State vs County: Who Will Build Giant Ring Road Around Houston?

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Grand Parkway Segment E

(Houston, TX -- Pat Hernandez and Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) A state-county debate over who will build a ring road around Houston is picking up steam and heading toward resolution this week, but that doesn't mean everyone is happy with the progress.

Harris County handed over responsibility to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Tuesday for building a segment of the Grand Parkway, a proposed 180-mile ring road that will cross seven counties around Greater Houston.

Fifteen months ago, Harris County took control of the project under the assumption TxDOT didn't have the money to build the road and the two planned to come to an agreement on how tolls would be collected and distributed. More recently, Harris County Commissioners challenged TxDOT to build a 15-mile segment from Interstate -10 to Highway 290 after the state said it has $425-million to spend on the project.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett was happy with Tuesday's vote to waive the county's right to build the Grand Parkway, also known as state highway 99. He says it means the Grand Parkway could be built sooner. "It will also then let us focus on other parts of our own toll road system. For example widening South Belt, looking at new projects, like Hempstead, and it'll allow us to focus on other transportation projects. And let the state build State Highway 99, which is the Grand Parkway."

Emmett says they have an advanced funding agreement with TxDOT, which includes reimbursement for the design and money already spent on the project. The Grand Parkway is expected to cost in excess of $5 billion when completed.

For him it’s a win-win: The state will begin construction on part of the Grand Parkway, and the county will be able to direct its energies on other transportation projects that could help ease traffic congestion. This is good news, says Robin Holzer, Chairwoman of Citizens’ Transportation Coalition.

“By all accounts the 290 corridor is the most congested transportation corridor in the entire Houston region. So if letting the Grand Parkway go gets the county to focus our tax dollars on a project that will make a difference – like the Hempstead managed lanes, or perhaps a rail project in the northwest corridor – that’s a good thing.”

Even though Holzer is pleased that the county wants to give up its right to construct local sections of the Grand Parkway, she says no matter who builds it, it’s still a waste of taxpayer money.  “At the end of the day," says Holzer, "the Grand Parkway is proposed to run through an environmentally sensitive prairie where there are almost no people."

"We need our transportation dollars to invest in projects that will help existing tax payers,” she adds.

The Grand Parkway will be a segmented state highway shared by Harris and six other counties, and will service a need for connections between suburban areas beyond Beltway-8 and the Sam Houston Tollway.

Supporters of the Grand Parkway on the other hand, say the 180 mile long ring road will spur economic growth in the region.

Listen to the radio story on the vote and state vs county control debate here. And another story on opposition over at KUHF News.