Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Some groups question the use of federal stimulus money to construct a toll road, which is what the Grand Parkway is slated to be."

Texas Sierra Club Sues Feds to Safeguard Katy Prairie


Environment News Service (ENS)
Copyright 2009

HOUSTON, Texas- The Sierra Club late Monday filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Houston against the Federal Highway Administration over the environmental impacts of the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E in western Harris County.

"In the rush to push Segment E of the Grand Parkway for the benefit of real estate developers, the Federal Highway Administration conducted a weak environmental review that ignores the project's harm to the Katy Prairie, its potential impact on Houston air quality, and better transportation alternatives," said Brandt Mannchen, air quality chair for the state chapter and Houston group of the Sierra Club.

In remarks to the Harris County Commissioners Court today informing them of the lawsuit. Mannchen said, "The Sierra Club, over the past 25 years, has worked to protect the Katy Prairie and implement transportation alternatives to the proposed Grand Parkway, Segment E. We are now at a point where we did not want to be. Filing a lawsuit is a serious undertaking which requires money, time, and other resources. It is a strategy of last resort, not first resort."

"It is because the Sierra Club feels so strongly about protection of the Katy Prairie and the harmful effects the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E will have on the Katy Prairie, that we have filed this lawsuit," Mannchen said.

According to the Sierra Club, the proposed Grand Parkway project will pave over about 700 acres of the Katy Prairie.

The Sierra Club points out that by facilitating the Bridgelands real estate development in its efforts to construct subdivisions in the area, the Grand Parkway indirectly will destroy another 12,000 acres of the Katy Prairie.

The Katy Prairie lies in the Texas Coastal Plain, and encompasses over 1,000 square miles, bounded by the Brazos River on the southwest, pine-hardwood forest on the north, and the city of Houston on the east.

The Katy Prairie includes agricultural wetlands, depressional wetlands, creek corridors, and coastal grasslands inhabited by hundreds of thousands of geese, ducks, herons, egrets, songbirds, and other wildlife.

In autumn, millions, of migratory birds arrive, especially waterfowl. Some make Katy Prairie is a winter habitat until March, when they return to nesting areas in the upper Midwest and Canada. Others use the prairie as a staging area on their way south.

The Sierra Club notes that the prairie is also a giant sponge that soaks up flood waters and keeps them from flooding down Buffalo Bayou, causing havoc downstream.

Nevertheless, last week the Texas Department of Transportation included the Grand Parkway Segment E in a list of projects to be funded in part with $181 million out of federal economic stimulus funds.

That decision has generated controversy, in part because the project has not secured all the necessary permits to proceed, including a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental permit.

Some groups question the use of federal stimulus money to construct a toll road, which is what the Grand Parkway is slated to be.

The Sierra Club says there are proven transportation alternatives to the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E that will reduce traffic congestion where people live, work, and play.

The group suggests alternatives such as commuter rail along U.S. 290, widening of U.S. 290, the Hempstead Highway toll road, the widening of Katy-Hockley Road, and the connection of Fry and Mason Roads to U.S. 290.

"We need to spend precious taxpayer and toll payer dollars where people live and traffic congestion exists now," said Mannchen, "not use our money to subsidize further traffic-generating growth that clogs our roads and destroys our area's natural heritage."

In its 2008 State of the Prairie report, the Houston-based Katy Prairie Conservancy says, "Land on some parts of the Katy Prairie is being sold for $20,000 an acre despite the temporary softening in the housing market. The prairie, however flood prone it may be, is ripe for development in the eyes of developers and land speculators."

"The Houston region is expected to grow by more than 3.5 million people by 2035. The Katy Area Economic Development Council predicts that the vast majority of undeveloped land on the Katy Prairie will be converted to residential, commercial, and industrial uses by 2035," the report states. "Our time to save the Katy Prairie grows short."

© 2009 Environment News Service (ENS): www.news8austin.com

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