“The purpose of the project is to reduce crashes, to improve mobility and to provide for safer pedestrian accommodations,” Texas Department of Transportation representative Catherine McCreight said at a March 31 town hall meeting on the project.
The city has two options for TxDOT’s plans for FM 2920 from North Willow Street to Business 249—full reconstruction or rehabilitation—both of which include raised medians, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported.
According to TxDOT, the proposal includes sidewalks and a turn lane the length of the project as well as raised medians near Business 249, at the Oak Street intersection and from Walnut to Elm streets. It would also include improved drainage, new light poles and traffic signals, synchronized red lights and closing the right yield from Business 249 to FM 2920.
The estimated cost for the project is $28.61 million, according to a Feb. 21 update from Tomball Community Development Director Nathan Dietrich to City Council. Emily Black, TxDOT Houston District public information officer, said the project is funded 80% by federal funds and 20% by TxDOT. Tomball Mayor Gretchen Fagan said the city set aside $3 million for design.
Despite officials citing the need for the project, it received overwhelming opposition from residents and business owners at the March 31 town hall and an April 4 City Council meeting. TxDOT and city officials are now considering alternatives to the proposed plans.
“TxDOT owns up to the fronts of our buildings; they could literally come through Tomball and plow all this stuff up and down town and do whatever the heck they want to do. We have a golden opportunity to take our diamond that we have in the rough and polish the facets on it and make it shine,” Council Member Derek Townsend Sr. said.
The project proposal originated after the Houston-Galveston Area Council completed two studies: an access management study from 2007-08 and a Livable Centers Study in 2009, according to Bruce Hillegeist, Greater Tomball Area Chamber of Commerce president.
Hillegeist said both studies included public meetings for residents to give feedback, and in 2015, the City Council unanimously approved applying for a grant for the project.
Kelly Violette, executive director of the Tomball Economic Development Corp. and city planner at the time of the Livable Centers Study, said she believes the need for the project has not changed because of Tomball’s continued growth. Police Chief Jeffrey Bert said the city is experiencing “unprecedented growth” with 2,200 single-family homes being built in the next three to five years and a population estimate of 18,000 by 2027.
Tomball’s population grew from 11,186 to 11,689 from 2015-20, according to five-year American Community Survey estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We’re looking at a population growth of nearly 50% in the next three to five years, so that will impact traffic and traffic safety,” Bert said.
Anticipating growth, the H-GAC completed the Livable Centers Study so the city could focus on making Tomball—and specifically downtown—safe for pedestrians and cyclists while reducing the need for single-occupant vehicles, Hillegeist said.
However, Council Member Lori Klein Quinn said in an interview traffic has declined since the Grand Parkway opened through Tomball in 2016, and she believes TxDOT’s recommendations are based on outdated traffic data.
TxDOT data shows annual average daily traffic on FM 2920 at Business 249, at Oak Street, and between Walnut and Elm streets was around 20,000 vehicles in 2009. Daily traffic continued to climb until it peaked in 2015 at around 28,000 vehicles. Since 2016, the annual average daily traffic has decreased. For example, there were 19,722 average daily vehicles in 2020 at FM 2920 and Oak Street.
“The Grand Parkway took a tremendous amount of traffic off our roads,” Klein Quinn said.
TxDOT Public Information Officer Danny Perez said in an email TxDOT plans to use more recent data to analyze crashes—before and after the Grand Parkway opened—and continue to refine the scope of work to find mobility solutions.
Locally, Bert said the police department responds to about two traffic collisions a month between Oak and Elm streets. From 2012-21, there were been 97 crashes between Oak and Elm streets, according to TxDOT crash data. There were 526 crashes over the same time period between Willow Street and Business 249.
“[Drivers] won’t be able to cross lanes of traffic,” Bert said of the planned project. “I think, in the short and long term, ... it’ll be a safer place for not only vehicular traffic, but pedestrian and bicycle traffic.”
Residential, business opposition
As a short-term fix to Main Street, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported TxDOT removed on-street parking in 2016 to add a center turn lane in Old Town. A crosswalk on FM 2920 near Elm Street was also eliminated at the time due to safety concerns.
Bert said the proposed raised medians would accomplish three goals: preventing drunk drivers from swerving into oncoming traffic, preventing left turns in which drivers misjudge the speed of oncoming traffic and providing better visibility.
During a March 31 town hall where TxDOT presented the proposed project, about 150-200 residents and business owners voiced concerns. The majority were opposed to raised medians, Fagan said, although she believes most support the overall project. Residents similarly spoke out at the April 4 City Council meeting.
“I love progress,” Kids Anthem owner Sharon Wilson said. “I’m very excited to see Tomball grow, but I’m not in love with the idea of medians.”
Scott Moore Jr., owner of Tejas Chocolate and Barbecue and Tejas Burger Joint, said he does not see the value in the raised medians and believes it will make moving around Tomball more difficult.
Meanwhile, Michael Pierce, owner of Cloud Chief and Co. and Terrarium, said he is on Main Street seven days a week and never sees crashes. But he supports the project because it will beautify downtown, and the raised medians will give people a place to stand while crossing.
“I see both sides of it, but being a business owner right on Main Street, ... it’s a little worrisome,” Covey Apparel owner Jaime Groff said. “Obviously I don’t want something that is going to shut my doors down, but surely, being all small business has been through, TxDOT would take that into consideration.”
Klein Quinn said she believes the only raised median needed is at FM 2920 and Business 249. Tomball Police Department data shows 195 crashes have occurred there from 2012 to 2022 as of March 16, double the rate of crashes in downtown Tomball.
“It’s difficult to safely cross there at much of the day,” Bert said.
At the April 4 council meeting, council members gave City Manager David Esquivel the authority to develop new alternative plans to present to TxDOT. But there is no guarantee TxDOT will approve plans without raised medians.
Esquivel said at the April 4 meeting he will have Kyle Bertrand, an engineer for Gunda Corp. who is working with the city on the project, create different designs and take the designs to TxDOT to approve. When a plan is approved, the city and TxDOT will modify the funding agreements, and the project will then be brought to council for a vote.
On April 4, Bertrand said TxDOT will not start this project until 2024 at the earliest. Once construction starts, it will be 24-36 months before it is complete.
“Construction projects like that are really hard on retail establishments,” Moore said.
Maegan Kirby contributed to this report.