Friday, October 12, 2007

“There have been two roads: one that has been presented to the public, and one that the Grand Parkway intends to build.”

Residents challenge future plans for Grand Parkway

October 12, 2007

By Don Munsch
Fort Bend herald
Copyright 2007

Williams Elementary School lies near a busy road and railroad track that produce their share of noise.

Quite a racket emanated from the school itself Wednesday, but the din didn't come from boisterous children.

Residents and business leaders appeared at a public meeting at the school to unite against the Grand Parkway project (on Texas 99, called Segment C), a potential toll road between U.S. 59 and Texas 288. The event attracted around 400 people, including elected officials and representatives from the Texas Department of Transportation and the Grand Parkway Association.

Most of those attending the meeting were opposed to the concept. The meeting included a PowerPoint presentation and a brief question and answer period from the audience, in addition to exchanges between opponents and David Gornet, executive director of the Grand Parkway Association.

Many residents are opposed to the toll road because of how it would affect residential areas, businesses and the environment. They have also questioned the need for the toll road, as they said the traffic doesn't merit the need for it. Supporters counter that argument by pointing out the road is needed to accommodate future growth, among other reasons.

Greatwood resident Paul Turner was one of many attendees who had many questions about the project, reading his inquiries from a prepared list. Gornet answered most of the queries, including specifics about its construction and layout.

Gornet said the toll issue for the road isn't new. The Texas Transportation Commission in April 2003 decided that Grand Parkway would be investigated for development as a toll road.

“State Bill 792 was passed this past session,” Gornet said. “It was a compromised bill between the executive branch and legislative branch that outlines the process where again local counties have first right of refusal on deciding whether or not to pursue a project as a toll facility. If the county - and it could be Harris County; very likely it would be Fort Bend County because we're in Fort Bend, but it could be Harris County - can negotiate with TxDOT, and if they come to an impasse, then TxDOT has opportunity to move forward and offer this out to private developers.”

Gornet conceded the private developers could be a foreign toll company. “That process is ongoing right now,” he said, “and the ultimate decision is going to end up whether or not they can enter into an agreement.”

He said the decision to build the Grand Parkway as a toll road was made by the Texas Transportation Commission. Gornet was asked why there was a “rush” to get the project started when TxDOT stated the need does not exist and the project would not be otherwise funded for at least 10 years.

He said the process for the project actually began nine years ago, as scoping sessions were held, routes were developed, public meetings were conducted and analyzed and then recommended alternative and preferred alternative routes were created. After the Federal Environment Impact Statement is released, another public meeting will be held, he said.

“It will show the Grand Parkway as a toll road in this Environmental Impact Statement because that is the way it was described in the current regional transportation plan (set forth by the Houston-Galveston Area Council), and for federal highways to approve the Environmental Impact Statement it must conform with that regional transportation plan,” Gornet said.

When the Environmental Impact Statement is completed, he said, TxDOT will ask for a record of decision to be issued that will then allow the agency to begin acquiring rights of way. But whether the project is built immediately is subject to funding or identification of a toll partner, whether it's a Fort Bend County toll authority, TxDOT or a private entity. But the construction might not occur for another five years. The earliest it would occur is 2010, Gornet said.

Gornet said people who want to voice opposition to the plan can contact the Texas Transportation Commission or TxDOT.

Brazos Lakes Estates resident Anne Franson wanted to know who selected the path for Segment C. Gornet said the path was picked cooperatively between the Grand Parkway Association, TxDOT, Fort Bend County, residents and people who work in the area.

“The road was in place; we didn't get to pick the path, we just got to negotiate a few feet,” Franson said. She complained that the path was too invasive and destructive.

Gornet said the path was selected before the majority of those area subdivisions had started.

“Bridlewood was started,” Gornet said. “Greatwood existed on the east side of Crabb River Road.”

Gornet said the Canyon Gate at the Brazos developer set aside land for future right of way of Grand Parkway.

“That's not true,” a man shouted, and a few others joined him in grumbling.

Gornet explained the development of subdivisions and the toll road path.

“I believe, though, that there have been two roads,” Franson said. “One that has been presented to the public, and one that the Grand Parkway intends to build.” The audience applauded.

She said she others thought the roadway was to be a four-lane, scenic divided highway.

“Again, she just said it - a divided rural highway. It will still be a divided rural highway,” Gornet said, receiving many jeers from the audience. He said the design features and dimensions will remain the same.

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