A UTP list, primacy, honoring an agreement, Grand Parkway segments pending…these are key in relation to what is a hot topic in Fort Bend County that’s probably hotter and just as oppressive as the weather these days. These terms refer to a situation about ready to be set in stone, more like concrete or lack thereof, that may impact the future economic development of this area and an evacuation route, both of which will significantly affect lives in this part of the region.
You see, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) may take the future development of the Grand Parkway out of its highway plan because it’s a toll road. The major roadway undertaking in Fort Bend County would be gone from a priority list of projects to be funded over the next 10 years. And if postponed, it may be ad infinitum for the completion of the remaining southern road segments of the Grand Parkway in Fort Bend, Brazoria and Galveston counties. This road completion is for the convenience of people getting to and from work, but also for critical evacuation routes, congestion mitigation, connecting our ports to our major commerce centers, for economic expansion and output, Jeff Wiley, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council (GFEDC), told the Star.
“Good transportation infrastructure is needed and in Fort Bend we have always focused on that,” he said. “We know how important it is to the success of not only current economic activity, but to future economic activity.”
“It’s a regional matter,” added government consultant Marvin Marcel, explaining how TxDOT’s preparatory elimination move about to be presented for final action goes against an understanding about funding the Grand Parkway.
Marcel, who represented the GFBEDC during the last state legislative session, said he found out about TxDOT’s intentions about the Grand Parkway project about three weeks ago. A set of recommendations by state agency officials came out of a workshop in June that did not include it, and these recommendations will be heard by TxDOT’s commission on Aug. 19 in Austin before a final action is taken.
“There’s something called the Unified Transportation Plan, the UTP, and that program is TxDOT’s list of projects that will allocate resources within a 10-year time frame,” Wiley said.
The Grand Parkway has been on the UTP in the past.
“I think there’s a political sentiment that suggests toll roads are less popular now for some people than they were in the past,” Wiley said.
He also said there’s a preference for not doing significant transportation projects using tolls.
Wiley said transportation infrastructure in our region is equated with quality of life.
“And if there was enough state money to fund the Grand Parkway without using tolls, that would be great, but that’s not the reality,” he said.
Wiley said the GFBEDC, the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC), area mayors, four chambers of commerce (including the Fort Bend Chamber and the Central Fort Bend Alliance), Fort Bend Toll Road executive Jimmy Thompson and the Fort Bend Toll Road Authority are equally involved in their opposition about the removal of Grand Parkway from Texas’ transportation plan. He also said a significant campaign was launched locally. This included commentary from State Reps. Rick Miller and Phil Stephenson at a public hearing on the matter just last week.
So, why this much fuss about an altered attitude on the part of TxDOT? After all, it’s not unusual for state agencies to change future funding plans. However, in this case, there may have been a breach in what could otherwise be an ironclad understanding between TxDOT and some of the Greater Houston areas associated with the toll road…and it’s in writing!
Back when the county entered into an agreement with TxDOT for construction of the Grand Parkway, when former Fort Bend County Commissioner James Patterson spearheaded the effort and even served as chairman of a transportation committee for H-GAC, Marcel said Fort Bend was given “primacy” as it relates to its toll roads. Primacy means the state of being first as in importance, order or rank.
Essentially, if TxDOT reverses course and continues with removing toll roads, it is breaking an agreement made with the Houston region, Wiley said. In Texas, usually a handshake is sufficient for an agreement, “but this is a written agreement and it is only appropriate for the state to honor its agreement to complete the Grand Parkway,” in association with seven area counties affected by the toll road, he said. Wiley further maintains that a current political preference should not impact an agreement already made.
“It’s not for me to say politically whether TxDOT should ever engage in tolls roads in the future,” but if the state is not going to honor that, “we have to look for other options,” Wiley said.
At this junction, a bright red line is what Wiley proposes – one between new projects and those TxDOT has already agreed to build.
Projected growth warranting Grand Parkway completion
“We are an 800,000 population county going to a million by 2028,” Wiley said. So, finding ways to move people effectively and efficiently is important “or end up with a degradation of life,” since people will end up on roads longer, he said.
Wiley commends both past and present political establishments, noting that they have continuously kept up with community infrastructure needs.
Fort Bend’s future development and potential growth could be closely tied to the Grand Parkway corridor segments. This includes the area west of the Brazos River and south of U.S. 59, Wiley said. It is comprised of the George Ranch properties, Needville, Fairchilds, Pleake, the communities to greatly benefit from mobility and connectivity to the region, when Grand Parkway Segment C is built from U.S. 59 to State Highway 288, he said. Segment C is planned as a 26-mile, four-lane toll road with intermittent frontage roads from SH 288 known as the South Freeway near Rosharon to U.S. 59 South, the Southwest Freeway in Sugar Land through Brazoria and Fort Bend counties.
“That could harness someplace in the neighborhood of 30,000-40,000 acres of new master-planned community development,” Wiley said.
That’s land across the Brazos River. When the Fort Bend Toll Road connects with the Grand Parkway, as envisioned, this connectivity “will be with a huge amount of developmental land within 30 miles of major employment centers,” Wiley said. That’s why during the last legislative session, he said municipal utility districts (MUDS) and management districts were put in place for future development. That’s right across the river from Sienna Plantation, where the new growth is projected to occur.
The money to do it is apparently there, “but the opportunity for the completion of the Grand Parkway over the Brazos River needs to be figured out,” Wiley said. “It bodes well for Fort Bend County’s central and southwest portions to be able to be a significant player in the tradition of how Fort Bend has developed through master-planned communities.”
Wiley said this would be “on the scale of The Woodlands.”
Could we see a grandfather clause in the making? It may be what is needed to put that Jeff Wiley red line in place.