Editor's note: Coffee with Impact is a quarterly forum featuring leaders in various sectors who are making a difference in the Houston area and beyond.
David Gornet has been living and breathing the Grand Parkway for 30 years. He is the executive director for The Grand Parkway Association and has served in that capacity since 2001. Part of his role as executive director is to educate and inform the public about the benefits of the Grand Parkway. An engineer by trade, Gornet has done alignment studies for the Grand Parkway dating back to the 1980s. Before his work with the GPA, Gornet worked for 18 years for a consulting firm in Houston as director of transportation planning. In 1984, the Texas Department of Transportation authorized the creation of the Grand Parkway Association as a nonprofit state transportation corporation. Conceived by the city of Houston in 1962, the Grand Parkway will span more than 180 miles once it is completed.
The Grand Parkway was identified back in the 1960s. Why is now the best time to undertake the project?
The process has been different for several of the segments. The challenge as we move forward with other segments has been they want to use federal funds or at least qualify for federal funds. As of today, we are still not using any direct federal funds for it. But to be eligible to use federal funds you have to go through a federal environmental process that takes a significant amount of time for a new location road. The documentation process, all the public involvement, going through the federal reviews, adds up a lot of time to that and a lot of cost. That has been a challenge.
It also takes us 10 years to set an alignment. So, we could be working on a route and in the meantime a subdivision gets built in the middle of what was a nice, open piece of pasture, and we have to move somewhere else. Moving somewhere else has other impacts that we have to go through. But we have made it through all of that. We have got a route set. The growth has been coming such that the Grand Parkway is more of a reaction to the growth that has already occurred rather than a plan, a proactive plan that you are trying to accommodate future growth. The timing is there. Having the environmental approvals, having the growth that's occurred and the demand for new facilities—now is the time to get out there and do something.
The 185-mile loop will traverse seven counties when completed. What are the challenges of working on a project with multiple entities?
Going through seven counties has been challenging, but we have been blessed to have almost universal support from elected officials. Each county has their own ideas about what would be most beneficial for their county. You have to get the various officials in each county to understand the challenges and that you are doing something in their county that might have impacts elsewhere as well. You have got to get them all to understand that. Sometimes one county has to give a little because there would be offsetting impacts in another county.
What kind of noise abatements are being installed for residents near Grand Parkway, and what are the requirements for communities to receive these noise abatements?
We do noise modeling with all of our environmental documents. First, you have to have receptors—somebody's home, their business, a hospital or school that is already on the ground. Since most of the Grand Parkway is going through relatively open property, there are not necessarily receptors right next to the road.
As we go from Hwy. 290 farther north in the Fairfield area, they have a subdivision that comes right up next to the road. Homes and lots are 50 feet from the frontage road. Where necessary, we are proposing noise walls where they are appropriate and will do some good. Fairfield, parts of Gleannloch Farms, Forest North over in Northgate Crossing going into The Woodlands and Spring area—there are quite a few subdivisions that are all slated to get noise walls.
How will the Grand Parkway help with connecting residents in southwest Houston to existing and incoming job centers throughout the Houston area?
Any regional facility with improvements to any roads gives everybody more opportunity. It's going to allow everyone in the corridor to have more opportunity and more flexibility in where you may choose to live. It gives people more mobility. You can get around quicker. You can get more quickly from Sugar Land up to Cypress or Spring area because of the Grand Parkway. Businesses also benefit. Mobility should be a good thing for all of us from where we choose to live, where we choose to work or where we decide to market our services.
What kind of economic impact can residents near Grand Parkway's path anticipate in the years following the highway's completion?
I am sure that if I had a house [where] somebody had been there for years and all of a sudden you are building a highway in my backyard, I would think that those specific homes are going to have probably an adverse impact to them—from either a noise, a visual perspective or just a perception that this house has gone down in value. I regret any area where we are having to do that.
As an area though, certainly Segment D has been a huge benefit for Fort Bend County and western Harris County. It has opened up that area. It's been very positive for that area. I would expect that areas from Katy to Cypress on over to Tomball to Spring into Montgomery County are going to see very similar patterns of growth in those corridors.