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Controversial parkway route wins approval

Copyright 2000 Houston Chronicle
Oct. 20, 2000, 8:47PM

A regional planning panel Friday approved a route for the southwest segment of the planned Grand Parkway, an environmentally controversial loop around the outer reaches of the Houston area. The unanimous vote by the Transportation Policy Council of the Houston-Galveston Area Council preserves the 26-mile Segment C route from encroaching development and clears the way for land acquisition and funding. If all goes smoothly for supporters of the project -- including many local officials and landowners and the nonprofit but developer-driven Grand Parkway Association -- construction could begin in three to five years.

The next steps include drafting detailed plans for the four-lane, limited-access parkway and preparing a final environmental impact statement, and a plan specifying compensation for the loss of wetlands and wildlife habitat. The final plans will be subject to another round of public comment and hearings, and a vote by the transportation council to request federal and state funding.

Opponents hope to stave off the bulldozers and will keep a critical eye on such issues as environmental compensation measures and whether the road's likely effects on air quality have been accurately estimated. Houston Sierra Club Chairman Frank Blake said a lawsuit is "very definitely an option."

"We will be contesting this project," Blake said. "We don't think the (state air quality plan) should permit it." He also said he does not trust the parkway association or the Texas Department of Transportation to make adequate compensation for lost wetlands. Blake said the transportation department has not yet made the required compensation for wetlands destroyed by the only segment of the parkway to be built to date, from U.S. 59 South to Interstate 10 West.

Segment C runs from U.S. 59 South in Fort Bend County to Texas 288 in Brazoria County and passes less than two miles north of Brazos Bend State Park, with its population of deer, birds, alligators and other wildlife. The park also houses the George Observatory, whose supporters have expressed concern that light from later residential development will impair the dark skies needed for stargazing. The chosen route would be elevated across eight miles of Brazos River flood plain. Among the major issues to be worked out are the likely effect of the road as an obstacle to rainwater runoff and animal migration in the flood plain.

Diane Schenke, executive director of the association, has said plans call for a bridge across the river and the adjacent, highly flood-prone land along its banks. But much of the remaining flood plain would probably be crossed by an earthen fill with gaps for water to pass through, she said. On the issue of compensation, Schenke said she agrees with a recommendation by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to create "a wildlife corridor between Lake Worthington, the Brazos River and Brazos Bend State Park." The corridor "should include large tracts of existing forest and forested wetland," the parks department wrote. Blake was skeptical. "I don't see how any decent corridor can be created if you've got a highway running through the middle of it," he said. While Blake and two others spoke against the project before Friday's vote, five speakers, including Fort Bend County Judge Jim Adolphus, praised it.

Adolphus said the county, one of the fastest-growing in the nation, will likely double in population, to 720,000, in the next 20 years, and will need the road. Public workshops on the Segment C route will be held at 6 p.m. Nov. 14 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 6502 County Road 28 in Manvel, and Williams Elementary School, 5111 FM 762 in Richmond.

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