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Grand Parkway to get a lot grander, with new 53 miles in rural areas

May 18, 2022

At the stroke of midnight, the Houston area’s 40-year efforts for an outer belt will shoot past the 100-mile mark, when northeast segments of the Grand Parkway open — and offer faster trips for rural areas that, officials said, won’t be for long,

Two stretches of the Grand Parkway, from Interstate 69 near New Caney to Interstate 10 in Mont Belvieu and from Beach City to Texas 146 in Baytown , open at midnight Wednesday. At that time, entrances at key spots, such as U.S. 90 and FM 1960 in Liberty County, will open — and open up freeway speeds to one of the few areas in the eight-county Houston region that still has a rural flavor.

Officials on Wednesday celebrated the opening, as both an economic opportunity and the culmination of years of work on the tollway and decades of planning for Houston region’s third outer ring. “More than half my life I have been hearing about the Grand Parkway and to see it is exciting,” said Quincy Allen, former Houston district engineer, now deputy director of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Combined, the two segments add another 53 miles to the tollway, and a list of benefits depending on the perspective. For drivers and cargo looking to bypass more traffic-clogged freeways in the metro area, it offers a way around. For commuters and residents from Spring to Baytown, the road means faster access to growing suburban communities. Parts of the region meanwhile, are opened up by the new tollway, something that is sure to drive development as it has along dozens of miles of the Grand Parkway. “It is going to do a huge thing,” said State Rep. Ernest Bailes, R-Shepherd. “We are destined to continue to have a ton of growth in the area.” All of that, however, comes at price, highway officials estimate construction cost $1.3 billion, and with slight changes to how the rest of the tollway was built. The roughly 38-mile trip from I-10 north through Chambers, Liberty and Montgomery counties — sliding through a small slice of Harris County — will cost $8.51 for cars and small trucks, under approved rates set by TxDOT. For a semi-tractor trailer, the toll would be $42.55 for a single trip. Rates will adjust annually, as with other TxDOT-controlled tollways in the area.

The road opens to traffic on Thursday, but tolling does not start until midnight Friday, officials said. Down U.S. 90 in Crosby, drivers said while it might not be something they use on every trip, the new portion of the tollway provides options.

“You never know what traffic is going to do,” said Sam Smith, 60, who said he’d use it to travel to The Woodlands to visit family. “If that’s the fastest way, what my phone tells me is the fastest way, they I am going to do it.”

Tolls repay the debt the state — through the Grand Parkway Transportation Corporation it formed a decade ago — assumed to build the project. Over the course of collecting money and repaying loans, including a federal loan for more than $600 million, officials expect interest to hike the total cost to $1.8 billion.

The new segments, however, differ from previous stretches of the tollway, especially in the less developed areas south and west of Dayton where the tollway is one lane in each direction as opposed to the typical two. Vast swaths of the road, meanwhile, lack frontage roads — for now. Maps of the project already show plans for how roads in the area will cross, when subdivisions and shopping centers replace farms and fields. “If you build it they will come and they have actually already come,” said Eliza Paul, district director in Houston for TxDOT, outlining the increasing demands on area freeways and toll roads. “This is a badly needed project to help a lot of those things.”

Paul joked that despite the huge milestone the new segment represents, it could also challenge transportation officials, who might quickly regret not adding two lanes in each direction. The two segments were built as one project, with three major construction companies — Ferrovial, its subsidary Webber and California-based Granite Construction — forming Grand Parkway Infrastructure. Construction, planned to complete in early 2022 when work started, remained mostly on time despite some muddy days.

“Getting it done through COVID-19 and hurricanes and the winter storm is an achievement,” said Javier Martin Gil, CEO of Grand Parkway Infrastructure.

With the newest stretch open, focus shifts to the 60-plus incomplete miles of the tollway from I-69 to I-45 in Dickinson. No new segments of the parkway have final environmental approval, meaning construction is years away.

Still, officials in Fort Bend and Brazoria counties are eager for construction — and the deluge of development it brings.

If other portions of the tollway are any indication, those homes and businesses will come to Dayton with the latest opening and Alvin and other communities later.  Since the portion from I-10 to U.S. 290 opened in December 2013, development in the area — primed for its debut — has only accelerated, leading to plans to widen some local roads, such as FM 529. Meanwhile northern sections of the parkway — where homes already dotted the landscape — saw major shopping center projects at practically every street with entrance and exit ramps to the tollway, notably at Texas 249 and south of the Exxon Mobil corporate campus near Interstate 45. Though cheered by highway officials and local elected leaders, the tollway has also sewed criticism and its segments come together. Fierce critics of the western portions and its effect on the Katy Prairie grasslands west of Houston noted that flooding in the past few years shows the need for careful development, and that many economic gains have come with green space losses.

Concerns, however, have not dented the tollway’s use by drivers. Residents, both old and new to the area, flocked to the stores and homes, and exceeded expected use of the tollway, which was already high when the last segments between U.S. 290 and I-69 in New Caney opened in 2016. Despite ongoing pandemic recovery in 2021, the Grand Parkway carried more vehicles than ever before, logging 171 million car and truck and 12.4 million heavy truck transactions. For the first two months of 2022, use is even greater compared to 2021, up 24.3 percent.

Officials said the northeastern segments have the same potential, with mix of homes and shops following the tollway eastward in Montgomery County and industrial uses and businesses expansions near I-10 and south of it through Baytown driving demand near the toll road.

For many, the opening is the end of a long road. Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia, who in his first year as a county commissioner in 1993 was asked to support spending $500,000 on right of way south of I-10. At the time, Chambers County, he said it was huge expense and big risk for something that seemed so far away.

“Today is a big day for us,” Sylvia said.

By Dug Begley, Houston Chronicle