TxDOT gets a public earful over Grand Parkway segment C

SH 99 sign
TxDOT and the Grand Parkway Association are hoping to build a fourth “ring road” around the greater Houston region. “Segment C” of the proposed Grand Parkway — SH 99 — would run 26 miles from US 59 at Crabb River Road to SH 288 near Alvin, through Fort Bend and Brazoria Counties (map).

Because planning for the project has been federally-funded, TxDOT is required to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement to document the potential benefits and impacts of the project. Back in May 2000, TxDOT released a draft of the environmental report (DEIS), and in June 2000 they hosted a public meeting to solicit feedback from the community. At the time, something like 600 people came out for the meetings, which says a lot about public concern over the project. Many had problems with specific alignments and most expressed opposition to the whole project.

public hearing Aug 30, 2007
Seven years later, TxDOT is struggling under a statewide shortage of funds for road construction and maintenance, and they are now proposing to develop Grand Parkway segment C as a toll road. They held a public hearing Thursday night about the proposal. More than 200 people came out and it doesn’t sound like anyone has changed their minds.

Many of the criticisms argue for not building segment C at all:

Fort Bend FM 762
Existing travel demand cannot justify a $500+ million toll road
The fact that I was able to stand in the middle of FM 762 (a few hundred feet from the proposed Parkway route) to take this picture at 4:30 pm on a Tuesday speaks volumes about the current traffic situation in Fort Bend County, south of the BNSF railroad. There is certainly traffic congestion on Crabb River Road north of the railroad to US-59. One participant called for Crabb River to be widened by a lane or two. But there is no traffic congestion south of the railroad because there is very little development down there today.

There are some who hope that building the Grand Parkway would spur more growth and economic development in Fort Bend and Brazoria. But that would make this a development project, not a transportation project. Many speakers at the meeting derided the idea of spending tax dollars on a project that would benefit developers rather than residents. And $582 million is a lot of public money to spend trying to solve transportation problems that don’t exist, when there are current tax payers facing serious transportation problems elsewhere today.

No toll, no road
Grand Parkway Director David Gornet told the Houston Chronicle that “Without tolling, [the Parkway] would not be completed anytime soon. It might be 25 or 30 years, if you try to wait for it to rise to the top in demand as a road paid for with tax dollars.” Likewise, Fort Bend Commissioner James Patterson told the Chronicle, “We’re not going to get that road built without it being a toll road of some kind.”

But many speakers at the hearing pointed out that toll roads cost locals more, not less, than state tax-funded roads. Several speakers voiced the refrain, “no toll, no road” and made it clear that they were perfectly happy if the Grand Parkway doesn’t get built for a long, long time.

bald eagle nesting zones
Widespread environmental impacts
Some of our region’s best unspoiled natural habitat is located in this part of Fort Bend and Brazoria counties. The Brazos River flows through here, and Smithers Lake, Big Creek, Oyster Creek, and Hayes Creek are all here, too. There’s a reason this area is home to Brazos Bend State Park, the George Observatory, Austin’s Woods, and the Lake Worthington Conservation Area. It’s also home to several active bald eagle nesting sites. (Click here for full-size map.)

Constructing a road through here would cause direct environmental harm along the route of the highway. But it will also cause widespread “indirect” environmental harm through the residential and commercial development that will assuredly follow construction of the highway.

Induced development in floodplains
segment C current land use
As this map above shows (click for full-size image), much of segment C treks bravely across floodplain (light blue) and actual floodway (dark blue).
(Visit CTC’s forum to see all five of the segment C land use maps.)

Fort Bend cows
Loss of agricultural land
Farming isn’t exactly sexy, but every single one of us needs to eat, regularly. Since the 1820s, the fertile Brazos River valley has been great farmland for raising cotton, sugarcane (It’s called Sugar Land for a reason!), sorghum, rice, and other crops. The adjacent prairies are ranchland for beef cattle.

Today, much of the food Americans eat travels 1,500 miles to get from farms to our plates. Given concerns over health and sustainability, thousands of Houstonians are striving to “eat local”. Converting Fort Bend and Brazoria farmland into subdivisions and strip malls will make all of us more dependent on long-distance food, not less.

Other criticisms relate to the design of the structure:

grand parkway ramps
Elevations of the proposed structure
TxDOT is proposing to take the Grand Parkway over many locations, including:

  • 50-foot elevated ramps over the existing structures of US-59;
  • 20-foot bridge structure over Sansbury Blvd and Rabbs Bayou;
  • 30-foot bridge structure over the BNSF RR;
  • 20-foot mostly-solid overpasses at Reading Rd, Myers Rd, and others.

Correction: Elevations on schematics are shown relative to sea level, not to grade (ground) level. Grade is at 70 feet above sea level, and the heights above are now adjusted to reflect elevation above grade. (Thanks to Gary for catching my error!)

Elevated ramps are associated with significant noise impacts to adjacent properties. If built, mitigation strategies should include on-structure noise barriers, noise-absorbing materials, quiet pavement, ground-level sound walls, and landscaped buffer areas, if desired by neighborhoods and property owners.

grand parkway right-of-way widths
Widths and cross sections of the proposed structure
Once upon a time, TxDOT described segment C of the proposed Grand Parkway as a “four-lane rural highway”. However, the current proposal is a “limited access toll road” in a right-of-way that ranges from 300 feet to more than 400 feet near US-59. Sandwiching in six lanes of toll road, two direct connector ramps to US-59, and three lanes of frontage road on each side brings the proposed Parkway much closer to Greatwood, Canyon Gate, Bridlewood, and Brazos Terrace than many residents are comfortable with.

Contact your local elected officials
Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace told the Chronicle that “he has heard no opposition from Sugar Land residents about the possible project.” Fort Bend Commissioner James Patterson likewise said “no Fort Bend County resident has complained to him about Segment C potentially charging a toll fee.” If you have an opinion about this project, you really need to contact your local elected officials. Here’s where you can reach some of them:

The sun may have set on the meeting, but TxDOT is accepting public comments until 5:00 pm on Thu Sept 13, 2007. You may submit comments in writing online, by email to segmentccomments@grandpky.com or by mail to:

    TxDOT Houston District
    Attention: Director of Project Development
    PO Box 1386 Houston TX 77251-1386.

fort bend sunset
And you can always comment (and find more information) in CTC’s forums.

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