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Highway official envisions merger of I-69, parkway

By RAD SALLEE
Houston Chronicle
December 13, 2000

The head of the Texas Transportation Commission said Tuesday that Interstate 69, the proposed NAFTA Highway, is likely to pass north and west of Houston along a route also envisioned for the controversial Grand Parkway. "To get it (I-69) done, with funding being the key, we will probably take U.S. 59, and when we get to the Grand Parkway, my suspicion is that would be the route," said Commissioner John W. "Johnny" Johnson. Johnson, of Houston, emphasized that his remarks about the eventual route were only a "best guess." He said a determination by the three-member commission and federal highway authorities is probably at least three years off.

There are advantages to combining the two projects, he said. The parkway, to be built by the state using mostly federal money, would be able to qualify for interstate highway funding in the segment shared by I-69. At the same time, Johnson said, the cost of I-69 to taxpayers could be reduced because the parkway route has potential to operate as a toll road, and because much parkway right of way is donated by property owners who hope to benefit from development along the route.

Opponents of the parkway project as a whole, including the Houston Sierra Club, say it would encourage sprawl, destroy wildlife habitat and increase pollution. Supporters say the divided, limited-access parkway would lend order and aesthetic appeal to rapid suburban growth that will come whether the project is built or not. Local Sierra Club President Frank Blake said that among several routes considered for I-69 in the Houston area, the Grand Parkway segment was one of the most costly and damaging to the environment. Blake said parkway backers "never demonstrated enough of a congestion need for the state to put up money to build it. But if it were part of the interstate highway system, they would get federal money."

Johnson said the route has appeal because it would take traffic around, rather than through, densely populated areas. Johnson spoke privately about the route after giving the luncheon address at the annual board meeting of the Alliance for I-69 Texas in the Omni Hotel. The organization contends the multistate I-69 project would provide a badly needed truck route from Mexico to the Northeast and Canada. The North American Free Trade Agreement, a 1994 pact, was aimed at improving commerce among the three nations. The alliance's meeting drew delegations of local officials from as far away as Laredo and Nacogdoches.

The Grand Parkway Association, chaired by Houston developer Billy Burge, is authorized by law to determine a route for the planned "outer outer loop" around Houston. It also acquires donated right of way, performs preliminary engineering and environmental studies and ultimately turns segments of the project over to the state to build. Diane Schenke, director of the parkway association, said that while interstate highway funding would be welcome, the association cannot wait until a route for I-69 is determined. Schenke said the association is under intense time pressure to determine a route for the parkway's northwest segments because of rapid development there. The more development, she said, the less land will be donated and the more difficult and costly the project becomes. The proposed I-69 route would coincide with the proposed Grand Parkway segments E, F and G. It also would include segment D, between the Katy and Southwest freeways, the only part of the loop to be built so far. Blake said it would be far less expensive to "add a couple of lanes to Beltway 8" to handle the increased truck traffic. The Sierra Club recommended I-69 follow the Beltway (Sam Houston Parkway) east and south of the city, he said. "This would also tie into truck traffic from the Port of Houston," Blake said.

Johnson said the port could be reached by the proposed Grand Parkway's segment C, which would connect to the Beltway via Texas 288. A route feasibility study for I-69 here, performed for the Texas Department of Transportation, shows Beltway 8 west of Houston as having the lowest cost-to-benefit ratio. That route would cost about $600 million, compared to more than $1 billion for Beltway 8 east of the city and about $2 billion for a route that roughly follows the proposed Grand Parkway.

 
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