“We knew last March that Segment E wasn't shovel-ready, so it's good that everyone else has figured that out.”
Oct. 9, 2009
By JAMES PINKERTON
Harris County officials will ask the state to shift $181 million in federal stimulus funding from a controversial toll road portion of the Grand Parkway to other local projects, citing delays obtaining federal permits that “might never be issued.“
This summer, Commissioners Court approved the use of stimulus funds earmarked for Texas highway projects, declaring segment E of the Grand Parkway outer loop project closest to “shovel-ready“ status. The 15-mile portion of the controversial parkway loop would link U.S. 290 with the Katy Freeway.
The proposed re-allocation was hailed by transportation activists and environmentalists, including some who believe difficulty obtaining a wetlands permit could halt, not only the 15-mile segment E, but scuttle the rest of the proposed 180-mile loop through seven counties.
County Judge Ed Emmett, who as a state legislator in the mid-1980s sponsored legislation creating the Grand Parkway, said the smaller toll road project is vital to county transportation needs and he was confident it will be built.
“It's still going to happen,” Emmett said. “This is in no way a crippling blow to segment E. It's not even a damaging blow. We thought we were going to have some stimulus money, and now we won't have that.”
The stimulus funds are supposed to be used for “shovel-ready” projects, those that are closest to actual construction, but awaiting funding to begin. Last March, the county let about $10 million in engineering projects to get segment E “shovel-ready.”
Delay in permit
The recommendation that the county withdraw the project from the Texas Department of Transportation's list of stimulus projects was made by Art Storey, who heads the county's Public Infrastructure Department.
“Staff and consultants have worked diligently and successfully to be on schedule to meet the deadlines to enable Segment E construction to qualify for and receive the stimulus funding, but the federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot be completely processed by the required mid-February date,“ Storey said in a letter to the court this week. “In fact, because of conflicts over environmental impacts and mitigation, that permit might never be issued.”
TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said the department would wait for a vote of Commissioners Court.
“We work with the Harris County leadership on a number of projects, and if they make a request related to any transportation projects, I'm sure that request will receive serious consideration,“ Lippincott said. “I think the dollars can be re-allocated, but that's a TXDOT decision.”
Commissioner Steve Radack, whose Precinct 3 contains the proposed segment E, described the loss of stimulus funds as a “huge” development in the decades-long saga of the Grand Parkway.
“When it comes to expecting Harris County to turn this into a shovel-ready project almost overnight, people need to realize that Harris County is a government, not a funeral home,” Radack said. “When it comes to getting any permits and working our way through any possible litigation, between federal permits and the lawsuits, it's hard to calculate how many years something could be delayed.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department oppose a permit to build in wetlands along Segment E, saying the highway project would affect much more than the 45 acres addressed in a mitigation plan.
“We are encouraged that Judge Emmett and the Harris County commissioners now recognize they need to take the time necessary to ensure that irreparable damage not be done to this great regional ecological resource, the Katy prairie, by the development of Segment E of the Grand Parkway,” said Mary Anne Piacentini, executive director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy.
“This is stupendous news” said David Crossley, president of the non-profit Houston Tomorrow. “The Grand Parkway is such a huge determinant of how Houston will grow. To step back and think about that is welcome news. TxDOT's justification for it is they want to ‘open land for development,' but that kind of growth just isn't going to be happening in America anymore.”
Robin Holtzer, chair of the Citizens Transportation Coalition, an advocacy group that opposes the Grand Parkway, said the county's decision will free up stimulus money for more worthwhile projects, but probably means little for the future development of the parkway.
“We knew last March that Segment E wasn't shovel-ready, so it's good that everyone else has figured that out,” she said.
Chronicle reporter Mike Snyder contributed to this story.
© 2009 Houston Chronicle: www.chron.com
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