Friday, August 31, 2007

"The road will not help residents. Only developers would be the winners. That being the case...developers should pay for the project."

Thumbs down to Parkway

August 31, 2007

By Don Munsch
Fort Bend Herald
Copyright 2007

A sign on the wall at the Guy Lodge and Dance Hall at George Ranch Historical Park prohibits "profane or abusive language."

People attending a public hearing for the Grand Parkway Segment C project Thursday didn't use such language while addressing the Texas Department of Transportation and the Grand Parkway Association - but the message, while not off-color, was strong and direct: "no toll, no road."

More than 250 people attended the public hearing to discuss the Grand Parkway project that would be built between a starting point at the intersection of Texas 99 and U.S. Highway 59 and travel to Texas 288, through Fort Bend and Brazoria counties, according to the Grand Parkway Association. The association is a non-profit state transportation corporation authorized by TxDOT to "facilitate the efficient development of Houston's third outer highway loop that serves the regional mobility needs of metropolitan Houston area," according to its Web site.

Construction on the project would begin in 2010 - depending on funding, right-of-way acquisition, preparation and detail plans and completion of the environmental study - said David Gornet, executive director of the association. Traffic flow could start in 2013.

But the vast majority of residents and others who attended Thursday's meeting said they never want to see the 26-mile, four-lane, controlled-access highway built. Many who spoke during the public hearing were critical of the project, with some using the "no toll, no road" slogan in opposition to the highway, which would be a toll road.

Some of the main reasons cited for the opposition:
  • The highway is being expanded for traffic that does not exist.
  • The project is too costly, and money used for the highway could be better spent elsewhere.
  • The highway could damage quality of life for people who live near construction sites.
  • Noise will increase and air quality will decline.
  • The project is essentially a way for developers to make money and for politicians to profit.
  • Plus numerous environment issues.

Patrons were each given three minutes to talk, and more than a dozen people spoke while others had a chance to give written comments. Only two people spoke in direct support of the project.

The formal study of the extension began in 1998, according to Gornet, who said before the hearing that the highway would be a benefit to the area, improving emergency evacuations and helping relieve highway congestions.

He said just three residences will be displaced and that noise, drainage and environmental issues will be addressed. Gornet and Gabe Johnson, director of transportation, planning and development with TxDOT, said the entire project's cost will be close to $450 million. Some people attending the hearing gave a higher cost estimate.

Toll charges and toll booths would be established later, Gornet said. The road would be a toll road because TxDOT does not have enough money from gasoline taxes - state or federal - to fund all the needs of the state highways, he said.

Grand Parkway is well-suited to being a toll road, he said. "We need it because the city is growing. And although people say this is farm land, so were many of the areas of Houston 10 years or 20 years ago, and TxDOT is trying to be proactive in planning for the future needs of the area. As we have existing congestion today, we have existing evacuation problems today."

Few if any in the audience agreed with Gornet's assessment. Jesse Cuellar of Richmond won the loudest cheers after he spoke. He was concerned about - among other things - environmental issues, water runoff, property values and quality of life. Cuellar said he thinks the reasons given for the project amount to a lie - and that it is being built for entities with commercial interests.

Jerry Carpenter of Greatwood said before the meeting that he was against the project because he didn't think it would alleviate traffic problems and that the project is being done to benefit developers - and he's upset that the project would be so close to Brazos Bend State Park.

People from special interest groups were there, including Brandt Mannchen, chairman of the air quality committee for the Sierra Club's Houston region, who shared his environmental concerns. Robin Holzer, chairwoman of the board of the Houston-based Citizens' Transportation Coalition, said the project is a bad use of transportation money.

Paul Davis, who also received ample applause among the many people who spoke against the project, said the road would not help residents, that only developers would be the winners. That being the case, he said, the developers should pay for the project.

Mike Ogden, representing the Bay Area Transportation Partnership, spoke in favor of the project.

Another public hearing will be held after a final environmental impact statement is completed, Gornet said.

"Then we will go ask the federal highways to issue a record of decision," Gornet said, describing a document that allows TxDOT to do such tasks as buying rights-of-way and giving a detailed design.

People can still comment about the project by writing to Grand Parkway Association, Attn: Segment C Comments, 4544 Post Oak Place, #222, Houston TX 77027, or e-mailing their remarks to Comments must be e-mailed or post-marked by Sept. 13.

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