Segment E growth to mirror that of Segment D, officials say
By the end of 2013, a new toll road connecting I-10 in Katy to Hwy. 290 in Cypress is slated to open in far northwestern Harris County. Decades in the making, Segment E of the Grand Parkway is a 15.2-mile portion of Houston's planned third outer loop that will span 185 miles when complete.
"This project is so important for our community," said Ann Hodge, president of the Katy Area Chamber of Commerce. "I think 10 or 20 years from now people will say, 'How did we get by without having the Grand Parkway for all those years?'"
The completion of the four-lane Segment E will mean more mobility choices for individuals who live in the Katy area, said David Gornet, executive director of the Grand Parkway Association.
"Those who want to make circumferential moves as the Grand Parkway is expanded around will have that alternative," he said. "It also improves access if you're using I-10, because there could be fewer people diverted off I-10 onto the Grand Parkway."
There will be 10 intersections along the toll road from which drivers can exit and enter the freeway, aside from I-10 and Hwy. 290. Franz, Morton, Clay and FM 529 are the only existing roadways that will connect with Segment E.
"This particular infrastructure project will really help Katy improve mobility, because it's hard to get to [Hwy.] 290 the way it is now," said Lance LaCour, president and CEO of the Katy Area Economic Development Council.
Although Segment D—which connects Hwy. 59 to I-10—is not a toll road, drivers will have to use an EZ Tag, TxTAG or North Texas Tollway Authority TollTag to access Segment E, since there will not be a continuous frontage road along the freeway. Tolls will be an average of $1.40 at the main lane plazas, which is the same rate as all other Harris County Toll Road Authority fees.
"If you were to ride around the toll portion of Beltway 8 and calculate up how much you pay for the number of miles you drive, the toll rate will be the same," Gornet said. "It might cost you closer to $2.25 [on the Grand Parkway], but it's the same rate."
Two sets of flyovers similar to the one that opened in late 2011 at I-10 and Segment D will connect I-10 and Hwy. 290 to the Grand Parkway. They will serve as the direct connectors to both highways, which will relieve traffic on the feeder roads.
"The [flyover] going south of I-10 is backed up every evening—that's how much they're being used," Hodge said. "Naturally, we are looking forward to the two new flyovers being done. It saves so much time and helps with the surface roads."
Due to some environmental and financial hurdles, construction began on Segment E in September 2011, more than 40 years after the Grand Parkway first appeared on transportation planning maps.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was required to obtain a wetland permit to build the road, since the Segment E corridor runs through the Katy Prairie, a historic wetland and grassland area that spans 1,000 miles in Southeast Texas. Although the permit was granted in 2011, two lawsuits have been filed in response to environmental concerns in an attempt to stop the project.
On Aug. 27, Federal Judge Keith Ellison ordered that the Army Corp of Engineers would need to re-evaluate how Segment E will affect the Addicks Reservoir. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed a year ago by the Sierra Club—a national environmental organization—over flooding concerns. The reservoir was built in the 1940s when there was little development in northwest Harris County, and the addition of new development spurred by the Grand Parkway could cause more flooding problems, according to Ellison's ruling.
"If there is no change in the concept of drainage control for new development, there will be an increased risk of a relatively dangerous situation becoming worse," said Jim Blackburn, the environmental lawyer representing the Sierra Club. "With the [Grand] Parkway going in it potentially opens up that land area; it's the impact of land development associated with the Grand Parkway that is of importance."
When Segment D of the Grand Parkway opened in 1994, it brought improved mobility and economic growth to Katy and northern Fort Bend County, which fostered the growth of master-planned communities such as Cinco Ranch, Grand Lakes and Seven Meadows. The same scenario is projected along the Segment E corridor, which remains primarily undeveloped.
"What the existence of [Segment D] has done for the community south of I-10 versus north tells the whole story of what the completion of the Grand Parkway north of I-10 can mean for the entire area," said Roger Hord, president of the West Houston Association. "It shows quite clearly that south of I-10 is where 85 percent of the growth in the Katy area has occurred, and that's because of transportation access."
The amount of taxable value, or the value on which property taxes are calculated, increased significantly in several Fort Bend County districts around Segment D from 1994 to 2011. Taxable value in the Grand Lakes Water Control Improvement District, Seven Meadows MUDs 34 and 35 and the Willow Fork Drainage District was a little more than $5 billion combined in 2011, compared to less than $1 billion when Segment D opened in 1994, according to the Grand Parkway Association.
"I think it's that you don't know what you're missing until you have it," Hodge said. "We saw an enormous boom with all the development on both sides of the Grand Parkway south of I-10. What I look at also is the growth that has taken place around Beltway 8—if you watch how that developed as [the toll road] was completed, I think you'll see the same type of growth out here."
While no company has announced plans to open in the undeveloped area around Segment E, commercial real estate company NewQuest represents some local investors who own several tracts of land along the corridor between Morton and Clay roads. Four of the 25- to 40-acre corners will likely serve as traditional retail uses and house businesses such as drug stores, fuel stations or grocery-anchored developments, said Jeff Hayes, vice president of NewQuest. On the west side of the Grand Parkway between Clay and Morton roads, there is a 175-acre tract of land that could potentially house an industrial office warehouse, Hayes said.
"There's quite a bit of land available from I-10 going all the way to 290," LaCour said. "We're already seeing interest in sites in that area of Katy. We see a lot of opportunity there."