Grand Parkway toll roads: Over $6 billion in suburban sprawl.
But no funding authorized, and foes not swayed
By NOLAN HICKS
AUSTIN — The state Transportation Commission on Thursday granted the Texas Department of Transportation authority to begin design work and negotiating contracts to build a key segment of the Grand Parkway.
The unanimous vote did not, however, authorize funds to start work on Segment E of the tollway, which would link the Katy Freeway to the Northwest Freeway, just west of Fairfield.
"The Grand Parkway project is an important project for our region and our state," said state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. "Having a loop that passes around Houston, whether it's the third or fourth loop depending on where you start counting them, … will help reduce congestion and facilitate economic development."
Williams, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, called the parkway one of his highest priorities.
TxDOT spokesman Mark Cross said the agency estimates it will cost about $350 million to build the 15 miles of toll road linking Interstate 10 to U.S. 290. He said the agency has no construction time frame, but the Transportation Commission wants work under way as soon as possible.
When completed, the parkway would be about 180 miles in circumference - running as far north as Tomball and New Caney, as far south as League City, as far west as Katy, and as far east as Baytown. The total price tag for the project is expected to exceed $6 billion.
Harris County should finish its review of the financial viability of the parkway toll project in the next couple of months, said Mark Tomlinson, director of the Texas Turnpike Authority, which builds and operates the state's toll roads.
Opponents of the long-sought outer-outer loop insist it will do little to reduce commuter congestion and will spur further suburban sprawl.
"Many people are going to move to the region, and we do need to spend money on transportation infrastructure, but this won't help," said Jay Blazek, a researcher with Houston Tomorrow, which favors greater urban planning and expansion of mass transit. "By doing this project, TxDOT is deciding urban planning for us."
He said the low-population densities generated by suburban sprawl promote further congestion and make it much more expensive for cities to maintain infrastructure.
Other critics say the new segment of the toll road no longer is needed with the completion of Fry Road, which roughly parallels the expected path of Segment E.
"If TxDOT is running out of money, one would hope they would take the last of their money and use it to solve transportation problems for real people," said Robin Holzer, who chairs the Citizens' Transportation Coalition, which long has opposed the Grand Parkway project.
"Look at congestion in Dallas, look at what's happening on 290, look at what's happening in San Antonio or Austin - are we really saying this is the best use TxDOT can come up with for $350 million? That's absurd," she said.
Dates back 3 decades
The history of the Grand Parkway toll road has been marked by controversy over the past three decades. In the 1980s, then-Texas Highway Commissioner and future Houston Mayor Bob Lanier came under fire for owning 1,700 acres near the proposed path of the parkway. At least two other lawmakers had to leave their posts at various transportation agencies involved in the project due to similar conflicts of interest.
Jeff Moseley, a former Denton County judge and current CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, rejected the criticism of the proposed toll project, calling it a key to Houston's economic viability.
"The reality is, this 180-mile loop was contemplated in the late '60s as a reliever to the growth for the region," Moseley said. "Some things have come forward that have added to the strategic value of the corridor, and probably the biggest is the tremendous population density that has moved to our region."
He said the toll road will play a key role in allowing shippers to get their goods quickly to and from the Port of Houston, which he said would see a significant uptick in business because the Panama Canal will begin allowing larger ships though.
"When you shift logistics for the mid-continent of America to Houston, you have to have a Grand Parkway," Moseley said.
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