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Grand Parkway 2000 Report

This text was presented to the Texas Transportation Commission on November 16, 2000, by the director of the Grand Parkway Association.
Source: Texas Transportation Transcript November 2000

MS. SCHENKE: Good morning. I am Diane Schenke and I also have with me David Gornet, the assistant director, and hopefully we can cover this in relatively short order, although we've got so much going on that we're open to any questions you may have, of course.

I thought we could start off by reviewing the overall project status and where we are on each of them. The first segment, the one that is built and open now in Fort Bend County, extends from I-10 West to US 59 South. That was opened in 1994, and Fort Bend County passed bond money just last week for $2 million to do design work at two major intersections on that particular leg of the Grand Parkway.

The second section, that I know is near and dear to Commissioner Nichols' heart, is in the Baytown area, hooks up with the Fred Hartman Bridge and goes to I-10 East. The first piece of that is scheduled for letting in September 2001. Right now we are busy on two tasks: one is to turn over the donated land to the department, and our schedule has that slated for April of 2001; the other activity is that we've recently filed a Corps of Engineers permit for the entire I-2 project, and the mitigation that we have proposed is in connection with the Nature Conservancy. We'll be enhancing and restoring some wetlands that are near their Atwater Prairie Chicken Preserve.

The third piece that we'll mention just briefly is Segments A and B on the southeast side of the loop, and until a week ago we had nothing going on, but Galveston County last week passed a $1.3 million bond issue that was specifically identified for the Grand Parkway to begin environmental and engineering studies on the part from I-45 west towards 288.

The final area that's not active at this point is on the northeast side of town, and we've got no studies under way and no plan to start those.

The study that is very active right now is the one that just came on the screen, connects US 59 South with State Highway 288. We're going to walk you through that process in some detail about where we've been and what we've done over the last year, but suffice it to say we've finished the draft environmental impact statement and we'll be issuing the final environmental impact statement during this next calendar year.

We'll come back to E, F and G. Again, I know that's a project near and dear to several of your hearts, but I thought we would go through C in some detail since it's been very active this year.

This is a quick summary of the progress of the project beginning back in March of '98 and taking us through this summer. I think the most important lesson from this particular slide is the amount of public involvement and agency and stakeholder involvement we've had as the process has moved forward.

Just this summer we have had the meetings that you see highlighted here, and the ones I would particularly like to draw to your attention are the HGAC, TPC approval there on October 20; that was a unanimous approval of the major investment study portion of the draft environmental impact statement. We also had, as you can see at the top of the list, formal public hearings at two locations at two ends of Segment C in June. And we have also had a recent meeting with the US EPA about their comment letter, and we'll talk more about some of the details they raised.

As you can see, we had a huge number of comments, and I know many of you personally received some of these letters. We had approximately 2,200 comments in the June time frame. The vast majority of those, as you can see, addressed the issues related to Brazos Bend State Park, and we break these generally into three separate categories.

The first category that is highlighted for you are alignment-specific issues; the second category are -- for lack of a better term -- regional issues, and these are the ones that the EPA primarily focused on. The final category are what we call general concerns, and while they'll be addressed in detail in the final EIS, most of our meetings and attention have focused on the first two categories, and I want to walk you through how we've resolved some of these issues.

First and most importantly, I think, was concern about the Brazos Bend State Park. You remember that we came so close to the Brazos Bend State Park in large part because we found an eagle's nest that required us to move the alignment. After the response about the concern on Brazos Bend State Park, we had a series of meetings which were highlighted in one of the earlier slides, with the county officials, the resource agencies, Federal Highways, and TxDOT to come up with an alignment that would be further away from the park, a little bit closer to the eagle's nest but located in such a location that it would be far enough to let the eagles continue to thrive.

The two red outer alignments were the ones that were presented in the draft EIS; the one on the top that the arrow is on right now, we discarded almost immediately because of impacts to wetlands where it crosses Rabbs Bayou right there where the arrow is located. The red alignment that's to the south there went within about a half mile of Brazos Bend State Park which you see outlined in green.

The preferred route that we presented to the public on Tuesday night is the dark blue line. It comes at the closest about a mile and a half from Brazos Bend State Park and almost three miles from the observatory that's located within the park.

I would like to say that on these alignment-specific issues, the reactions we had on Tuesday night this week at our workshops on the alignments was generally positive. We've still got some questions to resolve, and I'll talk about those in a minute.

Other alignment-specific issues we dealt with -- and this would be on the east end of the Route C close to where it comes into 288 -- we had people from Iowa Colony saying they preferred a more southern joining at 288, because they wanted it to stay away from their community. We also had some requests to straighten the alignment so it wasn't so markedly curved, and again, the changes, the straightening of the curves happened about where the arrow is near the Darrington Unit, and you can see that we've suggested the southern alignment that comes in south of Iowa Colony. Generally people commented positively on those changes.

The final alignment-specific issues relate to the western or northern end of the alignment near US 59. At our June hearings we had very strong support of going down Crabb River Road, and that is the one that we suggested at our hearings on Tuesday night, and David is outlining that for you right now.

The issues that came up on Tuesday night that we still need to deal with were expressed by residents that are now close to some of the realignments. One of the communities is very close to US 59, and the other community is a little bit further down on the road, but we will meet with representatives of both of those communities and the local county. Fortunately, we've got some flexibility, in that the changes they're requesting don't pose environmental problems, but they certainly will increase the cost of the alignment.

So to summarize on the alignment-specific issues, I think we made a great deal of progress between June and October, and the commenting public generally agreed with us.

We still have other issues to deal with; these are the regional issues. One of the comments raised by the EPA and the Sierra Club and other commentators is that the Grand Parkway causes urban sprawl. We've done several things to try to respond to this.

One of the most significant is that we convened an expert panel of people in Fort Bend County and Brazoria County from, for instance, the county engineer's office, county judge's office, people that are out there making decisions on buying school properties and other development issues, to talk with us about what this would look like if the Grand Parkway were not put in, what the land use differences would be 20 years from now.

And the factors they came up with fall into two categories. One is that there are numerous constraints to development adjacent to some of the area the Grand Parkway Segment C passes through, and we've listed those for you and you'll see them pop up on the map here.

The first is the Brazos River flood plain which is enormous; the second are the parks, the oilfield, the prison unit that you've already heard something about. And those, in essence, constrain a great deal of the development. The purple one that just came up is a proposed mitigation property that the Trust for Public Lands is trying to put together that, as you can see, would hook up with Brazos Bend State Park. We are working with the Trust for Public Lands to incorporate this as part of our mitigation for the few acres of impacts that we will have on wetlands. So that's the first issue.

The second issue is that there are already numerous communities that have started. They're not built out necessarily, but these communities have already started in the general area, they've invested money in building infrastructure, and we would like to show you where those are. But you can see that the conclusion of the expert panel was that this area where there were not constraints would build out with or without the Grand Parkway, and we see in the next 20 years most of the demand for housing being filled by developments that are already under way and those are the ones that are appearing on the screen right now.

Each of these housing developments you can go out and buy a house in, so these are not ones that are platted or planned; they're already under way.

I'm just going to quickly review for you the remaining activities that we've got to do to finish up the environmental work on Segment C. David has highlighted the $7.3 million bonds that were passed last week in Fort Bend County. Part of this money is for the detail design work on the portion of Segment C in Fort Bend County, so as soon as we finish the environmental work, Fort Bend County is ready to get started.

We had two hearings this week presenting the preferred alternative, and I think I've highlighted for you the primary issues. I think we've resolved many of the alignment-specific issues that came up in the June time frame. We are working right now to prepare the final environmental impact statement, and that will be submitted next summer. And we'll have another round of hearings on that, we anticipate, about a year from now. And you see the rest of it is just a wild guess, and you know that probably better than we do.

I would like to move on now to talk about E, F and G, another 52 miles that's in the environmental process. We started the environmental work on this in August of '99, and you can see that that portion traverses two different counties in the Houston area, Harris County and Montgomery County.

We are just concluding the corridor phase of the study and are working right now on starting four individual environmental impact statements. The corridor portion of the study initially identified a study area which is about five miles wide, and then we drew one-mile corridors, which are the lines you see in this particular slide.

We had hearings in February of this year and received a great deal of input, both from public and resource agencies and local county officials. We selected a preferred corridor in June of 2000 and then drew alignments within that preferred corridor. The three alternate alignments you see presented here are within the preferred corridor.

We just finished the workshops on those alignments October 23, 25, and 26. We had three meetings: one that covered the western portion in Segment E, one that covered the Tomball area starting from 290 over to 249 and then 249 to 45, and finally one at Kingwood College that covered the 45 to 59 area.

I would say that most of the comments we got at these public hearings were from citizens in the F-2 area from 249 to 45. Basically, that area is already densely developed, and it is very difficult for us to find a corridor to get through that doesn't impact a substantial number of communities, if not actually taking homes, very close to existing subdivisions.

The major issues, environmental issues that we have to deal with in this area are, of course, wetlands -- which are a problem for any major development in the Houston area; bottomland hardwoods, and this is the northeastern part of that corridor. We have several threatened and endangered species. We have extensive flood plains adjacent to the San Jacinto River; numerous historic structures in the F-2/F-1 area, both historic farms and other homes in the Rosehill and Tomball area.

The existing development, as I've already mentioned, is extensive, and the new development that's occurring right now even sort of takes us aback, and we've been in Houston for many years now. David and I considered it a major advantage that in this last round or workshops we didn't find yet another new development that was going to block one of our alignments.

This is a very rough, tentative schedule on where we are for our remaining activities. As I said, we presented the alignment alternatives about two weeks ago to the public. We anticipate having draft EISs available for review in May of this next year, and we'll be holding public hearings during the summer; have final EISs out in early 2002, with a record of decision by May of 2002.

I know that these benefits are probably in -- preaching to the choir, but this is issues that we are presenting in all of the talks that both David and I give to whether it's the Lions Club or the local homeowners association, and our conviction is that growth is coming to the Houston area. HGAC projects 2-1/2 million people in the next 20 years, and the alternatives are something that looks like the Grand Parkway or something that looks like the I-45 corridor or 1960.

And to highlight those differences, we've got these pictures. This is Highway 6, which started off as a two-lane rural road and has gradually been expanded over time, and this is one likely scenario if the Grand Parkway does not go in. By contrast, this is what the Grand Parkway looks like in the part that's built and operating now on the west side of town.

Again, the plans for the Grand Parkway don't look like -- this is US 59 out southwest of town. You can see the continuous feeder roads and the strip shopping center development. By contrast, this is what the Grand Parkway will be designed to look like with entrance and exit ramps, but we will not have continuous feeder roads and will minimize strip development. And we think a road that looks like this is much preferable to the customary pattern of handling growth in the Houston area.

So with that summary, that is a very quick overview of what we've been up to.

MR. NICHOLS: As usual, you do an excellent job on your presentations. You have just done a remarkable job overall with the Grand Parkway.

MS. SCHENKE: Thank you.

MR. NICHOLS: There's just incredible obstacles to overcome and pull those communities together and continue moving forward, so I certainly compliment you on it.

David, do you have anything?

MR. LANEY: Diane, I appreciate the presentation, again, and all the work you do on a challenging exercise, long term, needless to say. I very much appreciate the detail with which you responded and presented to us with respect to the response to the urban sprawl issue. It doesn't look like it will be an obstacle, as far as I'm concerned. I think it's a great response to an issue that seems to have all sorts of definitions and is thrown in the way of any sort of road development at all, and so I think the response was very carefully thought out.

MS. SCHENKE: One piece I did not emphasize enough in the overview is the support and amount of work we do with the local TxDOT office, Federal Highways out of Austin, the HGAC. Many of these issues are common to all of us, like the urban sprawl and regional development, and we've worked very closely with them and received a great deal of support from all of those entities in moving forward, so they're good partners.

MR. NICHOLS: Let me ask you one question. I know we've had discussions in the past about keeping the option open through the public hearing process on some of these legs or segments about tolling. Was tolling brought up?

MS. SCHENKE: We get the question often, Commissioner Nichols, and when we respond that this group, the commission, feels that all new capacity should be tolled so that dollars are generated to meet the shortfall between monies available and the list of approved projects, everybody sort of nods. So we get the question often and when we respond that it very well may be a toll road, people sort of shrug and move on.

MR. NICHOLS: But through the environmental process, it is always left open as an option.

MS. SCHENKE: Yes, sir.

MR. NICHOLS: Because we don't know what the legislature will or will not let us do on the toll equity issue which will be, probably, a key to that.

MS. SCHENKE: This may be more detail than you want. What we have said is that there's a possibility. We haven't speculated on where the toll plazas would be, what effect that would have on traffic, and our thought is that were we to proceed with tolling, for instance Segment C, after the particulars were worked out, there may need to be a supplemental environmental document to cover the specifics, but we have covered it in a general way, yes, sir.

MR. NICHOLS: Thank you very much.

MR. LANEY: Thank you, Diane, appreciate it.

MS. SCHENKE: Thank you.

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