Local Grand Parkway construction upcoming

Segments F1, F2 and G enter design phase

After decades of anticipation, Greater Houston Area residents will see three new segments of the city's third loop begin to materialize with construction expected to begin in summer 2013. The Texas Department of Transportation is finalizing its contract with developer Zachry-Odebrecht Parkway Builders, which has entered the design phase of Grand Parkway, or SH 99, Segments F1, F2 and G.

The three segments will span a total of 37 miles from Hwy. 290 to Hwy. 59 connecting residents and enhancing mobility in Harris and Montgomery counties. Construction is expected to be completed in 2015, along with ExxonMobil's campus in The Woodlands. Local officials expect commercial and residential growth to follow in Houston's northwest sector.

"Northwest Houston is a very dynamic area to start with," said David Gornet, executive director of the Grand Parkway Association. "From Cypress, Tomball, The Woodlands and Spring—it is growing all around. [The Grand Parkway] complements the growth in that area and will give people alternate access to get around town."

Project status

The Zachry-Odebrecht team concluded negotiations with TxDOT in late December. Now, the contract must receive approval from the Texas Attorney General's office, said builder spokeswoman Linda Merritt. Until the builders receive a Notice to Proceed, which will give a green light for construction, Merritt said, they will continue the design phase "at risk," and possibly begin minor construction projects.

"Because it is just a long process to get everything reviewed and evaluated, it may be as late as May until we have final approval, and can begin construction," she said. "Right now we are still finalizing the footprint and evaluating different elements on the segments to make sure we have the best plan."

The three segments cost $1 billion to build, and Gornet said as soon as the builder receives approval construction will begin on the segments' major interchanges: Hwy. 290, Hwy. 249, I-45 and Hwy. 59.

"And then very quickly they will move to the pieces in between," he said, "So all 38 miles will be under construction at the same time, and all will open in December 2015."

TxDOT and Zachry-Odebrecht are working based on a design-build strategy, which allows the developer to handle the layout and construction of the project as opposed to a traditional route where TxDOT does not procure contracts until design sketches are complete.

So far, only two of the Grand Parkway's 11 segments are open to traffic: Segment I2 in east Houston and Segment D in Katy. Construction on Segment E, between I-10 and Hwy. 290, began in 2011 and is expected to be complete in 2013.

"[The Grand Parkway] will spread the traffic...and not chew up major arteries," said William "Billy" Burge, president of the Grand Parkway Association. "It will allow traffic to flow from one sector to another without having to come all the way into Beltway 8."

TxDOT will pay for the Grand Parkway with $2.78 billion in toll revenue bonds that are expected to be issued by the Grand Parkway Transportation Corporation. Zachry-Odebrecht will then be reimbursed on a monthly basis.

"Basically, GPTC is going to sell bonds to pay for the design and construction of the project," Sanchez said. "On a monthly basis the developer will invoice TxDOT for work completed that month. TxDOT will evaluate the invoice and pay accordingly using the bond proceeds."

Exit strategy

The Grand Parkway is not designed with a parallel feeder, which places more importance on the placement of exits. TxDOT maintains a draft of approximate interchanges which will be finalized when Zachry-Odebrecht completes the design phase. According to the draft, two interchanges allow access to Springwoods Village, a 1,800-acre development south of The Woodlands.

Access will play an important role as ExxonMobil's 385-acre campus becomes fully operational, and thousands of individuals are traveling to and from North and Northwest Houston.

"The Grand Parkway moving forward is a major driver of Springwoods Village and other developments on its path," said Keith Simon, executive vice president of CDC Houston and director of development for Springwoods Village. "It is such an important mobility piece for east-to-west mobility in terms of traveling to or from Springwoods Village to areas like Kingwood and Katy—you can't deny how important that is going to be to move people in an efficient way."

Drivers will pass through toll plazas every four to seven miles. Fees vary depending on the plaza, but range from 41 cents on entrance and exit ramps on Segments F2 and G to $1.64—the highest fee—on Segment G at Hwy. 59.

However, the toll rates are subject to change and will be evaluated every October, according to the Texas Transportation Commission. The currently established rates will go into effect in October 2013 and will be re-evaluated in October 2014.

"The toll rates at each plaza were established using the Market Valuation Waiver Agreement approved [in December 2012] by the seven counties affected by the entire Grand Parkway Project," said Eddie Sanchez, TxDOT director of Houston Special Projects Office. "All entities that develop their portion of the Grand Parkway are required to follow the MVWA."

Local perspective

Exit locations largely affect community development, said Lamar Casparis with the Tomball Mobility Committee. More exits can increase access to an area, while fewer exits may constrict it, but some landowners may find that a positive if they are unwilling to sell parcels of their land.

"Transportation really is a ying and yang thing," Casparis said. "There are all kinds of opportunities and potential traps associated with those opportunities. I think the Grand Parkway Association has tried to do right by most people, but you're never going to make everybody happy and that's a frustrating place to be."

Tomball community leaders, including the Greater Tomball Area Chamber of Commerce, have been communicating with TxDOT on how to ensure the city does not get passed by, Casparis said, and their efforts seem successful. Projected exits include FM 2920 and a Boudreaux Road after it is expanded.

"We want to give travelers the opportunity to come to Tomball," he said. "Without access, Tomball could become a donut hole community people talk about where no one wants to develop inside the city, but will develop around it."

Magnolia Area Chamber of Commerce Chairman Barry Tate said the Grand Parkway will open many doors for the City of Magnolia and other communities in South Montgomery County, including making it easier for Houstonians to live farther from the city while maintaining a reasonable commute to work.

"It is going to be very positive for people with goods and services to get to commute quicker in and out of town," he said. "People who may not have considered living in Magnolia now can consider it because they can get to downtown and other areas of Houston quicker."