Opposition to Grand Parkway toll road getting stronger

Link to article here.

Fort Bend County News

This segment of the parkway, running from Mont Belvieu toward Baytown, is scheduled to open for motorists this week. Out of the parkway’s planned 185 miles, 28 have been built. Opponents say the other segments should be abandoned.

GARY FOUNTAIN: FOR THE CHRONICLE
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March 1, 2008, 9:43PM
GRAND PARKWAY
Opposition doesn’t detour the next loop

The latest segment is ready, but not everyone is excited about the highway’s progress

With fears of $4 gasoline and global warming looming and with the grass roots already in revolt against toll roads, one might think backers of the long-delayed Grand Parkway would be ready to give up.

But a spacious, affordable home and a good school in a safe neighborhood still is a strong magnet, even if it comes with a long commute. And just as strong, in Texas anyway, is the ability of developers to build subdivisions on rice fields quickly and get roads built to service them.

As the second segment of the parkway opens to traffic this week — a 9-mile-long stretch connecting Interstate 10 at Mont Belvieu to FM 1405 south of Baytown — the long fight over the project shows no signs of abating.

Billy Burge, a developer and president of the Grand Parkway Association, is optimistic. Although the parkway plan has been on the books 25 years and only 28 of its planned 185 miles have been built, Burge said last week that he expects to see it completed within a decade.

He discounted the opposition increasingly voiced by local elected officials.

“Everybody wants it — not in their backyard, but they want it,” he said. “They want to control it, and they want the revenue it generates.”

Many of the 180 people who attended a Feb. 20 public forum in Fort Bend County, where design of the parkway’s Segment C is scheduled to begin in September, would strongly disagree.

Every candidate for public office who attended pledged to help residents fight the segment, which would run from the Southwest Freeway to Texas 288, passing near Brazos Bend State Park and bridging the Brazos River and its wildlife-rich bottomlands.

Opponents included County Commissioner Tom Stavinoha whose precinct includes the planned route, along with both of his challengers in Tuesday’s Republican primary and all five Democratic candidates.

“We’re saying, ‘Leave off on the Grand Parkway,’ ” Stavinoha said.

The commissioner said he thinks the county’s mobility needs can be met by expanding existing roads.

Opposition also has emerged in the Spring area, where the parkway’s segments F2 and G between the North and Eastex freeways would cut through subdivisions; in Brazoria County, where the Grand Parkway Association moved the planned route south because of residents’ concerns; and in Waller County, where environmentalists worry about the impact on the Katy Prairie.

Planning ahead

Burge replied with what Grand Parkway backers have been saying for years: Growth and roads are inevitable, and it’s better to plan for them. As an example of what the parkway is meant to avoid, the association often cites the hodgepodge of development along Texas 6/FM 1960.”I grew up in Houston and saw the city of Bellaire fight Loop 610 and delay it 12 or 15 years,” Burge said. “And then Beltway 8 — the idea had been out there forever before (County) Judge (Jon) Lindsay really went out and made it happen.”

“My point is that because Beltway 8 was so slow in coming, it forced 1960 to be the way you’d travel around Houston, and that’s one reason it’s so tacky,” Burge said.

Grass-roots opposition to the parkway may have been increased by the 2003 decision to develop it as a toll project, said Robin Holzer, chairwoman of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group on transportation issues.

Early plans for the parkway called for right of way to be donated by landowners who expected to profit by developing adjoining land. That tactic fizzled.

Backers then sought tax funding, and the Texas Department of Transportation partially completed one of the 11 planned parkway segments in 1994, an 18-mile-long, four-lane free road linking the Katy and Southwest freeways.

For a time, TxDOT kept additional segments on the back burner, saying other roads were more urgently needed. Since the late 1990s, however, most of the parkway segments have been going through the lengthy federal environmental and public outreach process required in selecting a route.

Taking toll

The idea of financing these segments with tolls has been caught up in the larger debate over long-term tolling contracts between the state and private investors.The foremost example is the Trans-Texas Corridor-35, which involves a proposed 50-year contract with a Spanish-led group.

Opposition to tolling also was fueled by TxDOT proposals, since abandoned, to make toll roads out of highways already paid for by taxpayers.

A legislative revolt against TxDOT’s toll plans last year led to a law giving local governments the first shot at developing toll projects. Under that law, toll authorities in Harris County and surrounding counties have the right of first refusal to complete the Grand Parkway.

With help from the Houston-Galveston Area Council and consultants, TxDOT and the Harris County Toll Road Authority are determining the market value of the future completed parkway — a value that would be used in negotiating a contract between TxDOT and HCTRA to develop it.

If the parties cannot agree on how the project should be developed, it cannot proceed; if they agree, but the counties decide not to participate, TxDOT may seek private investors to build the parkway or undertake the work itself, said Alan Clark, chief transportation planner of the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

Opponents, however, say most remaining segments of the project simply should be abandoned.

New way of thinking

Rising gasoline prices and concern about air quality and climate change are making the public increasingly wary of massive highway projects serving far-flung, sparsely populated areas, Holzer said.

“Since the Grand Parkway was first conceived on the back of an envelope, the world has changed,” Holzer said. “We recognize that how we grow affects our quality of life.”

Daryl Howsley, a Spring resident who has been active in opposing the parkway’s Segment F-2, said the project would divert trucks through his community, increasing noise and air quality problems.

On the Katy Prairie, which provides important habitat for migratory waterfowl, the parkway and associated development would increase flood risks by paving over areas that absorb and retain water, said Brandt Mannchen, a longtime leader of Houston’s Sierra Club chapter.

The federal environmental impact study for this segment says the prairie’s natural depressions and artificial basins used for rice farming may reduce flows by as much as 80 percent.

Burge is unfazed. At the grand opening Feb. 19 of the Baytown-area segment, local officials “were really excited,” he says.

“They wanted to stay ahead of growth and to say, ‘Hey, we’re here to attract economic development and we welcome you all being out here.’ “

He continued: “I think that if you do your homework and do it right, and if the public officials will stand tall, it will come together. There’s too much future in it if these counties will really work together.

“If they don’t, we’ll end up like a Los Angeles or some of those cities that didn’t pull on the same rope.”

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