6 important updates Fort Bend County toll road drivers and commuters should know this year

There are several road, lane and ramp closures in the Houston area this weekend.

There are several road, lane and ramp closures in the Houston area this weekend.

Fort Bend Toll Road Authority Chief Operating Officer Mike Stone provided community members and local officials an update on Fort Bend County toll roads Thursday, Feb. 1 at the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce. Here are the important takeaways Fort Bend toll road commuters and drivers should be aware of this year.

  1. No immediate future projects planned for Fort Bend Parkway

There are no future projects planned for the eight-mile area from Beltway 8 down to Sienna Parkway along Fort Bend Parkway the authority controls, according to Stone. Stone said an environmental study is currently being conducted that would grant approval to extend the parkway two miles west down to Sienna Ranch Road and eventually cross the Brazos River, but the project is still in a preliminary phase.

“I expect we will get the permit- [the] Corps approval-on this one in about a year, but we don’t have a plan to go do that yet,” Stone said.

2. Day Pricing tactic still on the table to help alleviate Westpark traffic
Stone said despite the inquiries he’s received regarding expanding the Westpark Tollway beyond four lanes, there are no plans to expand it any wider.

“It’s going to be a four-lane facility,” Stone said. “It’s not because we don’t have room to expand it, we could, [but] Harris county has no room to expand it. They’d have to buy houses to expand it. There is nobody willing to buy a bunch of houses to add a lane.”

Stone said in an effort to tackle the high traffic volumes, the authority hopes to be able to implement Time of Day pricing that would set a fixed rate for specific periods throughout the day to discourage drivers from using the road at peak times.

“The idea is to spread people out, to get people to use it earlier and alter and avoid those high peak traffic periods,” Stone said.

Stone said Time of Day pricing was the authority’s original plan when the toll road was constructed years ago, but after receiving negative feedback from drivers Harris County pulled out of the agreement.

“The goal was to get people to not use the road so they [Harris County] got exactly the response they wanted but they just didn’t pull the trigger,” Stone said. “At some point, we are going to have to look at that again."

Stone said the Westpark extension project that extends past FM 1463 out to Cross Creek Ranch should be finished by Christmas this year. Once the extension reaches Fulshear, it will become a Texas Department of Transportation project and the target letting date for that portion of the project is set for July, according to Stone.

3. Trip building process will help tackle unnecessary toll plazas
Stone admitted the authority still had a lot of work to do in regards to improving the Grand Parkway as an evacuation route. He said parts of the Grand Parkway became impassable during Hurricane Harvey, but the authority doesn’t have the funds it needs to make any improvements yet.

“It’s not good if you have an evacuation route that goes underwater during a storm so there’s a couple of places–Peek Road may have to be on the list–on a wish list to improve our evacuation route.”

Aside from improving the evacuation route, Stone said the authority is working on implementing a trip building process that Stone said is a sensible solution to addressing the areas of toll road where unnecessary toll plazas have increased commuters’ bills.

 Having seven toll plazas is just crazy,” Stone said of a 12-mile stretch of the Grand Parkway that enforces seven tolls.

Stone said the trip building process would offer drivers a combined flat fee of $2.45. Stone said this solution is better for drivers who have to make the trip into town every morning, and it helps the authority save money on toll operating costs.

“Right now...we are paying 8 cents to collect 35 cents. We can pay 8 cents to collect $2.45 if we do trip building,” Stone said. “Trip building saves us a significant amount of money... plus it makes a little more sense to the customer because a trip is a trip instead of all these plazas.” 

Stone said the same trip building process will be implemented along Fort Bend Parkway for drivers coming from Sienna Parkway where four toll plazas currently operate within a small stretch of road.

“It’ll just be a single toll for the trip into work in the morning and a single trip home,” Stone said.

4. Violations fee notice process changed
The authority recently eliminated using third party attorneys to collect unpaid violation notices and has changed the fee notice process completely. Stone said drivers that pass through a toll without a tag will automatically have an account set up for them that will track the tolls they go through for a period of ten days and then a notice for a flat $2.50 fee is sent to them.

“Our cost is significantly lower to do that [because] we are sending out fewer notices.”

If a driver does not pay the notice within 30 days then a court case is filed and violators will have to pay up to about $260 in court fees.

“Right now, nobody has made it to the court process,” Stone said. “I think it’s going to work well. Our cost to do the collections right now, to do this violation notice stuff, is about 25 percent of anybody else in the state. This is a much smoother notice process.”

5. Authority nearing completion on Brazos River Bridge repairs
After an inquiry from Sugar Land City Council Member Amy Mitchell about the Jodie Stavinoha Bridge at the Grand Parkway and Brazos River, which is currently being threatened by the erosion of river, Stone said the authority is nearly finished stabilizing the northern bank of the bridge.

He said the rate of the erosion has posed a serious challenge for workers.

“It was pretty obvious we could not wait,” Stone said of the repairs. “We got started and even before Harvey happened, we were having to change…an incomplete design that we had started work on because the erosion was advancing faster than we would install something to stop it. [Then] Harvey came along and changed the design again.”

Stone said the project is nearing completion and hopes to be completely off the site by mid-March.

“It’s been a very dynamic project, but it’s been very, very difficult,” Stone said. “And that will solve the problem for a while.”

6. No future projects planned
While there are no new toll road projects planned for the near future, Stone said he expects to have to do street rehab projects on the existing toll roads in the coming years.

“I see some rehab work on the Fort Bend Parkway…it’s more life extension, pavement life extension type projects,” Stone said. "The Grand Parkway, I need about somewhere between $50 [million] to $80 million worth of rehab on that and Peek Road, but we don’t have funds to do that so I’m not sure how we are going to do that.”


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