Grand Parkway

Transportation Nation

Houston Loop Project Moves to Next Phase

Thursday, February 16, 2012

(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) The Texas Department of Transportation says it's moving forward on the next phase of the Grand Parkway, an ambitious plan to build a 180-mile ring road around the greater Houston area. Once finished, the Grand Parkway is expected to become the longest beltway in the country.   It will pass through seven counties and encircle the two existing loops, the 45-mile Interstate-610 loop and the 88-mile State Beltway 8.

State transportation officials say the goal of the Grand Parkway project is to improve connectivity between the major north-south and east-west arteries that head into downtown Houston, helping commuters avoid surface streets and traffic lights.  Some suburbs north of the city have seen a 40% population increase in the past decade.

Critics say the project fuels sprawl.

The Grand Parkway project started showing up on regional planning maps in the 1960's.  Once the project was designed, it was divided into 11 segments, and currently only two of those segments are open to traffic.  Segment D, a 17-mile stretch that connects U.S. Highway 59 to Interstate-10 west of the city, opened in 1994.  Another 14 mile segment east of Houston opened in 2008.   Construction is now underway on a third segment, Segment E,  a 15-mile section connecting Interstate-10 and U.S. Highway 290.  That segment is set to open in late 2013.

The state will now begin work on three new segments. Segment F-1 is a 12-mile section connecting U.S. Highway 290  and State Highway 249/Tomball Parkway.   From there, segment F-2 runs another 12 miles, connecting  249 with Interstate 45. Segment G will run 14 miles between I-45 and U.S. Highway 59.

In November, TxDot requested qualification statements from companies interested in working on the project. The agency's Kelli Petras says they'll soon issue a request for proposals and use a "design-build" strategy. "The company or team that wins this contract is able to start construction as soon as the contract is executed," she explained. "So they're basically designing and constructing at the same time."

Petras says the cost of the three new segments is about $839 million, and they hope to begin construction in early 2013. The new segments are expected to open to traffic in 2015.

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)
Construction Begins This Month on Next Segment of Houston’s Grand Parkway (link)

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Transportation Nation

YEAR IN REVIEW HOUSTON: Light Rail Funding, A New Beltway, and Red Light Cameras

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Guests sign a commemorative document as Houston receives its first-ever federal funds for light rail construction. Photo by Gail Delaughter/KUHF

(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF)  On the plus side for Houston's year in transportation: a light rail project received its first-ever federal funding, an ambitious highway project broke ground, bicycle commuting is up, and the Port of Houston is doing brisk business. The flip side: over 30,000 homes in Houston have no cars and no access to buses, trains, or park and rides, and an expensive legal battle continues to wage over the city's now-defunct red light cameras.

After earlier controversy over violations of the government’s “Buy America” provisions, Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority secured its first-ever federal funding for light rail construction. Metro is getting close to a billion dollars. The money will pay for the northbound extension of the Red Line, currently Houston’s only line in operation, as well as a new line from downtown to the southeast section of the city. Metro CEO George Greanias said the funding agreement shows Metro “is serious about transit and will be a good partner, and is somebody worth investing in.”

The legal squabble continues over Houston’s red light cameras.  Houston residents voted to do away with the cameras, but the company that operates the devices sued for breach of contract.  American Traffic Solutions says it’s owed 25 million dollars, while the city disputes that amount.  Proponents of the devices said the technology saved lives by deterring would-be red light runners, while opponents argued the cameras increased the number of rear-end collisions and were more about making money than about safety.

Houston-area officials gathered in September to break ground for a new segment of State Highway 99, also known as the Grand Parkway.  When completed, the 170-mile roadway will be the third loop around the city and will pass through seven counties.  The project moves forward despite protests from the local chapter of the Sierra Club, which fears the project will harm ecologically-sensitive grasslands.

Business is strong at the Port of Houston.  A recent study shows the port has a $118 billion economic impact in Texas.  There’s also state and local sales tax revenues, pegged at close to $4 billion.  Port officials say tonnage is up, and a lot of that has to do with the amount of steel pipe that’s coming in for increased drilling activity.  The Port of Houston now wants to upgrade facilities to handle larger ships that will come into the Gulf of Mexico after the widening of the Panama Canal.

In a heavily car-dependent city, Houston cycling activists are encouraging people to try pedal power to get around.  Figures from the League of American Bicyclists show a 62 percent increase in the number of bike commuters. The idea of cycling to work isn’t always an easy sell in a city known for its extreme summer heat, but Houston’s Bicyclist-Pedestrian Coordinator is touting the benefits of leaving the car in the garage.

Honda cars and pickup trucks continue to top Houston’s list of most-stolen vehicles.  The Houston Police Department says Hondas are popular with thieves eyeing vehicles for street racing.  Auto theft investigators say the stolen pickups are frequently taken to the Mexican border where they’re used for drug running and immigrant smuggling.

Houston was near the top of a list of cities with large numbers of no car/no transit households. According to a Brookings Institution study, over 30,000 homes in the city lack vehicles and access to buses, trains, or park and rides. The author of the study said increasing numbers of low income families are moving from the city out to the suburbs,  and in cities like Houston these can be quite isolated areas, almost ‘transit deserts.”

Read about our other year in review posts here.

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Transportation Nation

Construction Begins This Month on Next Segment of Houston's Grand Parkway

Thursday, September 15, 2011

(Photo by Gail Delaughter / KUHF)

(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.

Listen to an audio version of the story at KUHF.

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)

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Transportation Nation

Controversy on the Texas Prairie: Road to Nowhere - or a Must for Houston's Future?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Will a highway cut through Texas' Katy Prairie?

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News)  Houston is preparing to complete an 88-mile ring road this weekend -- as controversy continues to simmer around another, even larger ring road that critics say will induce sprawl.  That road, called the Grand Parkway, would cut through the environmentally sensitive Katy prairie (pictured.)

But for now, after 23 years of construction, the final section of the city’s outer beltway, called the Sam Houston Tollway, will be complete come Saturday.

It’s the second road to circle Houston. The first was Loop 610, which was completed in 1976.

Alan Clark, the director of transportation and planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, says the final $400 million dollar section will serve the rapidly growing communities in Northeast Harris County. “It should shorten their travel time significantly," he said. "And by that I mean maybe twenty minutes, thirty minutes - it could be even longer.”

But critics argue that it induces suburban sprawl and doesn't fix congestion problems in Houston's denser, more populated areas.

Those arguments are getting even more heated around another concentric road that has only just begun its giant circle around Greater Houston.

It's called the Grand Parkway, and it would be the third road to ring around Houston.  Some want it, some loathe it. It would be a massive 180-mile toll road encircling greater Houston, and it's been part of the city's planning since 1962. Less than thirty miles have been built so far, but 14 more could be added soon. That's because the Texas Department of Transportation recently announced that it expects to have the nearly half -billion dollars it needs to construct the next segment.

With Houston poised to gain 3.5 million people over the next thirty years, proponents of the road say it's a crucial part of the region's transportation system. Critics say the road is superfluous, arguing that the money should be spent to tackle existing congestion problems in places where more people live and commute. But opposition to the road heats up even more over this next segment -- known as "E" -- because it will cut through the environmentally sensitive Katy Prairie, west of Houston.

You can listen to the story - and see a slideshow - at KUHF.

For more on KUHF's coverage of Segment E -- including a look at the route it would take, and reaction from locals and one tenacious environmentalist -- visit here.

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Transportation Nation

It's Official: TxDOT Takes On Houston's Grand Parkway Project

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Last month Harris County commissioners voted in favor of letting the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) build a portion of the Grand Parkway.  The state has accepted the job and says it will construct three segments of the 180-mile ring road which will loop around Greater Houston. Harris County stepped back from the project after learning that TxDOT expects to have $425 million dollars available for the road this year. TxDOT spokesperson Karen Amacker says it’s now up to the department to" deliver the transportation system the state needs and we believe that the Grand Parkway is an important part of that system."

Grand Parkway Segment Map

TxDOT will be developing all of the segments located in Harris County – three out of the proposed toll road’s eleven segments. Amacker says Segment E, which would connect Interstate 10 with 290, is likely to move forward first because “it’s the most shovel-ready.”  She says it’s also one of the more “financially robust” segments of the Grand Parkway. The 14-mile section would run through the Katy Prairie and is expected to cost around $400 million dollars.

“It is certainly possible that the commission could identify funding for Segment E before the end of this year," says Amacker.  "As for the other segments of the Grand Parkway, it will be a challenge, as it is with funding any transportation project in this challenging environment.”

Amacker says money for the Grand Parkway will come from a number of sources, including the State Highway Fund and bond proceeds. But the state is running low on money for new construction projects, so it’s unlikely funding for the other segments will be available anytime soon. As for Segment E, Harris County has yet to obtain a federal permit that would allow wetlands to be filled in for the construction of the highway. And without it, Segment E can’t be built.

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