Commissioners unanimously approved the bond election at a Feb. 23 meeting following a proposal by the Montgomery County Road Bond Committee. On March 10, the commissioners unanimously approved the list of 77 roadway projects proposed for funding through the bond. One of the most contentious projects included in the bond package is a 6-mile, two-lane extension of Woodlands Parkway from FM 2978 to Hwy. 249 in Precinct 2.
"Folks around this county are tired of congestion, long commutes to and from home, and their families always being late because our roads are too crowded," said Nelda Blair, Montgomery County 2015 Road Bond Committee co-chairwoman and president of Woodlands-based The Blair Law Firm. "There is no question we need to do something about it."
With the passage of the bond, Precinct 1, which largely encompasses the cities of Montgomery, Willis and a significant portion of Conroe; and Precinct 2, which spans across Magnolia, Pinehurst and Stagecoach, would receive $80 million each. Precinct 4, which includes New Caney and Splendora, would be allocated $85 million, and the largest slice of the funding—$105 million—would be granted to Precinct 3, which contains the highest concentration of the county's total population in The Woodlands, Shenandoah, Oak Ridge North and the Rayford Road corridor.
If voters approve the bond, Precinct 2 will receive funding to carry out 24 roadway improvement projects in the Magnolia area.
"It's been too long since we've been able to do some major projects that we desperately need," Riley said. "I'm not trying to turn this [bond] into a Magnolia or Montgomery County versus The Woodlands [issue]."
The $350 million bond referendum will not result in a property tax increase for Montgomery County residents, Blair said. County officials would be able to finance the additional debt accrued through the bond with revenue earned from growth in the area's tax base over the next 10-plus years.
In 2011, the county's last road bond proposal for $200 million failed when 53 percent of residents voted in opposition. Under that proposal, each precinct was expected to receive $50 million for road improvements. The last time voters approved a road bond for the county was in 2005.
One of the main points of contention regarding the road bond among commissioners and Woodlands-area residents and leaders is the proposed extension of Woodlands Parkway from FM 2978 to Hwy. 249.
The Road Bond Committee located Texas Department of Transportation documents that indicate the proposed extension has been on the books since the early 1990s, Blair said.
Several Montgomery County groups and officials, including Sheriff Tommy Gage, Precinct 5 Constable David Hill, the Magnolia Parkway Chamber of Commerce and the Texas Conservative Tea Party Coalition have issued support for the bond.
"It's just hard for me to believe that there are those in The Woodlands [who] would be against and jeopardize a no-tax-increase road bond that would improve the infrastructure for the whole county," Gage said.
However, Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack, Woodlands Township Director Gordy Bunch and Chairman Bruce Tough have publicly stated concerns that the strong opposition to the extension among Woodlands residents could result in a majority of voters denying the bond.
"About 14,000 people voted in the last election for the bond that failed [in 2011], and roughly 6,000 of those voters resided within The Woodlands," Noack said. "I know there's a lot of people [who] say The Woodlands can't kill a bond. But with numbers like that, being leaders of the community, we need to think about things like that."
"If Montgomery County waits 10 years to start the process of building roads, we will find ourselves in a situation where the economic prosperity and quality of life we've enjoyed goes away." —State Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia
Another concern discussed at public meetings among Woodlands-area leaders and residents is the fear the extension will cause Woodlands Parkway to see an increase in traffic by about 42 percent, or 6,000 more vehicles per day, by the year 2018, according to a Brown & Gay Engineers study commissioned by Precinct 3 earlier this year. Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal said even with the additional cars, the roadway is expected to remain under 50 percent of capacity during the same timeframe.
The Road Bond Committee originally suggested an alternate package for $365 million, with $15 million included for the widening of Woodlands Parkway from Kuykendahl Road to FM 2978 from its existing four lanes to six lanes. However, the Commissioners Court voted Feb. 23 to approve the $350 million bond proposal without the widening project.
The Woodlands-based Texas Patriots political action committee has also expressed public sentiment against the bond due, in part, to a concern the extension will turn Woodlands Parkway into the next FM 1960, which is a thoroughfare in Harris County often referred to for its lack of zoning and aesthetic appeal.
"Just because you believe we have capacity doesn't mean we should open the road and potentially flood it and make it as congested as some of our other areas," Noack said. "The city of Houston for years has been fighting urban growth. [That same argument for the extension] could be said about [FM] 1960, and look at that area now."
Doyal said he thinks it is irresponsible for officials and residents to spread rhetoric around the community that the extension project is a "boogeyman that's going to destroy The Woodlands."
"You cannot make good decisions and you cannot be good government leaders based on your emotions—you have to have the facts," Doyal said. "The fact is Woodlands Parkway is based on the covenants and restrictions of The Woodlands, and that corridor is residentially designed. It will never become another [FM] 1960; it can't happen."
Another concern addressed by some local leaders and residents in public meetings is that the developers who own the land needed to construct the Woodlands Parkway extension should fund the project without additional money through the mobility bond. For about four years, Riley said the county has owned a large portion of the right of way from FM 2978 to Dobbin Hufsmith Road for the extension. County officials are in discussions with the two developers—who own an estimated 2,800 acres from Hwy. 249 east to the area near the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and about 300 acres from the BNSF to Dobbin Hufsmith Road—to determine whether they will contribute funds for the new roadway, he said.
In late February, Bunch initiated an online petition on change.org in opposition to the bond due to the inclusion of the proposed Woodlands Parkway extension project. The petition has garnered about 4,500 signatures as of press time. Bunch previously served on the Road Bond Committee but resigned following the Feb. 23 approval of the bond election.
"[If] this bond issue passes, we are two years away before we can do anything [on the Woodlands Parkway extension]," Riley said. "We've got to get [an] environmental [study] done, and we've got to get construction plans and design done. If we pass that road bond May 9, the [opposition thinks come] May 10, bulldozers are going to be sitting right there."
Heading to the polls
Doyal said he wants voters to head to the polls and make the best decision for the county as a whole.
"For us to pit neighbor against neighbor is troublesome," Doyal said. "I want us to be one community. I want us to be one voice. I think we need to move past this bond issue and get mobility back on track in Montgomery County."
State Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia, said the impending election is the perfect opportunity for taxpayers to decide whether the road bond projects are a priority for the county moving forward.
"If Montgomery County waits 10 years to start the process of building roads, we will find ourselves in a situation where the economic prosperity and quality of life we've enjoyed goes away," Bell said.
Additional reporting by Jesse Mendoza