Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved an agreement to build and maintain a segment of the Grand Parkway connecting the Katy Freeway and U.S. 290, but questions over what would happen if the county ultimately decided the project was not financially viable could delay work indefinitely.
The agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation clearly states that Harris County would be reimbursed for its investment in Segment E of the proposed "outer outer" loop around Houston if another entity agreed to develop the entire 185-mile project.
But the agreement does not describe what would happen if the county decided not to build the segment after spending money on the segment and no one ever agreed to build the whole project.
After a lengthy discussion during Tuesday's meeting, the court voted to accept the agreement anyway. But Commissioner Steve Radack said later he does not want the county to spend any money until he knows for sure who would reimburse those expenses and how quickly that would happen.
"I am not going to put $20 million-plus dollars worth of county money on a toll road roulette wheel," he said after the meeting.
TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis declined to speculate on whether the agency would agree to those terms.
On a more serious note, this vote went through despite there being numerous unanswered questions about the project's financial viability, and the use of stimulus funds on a toll road.
Citizens' Transportation Coalition chairwoman Robin Holzer said the county should not invest any more money in the segment until that study is completed.
"Harris County has a responsibility to every toll road user in our region to slow down and do this right," said Holzer, whose mobility advocacy group argues that Segment E will do little to address pressing traffic concerns while helping developers get rich building sprawling subdivisions on the Katy Prairie.
Art Storey, the executive director of Harris County's Public Infrastructure Department, acknowledged that deadlines associated with accepting $181 million in stimulus funding for the project are prompting county leaders to move expeditiously. Construction must be completed within three years, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
Storey said the county has been negotiating with TxDOT for permission to build the road since last June, hoping it would ease traffic on U.S. 290 by diverting some drivers to the expanded Katy Freeway.
"Stimulus money was not in anybody's vocabulary when we asked for permission from Commissioners Court to negotiate with TxDOT," Storey said. If anyone truly started moving more quickly after the stimulus money became available, it was TxDOT, he added. The $181 million allocation was among $1.2 billion in stimulus projects the Texas Transportation Commission approved last week.
The new "investment-grade" study would build upon similar but less detailed analyses conducted in 2004 and 2008 that showed the segment is toll-viable, meaning it would pay for itself over time. An investment-grade study involves an extensive analysis of local traffic and economic data to let potential investors know what kind of risk they would be taking.
Previous studies showed most of the other Grand Parkway segments would not be used enough individually to recoup the cost of building them. However, the entire project could be revenue neutral over the years if the highest-grossing segments subsidized the lowest-grossing ones, Storey said earlier this year.