December 04, 2007
A private Grand Parkway toll road?

This could open up a sixpack of worms.

A joint venture led by a road construction company and an engineering firm has asked Harris County to enter into a public-private partnership to build and operate the 197-mile Grand Parkway as a toll road.

Commissioners Court will consider today whether it wants to study the unsolicited offer to undertake the $5.3 billion project to build an outermost ring skirting the metropolitan area.

"It's intriguing because we have not seen details of the proposal," said Art Storey, director of the county's public infrastructure department.

"It appears that it would allow us to retain some control of the project, (rely on) the local construction community and get financing for the project guaranteed."


Storey said the joint venture proposal envisions the Harris County Toll Road Authority serving as the project's managing partner.

Under a partnership, the county and the joint venture could agree to have the toll road authority operate the Grand Parkway and retain some of the revenue, Storey said.

The subject of toll roads in general, and privatized toll roads in particular, is pretty contentious these days. What I'm seeing here seems to avoid some of the bigger areas of controversy - there's no competing free road that might be left to rot if the private toller doesn't meet its revenue projections, and HCTRA would retain some control as well as the revenue, using the private investor as a funding mechanism for construction, instead of taking an already-existing asset and selling it off for nebulous purposes. There's still a billion details to learn about, and there's still the question of whether or not the project as proposed is worth the cost - the people living in Spring and Greatwood would certainly question that.

The idea of a Grand Parkway encircling the metropolitan area outside Highway 6 has been around for decades. Critics long have contended that it is a highway sought by road builders and developers who intend to build subdivisions and strip malls in the still undeveloped areas.

Um, yeah. I don't even think this is in dispute any more. If it weren't for developers and real estate speculators (often one and the same, at least in this case), there would be no Grand Parkway.

Regardless of one's stance in that debate, the Legislature and TxDOT have decided the Grand Parkway will be built.

Delvin Dennis, TxDOT's deputy district engineer in the Houston area, said some areas where the highway would be built are rural now, but will not be in 10 to 20 years.

It would be easier and cheaper to build the road now before the largely rural area is developed, he said.

I realize it's pointless to argue against a done deal, but it doesn't - or at least, it didn't - have to be the case that all that rural land will get gobbled up by suburban tract development. Instead of spending the money to build that huge road out in the middle of what is now nowhere, we could have chosen to spend money on urban core infrastructure, including transit, in order to support denser development. There will always be people who want to live in the far-flung areas, but that doesn't mean it's good public policy to enable it. We could have chosen a different path, is all I'm saying.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 04, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

The private half of the partnership is invoked when citizen participation gets in the way of "progress".

Posted by: Charles Hixon on December 4, 2007 3:40 PM

Karnak sees many campaign contributions in several sets of county commissioner's futures. Maybe a road, definitely a lot of money moving around.

Posted by: Charles M on December 4, 2007 5:48 PM

"Regardless of one's stance in that debate, the Legislature and TxDOT have decided the Grand Parkway will be built."

This is an interesting new talking point. It appears that the land speculators had a meeting recently because of the growing opposition to their sprawl development scheme, and decided the new tactic is to confuse the public by saying this is a done deal.

Make sure to tell your state reps to voice their opposition to this land use and development project and for them to demand an overhaul of TxDOT during the Sunset review process which is currently under way.

Posted by: Jay on December 5, 2007 2:16 PM