“The Legislature continues to vote for toll moratoriums and TxDOT keeps ignoring us.”
Grand Parkway's among 21 Texas roads in allocation
By ROSANNA RUIZ
The Texas Department of Transportation has set aside more than $700 million in economic stimulus funds for toll road projects across the state, sparking criticism and questions about whether the pay-to-drive roads are an appropriate use of the federal dollars.
The toll roads — including the Grand Parkway in Harris County — are among 21 major projects up for a vote at next week’s meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin. The commission had planned to vote on the list this week but delayed its consideration a week after at least one state legislator complained the money was being spent without enough input.
The delay has given opponents an opportunity to organize a lobbying effort aimed at persuading state leaders to withhold stimulus money from toll road projects.
“It’s a total rip-off,” said Terri Hall, director of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a nonprofit opposed to toll roads. “That’s not how the money is supposed to be used.”
TxDOT leaders and transportation planners defend the projects, saying all of them, including the toll roads, are important to their regions and offer tangible economic and mobility benefits.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the discussion about these funds has eclipsed the broader discussion about the state’s transportation needs,” TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said.
The discussion should be on reducing gridlock now, said Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, whose criticism led the commission to postpone its vote. Toll roads should be built later with state money, not onetime federal stimulus funds, he said.
“The Legislature continues to vote for toll moratoriums,” he said, “and TxDOT keeps ignoring us.”
More fees for drivers
U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also questioned the use of stimulus funds on toll roads.
“It concerns me that state officials would prioritize toll projects that will hit already hard-pressed Texas drivers with additional fees,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “I would like to see stimulus dollars fund projects that ease not only congestion, but an over-taxed public as well.”
The economic stimulus bill does not address toll roads, only that proposed projects satisfy requirements to create jobs and promote economic growth, said Jim Berard, a spokesman for the U.S. House Transportation Committee.
In addition to $181 million for the Grand Parkway, TxDOT’s list includes an additional $50 million for four new ramps connecting the Eastex Freeway and Beltway 8.
The other toll road projects slated for stimulus funds are: $36 million for Texas 550 in Cameron County; $42.5 million for a toll road in Smith County; $144.9 million for Fort Worth’s Southwest Parkway; and $250 million for toll lanes along the Dallas-Fort Worth Connector.
Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, whose precinct includes Segment E of the Grand Parkway, said the segment satisfies the federal stimulus mandate as a “shovel-ready” project. The Harris County Toll Road Authority would add $16.6 million to the project.
The 15-mile project, he said, potentially will alleviate congestion on U.S. 290.
Citizens Transportation Coalition chairwoman Robin Holzer, who opposed the Commissioners Court’s vote on the Grand Parkway segment, said the state should spend stimulus money on projects other than toll roads that typically are used by a small portion of motorists.
“It’s incomprehensible that TxDOT could think that this is the most important project in the Houston District,” she said.
U.S. 290, she offered, could benefit more from the federal funding.
Radack countered that a planned overhaul of U.S. 290 is not at the appropriate stage for the stimulus funds.
The Grand Parkway and the other projects landed on TxDOT’s project list after extensive planning to identify projects that would improve safety, among other criteria, Lippincott said.
The proposed Grand Parkway would span 180 miles, circling around the Houston area, at a projected cost of $4.8 billion. Segment E calls for a 15-mile, four-lane toll road that would connect the Katy Freeway and U.S. 290 at an estimated cost of $330 million, according to the Harris County Toll Road Authority.
A tolled Segment E could finance other portions of the parkway, proponents say.
© 2009 Houston Chronicle: www.chron.com
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