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ROAD'S HAZARDS; Grand Parkway spurs development, which some fear
The Houston Chronicle, August 13, 2000

The exit sign on U.S. 59 at the Brazos River bridge says Grand Parkway, but that's only if you turn north. South of the traffic din, the route is still Crabb River Road, a two-lane blacktop through pasture and woods, with little hint of grandeur to come. The first several miles are adorned with bright little flags that dance in the breeze and call attention to a forest of real estate signs: Meridian Homes, Perry Homes, Pioneer Homes, Hammond Homes, Weekley Homes; Canyon Gate, Greatwood, Bridlewood. City dwellers in search of a spacious house at a bargain price and a comfortable imitation of country living may find their dream here at the cost of a 15- to 25-mile commute. Someday during the coming decade, if supporters have their way, the journey will be eased by a four-lane, divided, limited-access highway. But if environmentalists have their way, getting the road built will not be so easy.

Officially designated Texas 99, but better known as Segment C of the Grand Parkway, the proposed route would run 23 miles from U.S. 59 South in Fort Bend County to Texas 288 in Brazoria County. At present, it is the most controversial leg of the entire Grand Parkway project, an envisioned 170-mile "outer outer loop" around Houston. Also at issue, but less pressing, is Segment E through the Katy Prairie north of Interstate 10 West. The prairie is one of the nation's most important wintering areas for waterfowl. For several years, the environmental group Friends of the Earth has given the Grand Parkway project star billing in its annual Road to Ruin list of dubious U.S. highway projects. But to those who say it is misguided public policy to encourage further sprawl, parkway supporters can point out the real estate signs.

"Growth occurs beyond anybody's control," says Diane Schenke, director of the Grand Parkway Association. "We're trying to minimize its impact" by cutting down on the unsightly commercial development that often clutters frontage roads. "The choice," Schenke says, "is between a limited-access parkway and something that looks like Highway 6." Houston Sierra Club chairman Frank Blake does not buy the argument that sprawl is inevitable. "It's a chicken-and-egg situation," Blake says. "A lot of those housing developments located there with the expectation that the Grand Parkway was coming through."

The Grand Parkway Association is a nonprofit group spearheading efforts to decide the route and obtain right-of-way. Unless a dispute ends up in court, the Texas Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration have final say on whether to build. Supporters include U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, the House majority whip, along with most county officials in the affected areas, influential landowners and developers. The cost of the eventual loop, roughly $ 2 billion, would be 90 percent federally funded. To date, only 19 miles of the parkway is built. This is Segment D, from U.S. 59 at the Brazos River to I-10 in Katy. For most of its length, the segment consists of frontage roads divided by a broad esplanade where main lanes can be built later if needed. (www.freeway.com observation: that statement is wrong. Most of the roadway is not designed to have frontage roads and consists of main freeway lanes.)

But Schenke says future segments will be four-lane limited-access highways without frontage roads. Selecting the best route for a new segment of the parkway involves a great deal more than drawing a line on a map. In Segment C, the association's maps and wall-sized aerial photos are a maze of dashed and dotted corridors showing the numerous routes that have been considered and rejected for one reason or another. One candidate, several miles north of the present choice, was abandoned because it would have destroyed extensive bottomland hardwood forest. Another was shifted because of a bald eagle nest, although the eaglets have since fledged and moved away. One recently considered route would have passed just 1,000 feet north of Brazos Bend State Park. When that plan was presented at a public meeting June 13 in Dickinson, a parade of speakers voiced opposition.

Many were users of the park and its George Observatory, operated by the Houston Museum of Natural Science. They noted the observatory site was chosen largely because, although near to Houston, it is isolated and the night sky there is dark enough for viewing stars and planets. Several speakers said development would bring "light pollution" from future homes, businesses and cars, rendering the telescopes useless for research or public enjoyment. In response to criticism - and a "no build" recommendation from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department - the Grand Parkway Association chose another route as its "preferred alternative." The new route lies more than a mile north of the earlier one, and would give the park more breathing space. However, land between this route and the park is owned by the George Foundation and could be developed at some future time.

The charitable foundation, highly influential in Fort Bend County, operates the George Ranch and Historical Park about a mile north of Brazos Bend and funded the observatory that bears its name. Schenke says the foundation wants some of its extensive holdings near the ranch developed into residential neighborhoods but has no plans for the parcel nearest the park. Schenke discussed the new route for Segment C in a private meeting Aug. 2 with officials of the affected agencies and counties. It may have a strong chance of winning approval.

"The (route) change lessens some concerns - the impact of noise on the park and the the concern about the hydrology of the wetlands in the park," said parks and wildlife biologist Andy Sipocz. "But it does not address other concerns - bottomland hardwood forest, bald eagles, habitat fragmentation." Of special importance, he said, is how road builders span the eight-mile floodplain from Big Creek to the Brazos River. There are three major reasons for this concern. The wrong kind of bridge would impede wildlife migration, the department says. It could also reduce the flow of water into the park's spectacular lakes, which teem with vegetation, fish, birds and other animals, including numerous alligators. And because the entire flood plain is inundated periodically, any development in it would require levees that would aggravate downstream flooding, says Blake of the Sierra Club.

Philip Inderwiesen, a geophysicist and observatory volunteer who lives on Sawmill Road just north of the park, has photos of floodwaters that cut off the road in the winter of 1992. The water stayed high for about two months, he says. Because of the flooding, say Sipocz and Blake, it would be best to have the Grand Parkway elevated on pilings across the entire floodplain, so that water and wildlife could pass downstream. That is not in the parkway association's current plans, said assistant director David Gornet. These call for a two-mile bridge over the Brazos River and smaller bridges over Big Creek, Oyster Creek and Rabb's Bayou, but for most of the remaining six miles, there would be a raised earthen embankment with relief gaps for water. Gornet said this should satisfy environmental concerns. He also notes that the new route, unlike the one near the park, also meets environmentalists' request that the route stay north of a diversion channel carrying floodwaters from Big Creek to the Brazos River.

Biologist Fred Werner of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife said that with these changes, the segment is likely to be approved. Werner said he doubts his agency will object to the route. Instead, he is drawing up suggestions to minimize and compensate for any environmental damage. He said he hopes some arrangement can be worked out to protect bald eagle nesting areas near Smithers Lake and Lake Worthington, north of the proposed route. But ultimately, Werner and Sipocz agreed, their agencies can only offer advice. "We are a commenting agency," Sipocz said. "The decision is made by the Federal Highway Administration." "You can't control what people do with their land," Werner said.

The timetable for Segment C calls for public workshops in October. Then after various agencies submit comments, a final Environmental Impact Statement will be done in February and construction might start in late 2002.

The wrangling is sure to continue over other segments of the parkway. In the eyes of many environmentalists and "smart-growth" advocates, the entire project is an anachronism. It has no place, they argue, in an area with the nation's worst ozone pollution, and at a time when such draconian measures as a ban on power lawnmowers and morning construction are being seriously considered to address the problem. "At the very furthest distance from smart growth is the concept of new rings around cities to create new, far suburbs," said David Crossley, former president of the Citizens Environmental Coalition here. The Grand Parkway Association strongly disagrees, saying the project would reduce congestion, speed travel times and provide a hurricane evacuation route for coastal residents. Critics of the project also view the influence of developers and landowners in the choice of route as in serious conflict with the public interest.

It was developers who sought the legislation, enacted in 1984, that allowed the Grand Parkway Association and other such entities to be formed. Politically powerful developer Walter Mischer Jr. was on the original Grand Parkway Association board. Another strong supporter was former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, a developer and past director of what was then called the Texas Highway Commission. The Chronicle reported in 1991 that Lanier had voted six times as a commission member to approve and fund the Grand Parkway project, while owning property along the route near Texas 249. Lanier profited from sale of the land, but abstained from voting on the segment that passed directly through his property.

The Grand Parkway Association today is chaired by Billy Burge, a developer and Lanier associate who, like Lanier, is a former chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Burge now chairs the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. Other developers on the current board are Roger Galatas, former CEO of The Woodlands Co., and apartment developer John Chiang of Sueba USA. The association's statutory role is to determine a route, seek donations of land, clear any legal and environmental hurdles, pay for preliminary engineering studies and finally turn the project over to the state highway department to build, using state and federal tax dollars.

The prominent role of developers in the parkway's genesis and route selection has never been a secret. As one highway department source explained the idea, everyone was supposed to benefit: Developers and landowners would make a profit, homebuyers would get a good deal and taxpayers would find their burden eased. This is because, in theory at least, highway projects are prioritized by comparing their cost and benefits. A project, such as the Grand Parkway, whose cost is not yet justified by current mobility needs might become competitive if landowners reduce cost to the public by donating right-of-way. In return, donors would reap a deserved profit from the subdivisions and malls that follow.

On Segment D, which opened in 1994, an astonishing 85 percent of right-of-way was donated. Schenke acknowledges that other segments are not likely to match that mark. If a decision is made to build, any land not donated must be acquired through eminent domain at taxpayer expense, since the association does not buy right-of-way.

In segments F and G to the north, Schenke said, there is already so much development that few landowners are willing to donate property. By contrast, segments H andI-1, in the piney woods of eastern Montgomery and Harris counties, are little more than lines on paper, although the Sierra Club is worried that the proposed Segment H corridor cuts through Lake Houston State Park. The association has no current active plans for developing these segments, Schenke says. However, Segment I-2, which would run along existing state routes from the East Freeway to Texas 146 near Baytown, has been assigned the highest priority for construction by state highway planners. Blake said the Sierra Club is concerned that the route will encourage industrial development in coastal areas on Galveston and Trinity bays.

STATUS OF GRAND PARKWAY SEGMENTS

Segment A Miles: 6.4 Cost: $ 22.5 million Priority: Long-range planning

Segment B Miles: 20.5 Cost: $ 47.9 million Priority: 2

Segment C Miles: 22.9 Cost: $ 90.4 million Priority: 2

Segment D Miles: 19.0 Cost: $ 70 million Opened for traffic Aug. 31, 1994. Long-range plans call for upgrade to freeway status with ramps, additional lanes.

Segment E Miles: 13.8 Cost: $ 60.1 million Priority: 2

Segment F-1 Miles: 13.2 Cost: $ 42.0 million Priority: 2

Segment F-2 Miles: 11.5 Cost: $ 61.3 million Priority: 2

Segment G Miles: 13.6 miles Cost: $ 71.5 million Priority: 2

Segment H Miles: 22.9 Cost: $ 109.2 million Priority: None assigned

Segment I-1 Miles: 6.5 Cost: $ 57.8 million Priority: None assigned

Segment I-2 Miles: 8.8 Cost: $ 35.9 million Priority: 1. Construction to begin early 2002 or sooner

Cost estimates are for construction only. Costs of acquiring right-of-way depend on the selected route, the share of land donated, the cost of acquiring land by eminent domain and other factors. The Texas Department of Transportation classifies projects by priority level. Of the 11 Grand Parkway segments, six are classified as Priority 2. This means right-of-way may be purchased and engineering work done, but construction has not been authorized. Contracts to build these projects are expected to be let during 2004-2010. Of the five other segments, A is classified in the long-range planning stage, H and I-1 have no priority assigned, and I-2 is Priority 1. This means construction is authorized. Segment D is the only part of the parkway built to date.

 
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