the highways. If it passes, then the state would get the next chance, said Brazoria County Engineer Gerald Roberts.
If the local governments don’t help finance the projects, they would have no stake in the tolling, he said. Any local financing would have to be done through general obligation bonds, he said.
“There would have to be an election,” he said.
The approvals would mean construction time frames would be accelerated, said Jim Heacock, project manager for the Highway 35 project.
“We’re now looking at construction to begin in 2010 and lasting until 2016,” he said. “I’m glad to see the commission wanted to accelerate this corridor.”
The current plan is to expand Highway 35 from just south of Alvin all the way to inside the 610 Loop in Houston, with the new lanes to be tolled and the existing lanes to remain free, Heacock said.
The toll scheme has not yet been determined for the new lanes, and there still are a few public meetings and hearings that must take place before construction can begin, he said.
The 180-mile Grand Parkway, which will loop around the Houston metropolitan area, also will be accelerated. The 26-mile segment B will run through the northern portion of Brazoria County, starting at CR 60 near Highway 288, intersecting with FM 1462 about
3 miles east of Highway 288 and running along Texas Water Co. Canal to CR 192 near Liverpool, where it will connect with Highway 35 at Chocolate Bayou and enter into Alvin.
Construction on that segment could begin as soon as September 2009, said David Gornet, president of the Grand Parkway Association.
The state approved funding for a pair of Brazoria County toll road projects
from Alvin to Houston at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion. The new lanes will be tolled; existing lanes will remain free. Work now scheduled to begin in 2010 and end in 2016.
Known as the Grand Parkway, will cost $5.1 billion. The 26-mile segment B will run through northern Brazoria County. Construction could begin in 2009.
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