Officials discussing Highway 36a are keen to remind people that the idea—a 107-mile corridor that would connect Freeport to Hwy. 6 north of Hempstead—is in the most preliminary of stages.

"It's not even a 'project' yet," said Raquelle Lewis, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation.

Conceptual designs for the highway, however, show it running through Katy's backyard—from Woods Road through Waller County to Hwy. 290 at James Muse Parkway. Advocates say it would provide a new evacuation route from coastal areas in the event of a hurricane and a path for freight traffic from Freeport to travel northward without having to go through Houston's core.

Despite the abundance of caution on the part of officials, the proposal has gained some traction in recent weeks. The Houston–Galveston Area Council and the Highway 36a Coalition committed $1 million for a feasibility study and are hoping to convince TxDOT to match that amount.

Meanwhile, formidable attention has been directed to the highway's potential path through a corner of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, a path that many say would undercut the restorative benefits and conservation efforts of the preserve. KPC and other environmental organizations are trying to make sure they have a strong guiding voice early in the project.

Vision and revision

The Waller County portion of the proposed highway corridor has been called the Prairie Parkway since about 1985, county engineer Orval Rhoads said. At that time, under his supervision, the road was first drawn on the county's thoroughfare plan. It has since been revised in 2007 and 2012. Rhoads said he thought the idea had died on the vine until it was revived three years ago as a link between Brazoria, Fort Bend and Waller counties.

A 2009 study of the Prairie Parkway focused on whether a highway from I-10 to Hwy. 290 could be developed as a toll road, said Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for H–GAC.

"The study was a pretty specific examination of that one idea," Clark said. "What we determined back then is that it would not be feasible."

At the time, the traffic level anticipated on the road would not support the cost of the project and Waller County was not in a position to pay for it. Since then, however, development within the county and also in places as far off as the Panama Canal—where because of an effort to deepen the canal additional shipping traffic will likely come to Gulf ports—will continue to channel more traffic down the limited farm-to-market roads. Funding options, including state, local and toll options, will be discussed further along in the process, Clark and other officials said.

H-GAC and the Highway 36a Coalition—a group made up of members of municipal and county governments, including the cities of Katy and Fulshear— have each committed $500,000 to fund a more comprehensive feasibility study that would consider aspects of the whole 107-mile corridor. The groups submitted their request to TxDOT for matching money and could hear a response as early as this summer, Clark said.

Early considerations

There are many variables not addressed by a feasibility study, said Richard Fields, chairman of the Highway 36a Coalition and principal of Sugar Land-based civil engineering firm Aguirre & Fields. The study does not mean the road will be built, he said.

"Feasibility just looks at some broad solutions to problems," Fields said. "It determines whether the idea merits further study."

If the concept is worthwhile, there are still multiple environmental and engineering studies to be done, in addition to the weighing of public input.

The latter, Fields said, is being treated differently from past projects of this scale, with additional efforts on the part of the organizations involved to open a dialogue with stakeholders earlier in the process.

"We saw what happened on the Grand Parkway; it was a painful process," Fields said. "All these things are painful processes anyway."

Federal law mandates that certain studies be carried out and specific standards maintained for such projects, but 36a organizers want to invite groups with environmental concerns to the table earlier.

"It is possible to do all the right things but ask interested parties too late in the process to really feel like they had an active part in it," Fields said. "You can also find out some issues that appear relatively minor but later find they are relatively major."

Katy Prairie Conservancy

One challenge already on the horizon is crossing land owned by the Katy Prairie Conservancy. The group, which maintains about 20,000 acres of prairie land in Waller and Harris counties, reacted quickly to ensure its voice was heard early in discussions.

"Our hope is that people are going to recognize more and more that the KPC is going to become a major anchor park and preserve for the whole region," KPC executive director Mary Anne Piacentini said.

The Prairie Parkway route on the Waller county thoroughfare plan would cut through the southwestern corner of one portion of the conservancy. KPC believes that the sensitive environment would be damaged by the highway's noise, air and light pollution. The loss of prairie land would also increase flooding in other areas, Piacentini said.

Additionally, splitting up the conservancy's land undermines the core mission of the project, which is to collect enough contiguous land to build a protective habitat for the more than 300 species that inhabit the area, Piacentini said. Biologists estimate that needs to be about 50,000 acres.

A group of about 50 supporters, in addition to Piacentini and several KPC board members, spoke in support the conservancy at a recent H-GAC meeting.

"Part of our concern is not just that the importance of the conservancy is acknowledged but that KPC and other environmental and conservation groups be involved in the study," Piacentini said.

Fields said he encourages the input.

"We're not saying that this would be a 'no impact' development, but we want to do things better than they've done in the past," he said.

Design features like noise reduction pavements, which can be used but are more expensive, should be considered for the benefit of the bird habitats, Fields said.

Piacentini said her group is proceeding with a positive but cautious attitude.

"I think people were very interested in hearing from a large constituency," she said. "Our real work is staying in the loop."