Updated May 7 at 12:40 p.m.

The long-awaited Hwy. 249 corridor extension—a project that was removed from the Houston-Galveston Area Council 2035 Regional Transportation Plan in 2010 due to funding concerns—became a reality when Phase 1 opened to drivers on April 12. Construction on the 6-mile, $155 million Tomball Tollway began in October 2013 after city and county officials rallied in late 2011 to secure funding for the project.

The Texas Department of Transportation began holding public hearings 15 years ago to discuss plans to extend Hwy. 249 across Tomball, Magnolia and northbound to Hwy. 105 near Navasota in Grimes County, offering an alternate corridor to Bryan/College Station. With the opening of the new tollway from Spring Cypress to Brown roads, Tomball is beginning to see a rippling effect of new retail, commercial and residential development in the area, officials said.

“This has been a long time coming,” state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, said. “I can remember everyone at the [Greater Tomball Area Chamber of Commerce] worked so hard to make this happen. I met with [homeowners associations], attended town hall meetings and all of the different groups and [residents] said they wanted a way to move faster when they needed to.”

Phase 1

Within the first 24 hours of the Tomball Tollway opening, 33,000 vehicles traveled on the road, according to the GTACC. With tolls ranging from 90 cents for one exit to $1.45 to travel the entire 6 miles, the Harris County Toll Road Authority brought in up to an estimated $50,000 in toll collections during the initial 24-hour period, which took place from April 12-13.

“[Constructing a toll road] is the direction the county utilized to fund this facility—it is not tax revenue-based; it is toll-based,” said Quinton Alberto, HCTRA assistant director of maintenance and traffic engineering. “When the Harris County Toll Road Authority decided to build the facility, that meant [HCTRA] was going to use toll dollars to fund this facility instead of waiting on state funds.”

The tolls collected on the road are placed into a fund to largely support maintenance projects, such as roadway repairs and debris pickup, said Karen McBride, HCTRA Tomball Tollway Phase 1 and Phase 2 project manager. McBride said the Tomball Tollway will allow drivers to bypass seven stoplights when the Grand Parkway F-2 Segment opens two additional frontage roads through Tomball in December.

“It’s a big impact to the region in Tomball and another option for commuters heading from Montgomery County into Harris County,” Alberto said. “It’s a great solution, and it will help ease congestion on [FM] 2920.”

With additional visitors traveling through the area, it is likely the city could see a boost in sales tax collections, but it is difficult to estimate specific amounts, said Kelly Violette, executive director of the Tomball Economic Development Corporation.

“Any of these mobility improvements whether it’s Hwy. 249, FM 2920 or the Grand Parkway—really what it does is make Tomball a more attractive place for businesses and families because you can get in and out much easier,” Violette said. “We are starting to see a lot of activity along Hwy. 249 and the Grand Parkway area with some businesses coming in. A lot of these improvements, even if they are mobility related, directly affect the [city’s] ability to attract development to the area.”

Phase 2 expansion

In 2012 city and county leaders gathered to form the 249 Partnership, which is now chaired by Magnolia City Councilwoman Anne Sundquist. The group works to improve lines of communication among residents and officials in the three largest cities along the route of the future Hwy. 249 expansion project—Tomball, Magnolia and Navasota.

“It’s a big impact to the region in Tomball and another option for commuters heading from Montgomery County into Harris County. It’s a great solution, and it will help ease congestion on [FM] 2920.” —Quinton Alberto, Harris County Toll Road Authority assistant director of maintenance and traffic engineering

The $175 million Phase 2 project will extend the Tomball Tollway 1.5 miles north of FM 2920 to the Harris County line and add new bridges at Spring Creek, said HCTRA spokeswoman Mary Benton. Construction is expected to begin in fall 2016, span two years and wrap up at the same time as the Montgomery County toll road segment through Pinehurst, Benton said.

“On April 14, the Harris County Commissioners Court authorized HCTRA to negotiate agreements with several firms in support of the development of the Tomball Tollway Phase 2 [project],” Benton said. “The engineers are reviewing the schematic design and completing other work to move the project forward. HCTRA is also seeking input from TxDOT, Montgomery County and additional stakeholders.”

Last spring Harris County commissioners voted to sign a memorandum to loan Montgomery County $15 million to $20 million to help develop its $122.4 million, 4.4-mile portion of the Hwy. 249 toll road extension from Spring Creek to the intersection of Hwy. 249 and FM 149 in Pinehurst. Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal said the Montgomery County Toll Road Authority will support the cost reimbursement and maintenance of the road with toll dollars collected on its segment.

“We plan to put the engineering work together in early summer and release some engineering contracts in hopes to go to bid late this year,” Doyal said. “[This will] match the time schedule Harris County has so that both projects coincide.”

Future phases

Picking up where MCTRA leaves off, TxDOT officials discussed plans during a Feb. 18 public hearing in Magnolia to fund a 15-mile extension north to FM 1774 north of Todd Mission in Grimes County. The proposed extension is planned as a $250 million four-lane toll road with frontage roads in a typical 400-foot right of way, according to TxDOT documents.

TxDOT has proposed four alternate routes for the Hwy. 249 corridor extension. The identified preferred low-impact route begins construction at the north end of the project along FM 1774 in Grimes County and follows southbound across Mill Creek in Magnolia to Hwy. 249 in Pinehurst.

“We plan to put the engineering work together in early summer and release some engineering contracts in hopes to go to bid late this year. [This will] match the time schedule Harris County has so that both projects coincide.” —Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal

An estimated 727 acres of right of way are needed to construct the roadway. One noise barrier is proposed, and seven residences and businesses have the potential to be displaced or relocated as a result of the extension, according to TxDOT.

The project is now in the draft environmental impact stage and must go through future engineering and environmental studies before construction can begin between late 2016 and early 2017. TxDOT estimates construction will take two years to complete.

To reach its final destination near Navasota, TxDOT officials are working with Grimes County to fund an additional Hwy. 249 four-lane toll road extension from the end of its segment north of Todd Mission to Hwy. 105 near FM 1748 in Grimes County totaling $160 million.

"Initial construction will likely be a Super 2 design—a lane in each direction with an intermittent passing lane," said Bob Colwell, TxDOT Bryan District public information officer. "However, in the letting phase, there will be alternatives included that may allow construction of the four-lane section based on the bids, proposals and the available funds."

The environmental assessment process is expected to be complete in July or August, and construction could begin in mid-2016 if the recommended route alignment is approved, according to TxDOT.

Until late April, the future of the project remained uncertain as it faced opposition from Grimes County residents in public meetings. In February, Grimes County commissioners passed a resolution opposing the project due to concerns about toll roads coming to the area and potential property encroachments. In late April, the county commissioners voted to support the project after TxDOT announced it would double the amount of funding—from $2 million to $4 million—for the construction of 8 miles of feeder roads in Grimes County.

“I hope [Navasota officials] can convince the residents of Grimes County that [they are] sitting today right where we were 15 years ago,” Doyal said. “[Residents] have an opportunity now to take true advantage and have that project ahead of the curve instead of like where we are [now] so congested in Magnolia. We are dying for this project.”