Nearly a year and a half after the opening of the Tomball Tollway—a tolled 6-mile stretch of Hwy. 249 in Tomball—the Texas Department of Transportation and county officials are looking to take the next steps that will extend the roadway through Magnolia to Navasota.
After a brief planned postponement of portions of the project, all three phases are back on track to be completed by late 2018 or early 2019, officials said. While design work wraps up on the three phases, officials and developers are looking ahead to plan for what the area will look like once Hwy. 249 is complete.
Magnolia Economic Development Coordinator Tana Ross said the project’s timing is key as the city works to attract businesses to the area.
“Transportation is a huge foundation for the community and when you do [projects like this], you have a timeline,” Ross said. “It does play a key role because those developers—whether they be a residential developer [or] a commercial developer—they want to know [if] the roads [are] going to bring a population in so they have more people to serve.”
Split into four phases, the Hwy. 249 extension will provide a new route to Hwy. 105 in Grimes County. The $152 million Phase 1 was completed in April 2015 and stretches for six miles from Northpointe Boulevard to FM 2920 in Tomball. Since opening, the six-lane toll road has brought in an average of $1.5 million per month in toll fees, according to the Harris County Toll Road Authority.
The next phases of the Hwy. 249 extension are expected reach Magnolia and Navasota by 2019, connecting the areas to many Houston amenities, such as the Texas Medical Center and the Port of Houston.[/caption]
Phase 2 will be funded by HCTRA and will extend the existing tollway from FM 2920 to the county line at Spring Creek. The Montgomery County Toll Road Authority will take over for Phase 3, which will replace the current stretch of Hwy. 249 from Spring Creek to FM 149 with tolled lanes and frontage roads. The final phase—Phase 4—will be funded by TxDOT and will build a new four-lane road with two-lane, one-way frontage roads to the right of FM 1774. Phase 4 will begin near FM 149 in Pinehurst and end at Hwy. 105 in Navasota.
The nearly 30-mile stretch of road is expected to cost a total of $777 million according to plans from engineering firms Halff Associates and Binkley & Barfield, Inc. Phases 2, 3 and 4 will be tolled on mainlanes, entrances and exits.
Magnolia City Administrator Paul Mendes said the extension of Hwy. 249 through Magnolia will help to alleviate traffic along FM 1774 in the city, which often becomes congested in the mornings and afternoons. The project will also open the area up by providing an alternate route to FM 1774, he said.
“With [the extension,] it’ll give you a high-speed approach into the city area, and it will relieve the traffic and give [drivers] access to [the area],” Mendes said. “There are so many large parcels of land out here that are prime for development, but no one wants to develop them because of the chokehold the roads have on us. [Before] they recently widened the lanes on [FM] 1774, it was like a parking lot when everyone was going to work.”
All three phases of the project were originally slated to be complete by early 2019. However, Mendes said the highway hit a roadblock when TxDOT announced a postponement on Phase 4.
“The engineers had told us that they were going to build as planned and everything is on schedule up to [FM]1488,” Mendes said. “And then they were going to start again from [FM] 1488 to Todd Mission in 2021 or 2022, which would leave a gap. By doing this, it would leave all the traffic coming up on [Hwy.] 249 right now on [FM] 1488, and that’s not good when it is so crowded now.”
In an attempt to get the project back on track, Magnolia city officials reached out for support, Mendes said. Members of the Greater Magnolia Chamber of Commerce; the Greater Tomball Area Chamber of Commerce; and state Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia; attended a TxDOT Texas Transportation Committee meeting in Austin on June 30 to advocate for the earlier timeline.
Bell said the timing of the Hwy. 249 project is important not only for the development and growth coming from Harris County but from Montgomery County as well.
“It’s an enormously phenomenal time for growth in Montgomery County and all across Texas—there is no place that is exempt from it,” Bell said. “I think there are some interesting issues with regards to timing. We have the flyover at [FM] 149 that’s going to open shortly … and with that, we’re going to introduce a bunch more traffic onto [FM] 1488 that [Hwy.] 249 will help to alleviate.”
The county has added an additional 59,000 residents since 2010 and is the seventh fastest-growing county in the U.S., according to census data. Magnolia is also expected to see a 2 percent increase in population this year, Ross said.
Bell said while increased mobility in heavily populated areas is important, major roadways are ultimately inefficient unless they have direct connectors between them to reduce traffic on smaller roadways.
“It’s great to deal with our congestion in our metropolitan [area], but if we drive out that congestion on to roads that are not able to deal with the traffic, we still leave ourselves with a conflict,” he said.
Mendes said because of the local and state support shown at the committee hearing, the project is back to its original schedule. All three phases are expected to be complete by the fourth quarter of 2018 or the first quarter of 2019.
“[HCTRA is] working on the Harris County portion right now next to Spring Creek,” Mendes said. “In the next couple of months, [MCTRA is] supposed to start on the Montgomery County portion, which will go up from Spring Creek to [FM] 149 and go around Pinehurst and on up through Magnolia to Todd Mission. And that’s supposed to be completed in early 2019.”
Ross said the restoration of the timeline will allow the city to focus on educating developers and residents on the city’s zoning and development processes, while preparing for the growth that is expected in the area in the coming years.
“Since we know what [the] timeline on those roadways are, we’re looking at those demographics to find what those families want,” she said. “Young families value entertainment as highly as they value transportation. We’re going after it, but [the timeline] is driven by the roadways.”
Intersections along major roadways in the city limits will play an important role for development, Ross said. Developers often choose properties near major intersections for higher visibility, and Magnolia is poised to have two large intersections by 2019: the new intersection of FM 1488 and Hwy. 249 and the new overpass at FM 1488 and FM 149, which is expected to be complete next summer.
Property at FM 1488 and FM 149 has already been purchased by Austin-based Stratus Properties Inc. to create the future Magnolia Commons, a 142-acre mixed-use development featuring a proposed movie theater, home improvement store, Texas-based grocer H-E-B, additional retail sites and townhomes.
Stratus Development Partner Jon Andrus previously said construction on the project is expected to begin in 2017 or 2018.
Officials plan to attract a mix of industries, ranging from professional office buildings to upstream oil and gas to medical technology. Ross said Magnolia is also looking to bring in more entertainment options and tourism destinations. She said national chains, like Wal-Mart have expressed interest in the area.
However, many of the plans are still contingent on the roadways and likely will not begin to take shape until the transportation projects are complete.
“We’re not going to have a movie theater here by Christmas—and we’re probably not going to have one here by next summer—because these roadways and their completion are driving what happens as they do everywhere,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time, and that timeline is growing shorter every day as we see developers walk through the door.”