Commissioners Court will vote today on a plan to fast-track development of a segment of the Grand Parkway between I-10 and 290.
The long-standing plan to build a 180-mile parkway, a four-lane toll road also called Texas 99, is conceived as an “outer outer” loop around Houston and has drawn fire from environmentalists as a magnet for sprawl.
Developers and other supporters say that growth will come anyway and that the parkway would be better than a hodgepodge of unplanned roads.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said Monday that he pushed to fast-track Segment E “because we have to figure out a way to help with the incredible traffic on U.S. 290.
“The short-term solution,” Radack said, “is to get Segment E built and get them onto the Katy Freeway. It takes people almost two hours to get from Hockley to downtown Houston.”
County Judge Ed Emmett said that under the county’s proposal, the Harris County Toll Road Authority would build and operate Segment E while continuing to negotiate with TxDOT over rights to develop the rest of the parkway.
If the talks break down, he said, the segment would pass to TxDOT, which would pay HCTRA for its costs up to that point.
Emmett and TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said the idea had been broached informally between the two agencies.
The Grand Parkway as planned includes 11 segments through parts of seven counties. The only ones completed are the 19-mile Segment D, from the Southwest Freeway to the Katy Freeway, which is not tolled, and a 9-mile segment from the East Freeway to FM 1405 near Baytown that is scheduled to be tolled in the fall.
Although Segment E would begin at Franz Road in a fast-growing area of suburban Katy, the only major residential developments near the proposed 15.2-mile route lie near the two freeways and along Texas 6 to the east. Two-thirds of the road would go through mostly open country.
I’m going to outsource this one to Robin Holzer of the CTC, who sent out an email last night listing all the reasons this is such a poor idea:
We know that it’s critically important to plan for our future transportation needs. So why wouldn’t we want to build segment E of the proposed Grand Parkway? There are many reasons:
Spend our tax dollars where the people are. Harris County must first and foremost serve the needs of current taxpayers. That means focusing on transportation projects that will benefit the majority of Harris County residents who live and work in our densest, busiest areas. It does not mean building a highway across largely-uninhabited areas to benefit a handful of spec builders.
There is almost no existing demand for this roadway. Further, the population growth models on which the travel demand models rely, assume (circularly) that this roadway will be built. The Gulf Coast Institute recently analyzed GIS census data for the this area. They found that in 2005, of the 80,420 people who lived within 3 miles of the proposed segment E route, almost 66,000 – 82% – of them lived within 3 miles of either IH-10 or US-290. The analysis reveals that fewer than 15,000 people lived along the proposed route of segment E. The Katy Prairie is not where the people are.
Invest in the priority projects instead. Even as a toll road, this project won’t be free. Every County project poses an opportunity cost in the form of other projects the County is unable to take on. Reconstructing the congested US-290/IH-610 interchange which affects hundreds of thousands of current taxpayer-travelers, or extending the Hardy Toll Road to downtown, are more important projects.
Segment E would subject thousands to worse traffic congestion. This proposed roadway is expected to lure another 100,000 people or more to live in a far-flung area with inadequate infrastructure to serve them. Worse, an analysis by the Gulf Coast Institute revealed that in 2005 there were only a scant 2,257 jobs in the proposed corridor. That means that more than 97% of residents would be entirely dependent on cars for travel. Rather than relieving traffic congestion, segment E would create significant additional congestion on US-290 and IH-10.
Invest in local access instead. As the Houston Chronicle detailed last month, Harris County residents aren’t clamoring for new highways; they need new ways to get to the store (May 5, 2008 “Suburbanites ran, but couldn’t hide, from traffic pain”). Before we build any new highways, the County should invest in the local streets and sidewalks county residents need to live their daily lives.
Residential patterns are changing. With $3/gallon gas behind us and $4/gallon gas just ahead, Harris County residents are making different choices. Many people are choosing to live closer to where they work, and for most people, that means closer to central Houston. Investing in roads that assume people will continue to want to live ever-farther out just isn’t a smart bet any more.
Harris County residents value Katy Prairie wildlife and habitat. The Katy Prairie is a world-renowned ecosystem for wildlife habitat, and hosts thousands of species of birds. Thousands of people annually visit northwest Harris County from all over the world to experience the birding opportunities available in this coastal prairie habitat. These visitors represent a small economic engine – ecotourism – that Harris County should develop and benefit from.
Katy Prairie includes strategic agricultural land. As fuel costs continue to rise, shipping food long distances will get less and less economical. As our region continues to grow, access to secure local food supplies will become more and more important.
To put it somewhat less delicately, who cares how long it takes to drive from Hockley into Houston? How is it possible that that is a substantial enough concern to warrant spending this much money on making it faster to get from Hockley into Houston?
[The Grand Parkway Association’s David] Gornet said construction of Segment E could start in early 2009 and be completed in 2013 for about $450 million.
The argument that I always hear when I compare the costs of road building to that of transit is that we get more bang for the buck building roads. Putting aside the question of how true that equation will continue to be as gas prices continue to soar, how is it possible that Segment E of the Grand Parkway will do more for mobility than any piece of the Metro Rail expansion as of the year 2013? Maybe the people who would be living there twenty or thirty years from now will derive enough benefit to make this worthwhile, but then as Robin notes if we don’t build it, maybe they won’t decide to live out there. So why make this choice, when there are so many other things that can help people get where they need to go right now?
Commissioners Court will take up the matter this morning at 10 AM at the Harris County Administration Building, 1001 Preston, 9th floor chamber. If you want to express an opinion on this, that would be the time and place to do so.
UPDATE: As noted in the sidebar here, they voted for this. No surprise, unfortunately.