Are we there yet?
By Elsa Maxey
The Fort Bend Parkway, almost going on eight years, is one of the county’s key mobility projects managed by the Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority, and it is closer to offering new transportation options that will make mobility in this area smoother for motorists.
In a workshop presentation to Fort Bend County Commissioners this month, Bill Jameson of WJ Interests, Inc. and Mike Stone, the toll road authority’s Operations and Capital Projects Manager, spoke on behalf of the toll road authority during an overview of both the Fort Bend Parkway Toll Road and the Fort Bend Westpark Tollway. A side note from local elected officials … the addition of the Fort Bend Parkway is credited with much of the accelerated growth of Missouri City’s Sienna Plantation, all of which is due for incorporation into the city limits sometime in the future.
In that city’s updated transportation plan, traffic projections reportedly show a shift after the opening of the Fort Bend Toll Road from east to west compared to a previous north to south travel pattern.
Along these lines, at the commissioner’s court meeting, Stone indicated that the design is complete for a toll road extension “for Sienna Boulevard from State Highway 6 down to the Fort Bend Parkway.” He also said, “we’re taking a look at the feasibility for the second time at doing a bridge over the Brazos,” and he said that at the request of the City of Richmond, the toll road authority is looking at connecting McCreary Road. A portion of that road, however, is within Richmond, which would mean that funding would also be expected to come from the city.
Of the projects in progress, the report to commissioners indicates that the completion for the rest of the Segment D design of the Grand Parkway should be taking place in the next 60 to 90 days. Less than a year ago in August, Fort Bend County, the Fort Bend Toll Road Authority and Texas Department of Transportation officials broke ground for what is referred to as the Grand Parkway Segment D main lane overpasses. Segment D stretches 17.4 miles from US 59 to IH 10, and it is a road motorists have used since 1994. The main lane overpasses on the same road stretch from the Westpark Toll Road south to US 59 are planned as toll routes and already, the first two overpasses are underway at West Airport Boulevard and West Riverpark Drive. Once they are completed, motorists may elect to take these toll overpasses or use the no toll frontage roads on this segment of the Grand Parkway. According to a account, at its completion State Highway 99, which includes the Grand Parkway that runs through Fort Bend County, is reportedly to be the longest beltway in the world at a 170 miles, divided into 11 segments for construction and funding purposes.
Of the Fort Bend Toll Road Authority, Stone said it is looking at every opportunity to lower operational costs including possible tolling alternatives. “We expect to issue bonds for the extension of the Fort Bend Parkway and the West Park Tollway late spring to early summer,” he said, and also that a bond issue for Segment D of the Grand Parkway is expected.
Commissioner James Patterson said that at the time when bidding takes place for the rest of overpasses on Segment D, these will be divided into four construction contracts. Overpasses on the drawing board include West Riverpark Drive, New Territory and West Airport boulevards, Harlem and Bellaire. Toll overpasses are also planned for Sandhill, U.S. 90A and FM 1464, Mason and Morton, and the Westpark Tollway and FM 1093.
The first bid for continuing the construction of the overpasses in Section D will be either late May or early June, others late June or early July, as reported at the meeting. The cost of this construction is estimated to be in the $170 million range and will start in 2013.
Stone said University Boulevard to the Fort Bend Parkway connection in the extreme south end of the county is where University Boulevard will connect with a temporary road up to Sienna Boulevard and allow motorists to come out of the back side of Riverstone and connect to the Fort Bend Parkway. Clarifying that the connection out of the back side of Riverstone is not a toll road project, Commissioner James Patterson’s statement was further made clear by Jameson. It will be the northerly frontage road of the parkway, said Jameson. “The TIRZ (Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone) is putting in a feeder road for the time being,” added Patterson, which he said will connect to Sienna Ranch Road, connecting to Sienna Springs, and from there to the Parkway, “which ties all of this from the University connection all the way down.”
The Fort Bend Parkway began operating in Aug. 2004, and the West Parkway a year later, around mid-2005. “The system is well utilized by the traveling public,” said Jameson. He reports that the county’s toll system handles 22 plus million transactions annually, which equal to about 70,000 transactions, and he said the county’s toll road system when compared to similar roads in the country has the lowest administrative costs, highest toll tag usage, and lowest violation rate.
According to Jameson, the Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority is the first all electronic toll road system in the U.S, “as far as we can determine.” In July 2008, the Fort Bend County Parkway converted to an all electronic system. All tolls must be paid by use of the EZ-TAG system.