(Gail Delaughter--KUHF, Houston) On a September day with temperatures still soaring into the 100's, officials gathered on a bare patch of land northwest of Houston to break ground for a new segment of Texas State Highway 99, also known by its more familiar name, the Grand Parkway.
Next to heavy equipment decorated with balloons, dignitaries donned orange safety vests to turn the ground with ceremonial shovels. Guests gathered under a tent to munch big Texas-shaped cookies while helping themselves to "SH 99" giveaway caps. The festivities kicked off a new toll road project that connects two major arteries into downtown Houston, State Highway 290 and I-10. It's all part of a grander scheme that's been bounced around since the early 1960's, a proposed 170-mile loop around metro Houston that would pass through a total of seven counties. It would swing wide of the two loops that now encircle the city, Beltway 8 and I-610.
Officials say construction will start in just a few weeks on what's known as "Segment E," a 15-mile freeway that passes through suburban areas where you can still see the occasional longhorn steer grazing in a pasture next to a neighborhood. Civic leaders say they look forward to new development in the area, but critics, such as the Sierra Club, fear the project will do harm to an ecologically sensitive area known as the Katy Prairie. The environmental group filed suit last month in an effort to block the freeway. Officials counter those claims, saying the project includes work to preserve area grasslands and wetlands.
We spoke to Texas Department of Transportation Interim Director John Barton, who says the freeway will make it easier for drivers to get between points west of Houston, and it will also take some traffic off the major routes. Barton says Houston has a good radial system when it comes to funneling commuters into downtown but things bog down when commuters have to travel between major freeways. He estimates the project could shave about 30 minutes off the drive time for some commuters as they will now be able to avoid side streets and traffic lights.
The project will cost around $320 million, and Barton says the money comes from the Texas Mobility Fund, which was set up by the Texas Legislature in 2003. The funding used to develop that program comes from driver's license and other fees on motorists.
Construction will take a couple of years, and Barton estimates Segment E will be open to drivers in late 2013.
More TN coverage of the Grand Parkway:
Controversy on the Texas Prairie: Road to Nowhere – or a Must for Houston’s Future? (link)
It’s Official: TxDOT Takes On Houston’s Grand Parkway Project (link)