Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"TxDOT has stated that its preference is to construct the Grand Parkway as a series of toll roads, which many residents in Fort Bend oppose."

After Heated Debate, Court Takes Step Proponents Say May Put Parkway Under Local Control


by Bob Dunn
Fort Bend Now
Copyright 2009

Over strenuous objections by two members, Fort Bend County Commissioners Court approved a complex agreement proponents said gives county officials their best shot at controlling development of the Grand Parkway locally.

But Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers and Precinct 1 Commissioner Richard Morrison said they believe the agreement - approved on a 3-2 vote - may obligate Fort Bend County to make a future payment of $100 million or more to the state of Texas.

The agreement approved Tuesday is between Fort Bend, six other regional counties and the Texas Department of Transportation. Titled “Market Valuation Waiver Agreement for SH 99 (Grand Parkway),” the document does more than waive a valuation study of the Grand Parkway project. (Such a study is required as part of Senate Bill 792, passed by the state Legislature last year.

The agreement also appears to define the Grand Parkway as “a single project that will ultimately include the full scope of work included in the Terms and Conditions.” Those terms were included as an exhibit to the main agreement.

The Grand Parkway, a proposed giant ring around Houston running through parts of Harris, Fort Bend, Brazoria, Galveston, Liberty, Chambers and Montgomery counties, has generated significant opposition.

So-called Segment D, running from U.S. 59 north to Interstate 10 in Fort Bend County, is the only portion of the parkway that’s been built. TxDOT has stated that its preference is to construct the parkway as a series of toll roads, which many residents in Fort Bend oppose.

The idea of running Segment C from U.S. 59 south past Greatwood in Fort Bend County has infuriated residents of that community and nearby subdivisions.

County Judge Bob Hebert said a market valuation study of the Grand Parkway project would take two years or more to complete. By that time, he predicted, the Texas Legislature will have decided to reauthorize funding for TxDOT, and possibly could designate the Grand Parkway as a state project - a designation the project currently carries.

Hebert and Precinct 4 Commissioner James Patterson said they believes that by waiving the requirement for a market valuation study, the stage is set to allow Fort Bend, Harris and the other five regional counties to meet and see whether consensus exists to make the Grand Parkway a locally controlled project, taking it out of TxDOT’s hands.

If such consensus were reached, Hebert said before Tuesday’s meeting, the seven counties could create a new entity to develop the Grand Parkway on behalf of the counties. Although the agreement passed Tuesday refers to “a single project,” Hebert said it would be developed locally in sections, based on economic demand.

“The citizens of Greatwood and Bridlewood have a bigger influence and voice with local government - as we certainly saw in the last election - than they do in state government,” Hebert said prior to the meeting.

He referred to Morrison’s victory in the November elections over former Precinct 1 Commissioner Tom Stavinoha. Greatwood residents’ strong opposition to Segment C of the Grand Parkway was seen as a major issue in the race.

On Tuesday, Morrison told court members he had spoken just before the meeting with an attorney who had authored the market valuation waiver agreement, and shared concerns he had about the document. Morrison said the attorney had agreed with concepts Morrison described for making certain changes to the document. In order to make such changes and give the revised document to the Fort Bend County Attorney’s Office for review, Morrison asked to table the vote on the Market Valuation Waiver agreement for a week.

Although commissioners almost routinely grant each other such requests, Morrison’s request was rebuffed.

“What in here are you concerned with?” Patterson asked him, holding up the agreement.

“No. 6 -” Morrison began.

“That’s a simple statement,” Patterson said.

“I can read, commissioner, I can read it,” Morrison said. “I have read it.”

Section 6 of the agreement reads, “Development of a market valuation for the Grand Parkway Project is waived.”

Morrison and Meyers’ concerns stem from a provision in SB 792 that indicates if a county or group of counties decides to develop a project such as the Grand Parkway locally, once certain conditions are met, the local development entity would have to:

“Commit to make a payment into a toll project subaccount in an amount equal to the value of the toll project as determined by the market valuation…” or:

“Commit to construct…additional transportation projects in the region in which the toll project is located with estimated construction costs equal to the market valuation of the toll project…”

“I don’t think this agreement, the way it’s written, gives us local control,” Morrison told the other court members. “…it ties the hands of those in the future.”

Hebert and Patterson argued that provisions Morrison referred to in the senate bill could not apply to the Grand Parkway until and unless Fort Bend and the other six counties agreed to create a local entity to develop the parkway. And, Hebert said, a waiver of the provisions quoted above are “implied” by TXDot’s agreement to waive the market valuation study.

“Anything is negotiable,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Grady Prestage, after about 10 minutes of debate on the issue. “I suggest we go ahead and do it,” whether it’s 5-0 or 3-2 or whatever.”

Prestage, Hebert and Patterson then voted to approve the agreement, trumping “no” votes by Meyers and Morrison.

© 2009 Fort Bend Now: www.fortbendnow.com

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