Grand Parkway will not get stimulus funds

As the Chron story headline says, it wasn’t so shovel-ready after all.

Harris County officials will request that $181 million in federal stimulus funding for portions of the county’s controversial Grand Parkway tollroad project be shifted to other projects, citing delays in obtaining federal permits that “might never be issued.“

This summer, the court approved the use of stimulus funds earmarked for Texas highway projects, declaring Segment E of the Grand Parkway outer loop project was closest to “shovel-ready“ status. The 15-mile portion of the road would link U.S. 290 with the Interstate 10 in west Harris County.

The stimulus money is supposed to be used for “shovel-ready” projects, or those that are closest to actual construction but awaiting funding to begin.

The recommendation to withdraw the project from the Texas Department of Transportation’s list of stimulus projects was made by Art Storey, who heads Harris County’s Public Infrastructure Department. Storey declined to comment on his recommendation until it is considered at Harris County Commissioner Court’s meeting next Tuesday.

“Staff and consultants have worked diligently and successfully to be on schedule to meet the deadlines to enable Segment E construction to qualify for and receive the stimulus funding, but the federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot be completely processed by the required mid-February date,“ Storey said in a letter to the court. “In fact, because of conflicts over environmental impacts and mitigation, that permit might never be issued.”

Well, good, in the sense that this was bad public policy. Not so good in the sense that it’s a missed opportunity – surely there was something else we could have requested funds for instead. Too late now.

Commissioner Steve Radack, whose precinct contains the proposed roadway segment, described the loss of stimulus funds as “huge” development in the decades-long saga of the Grand Parkway project.

“When it comes to expecting Harris County to turn this into a shovel-ready project almost overnight, people need to realize that Harris County is a government, not a funeral home,” Radack said. “When it comes to getting any permits and working our way through any possible litigation, between federal permits and the lawsuits, it’s hard to calculate how many years something could be delayed.”

Um, whatever you say, Steve. Houston Tomorrow suggests a reason for the permitting issues.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) formally opposed the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E wetlands permit, according to the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition. Both agencies submitted comments to the US Army Corps of Engineers, which is considering the permit application.

The Segment E mitigation plan states that the project would impact 45.63 acres of wetlands, and it calls for the Harris County Toll Road Authority to purchase 23 acres of credits in the Katy Cypress Wetland Mitigation Bank and 22.63 acres in the Greens Bayou Wetland Mitigation Bank.

However, FWS states that the project would impact a larger area, including areas outside the immediate right-of-way. In addition, the agency classifies the impacted wetlands as “medium quality,” while the mitigation plan calls them “low quality.” Medium quality wetlands require more mitigation than lower quality wetlands. In addition, FWS says it is “not appropriate” to use the Greens Bayou Wetland Mitigation Bank, which is 30 miles to the east of Segment E and in a separate watershed. Instead, the agency says that mitigation efforts should all be located in the Cypress Creek watershed.

I know Steve Radack will never believe this, but maybe this really was a bad idea that is getting the fate it deserves.

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