Grand Parkway opponents in Spring had a chance to meet with some Harris County Toll Road Authority officials last week -- for the first time. The meeting was prompted by residents receiving survey notices from a HCTRA-contracted company:
For the first time since announcing their opposition four years ago, members of a coalition opposed to the Grand Parkway running through Spring met with transportation officials to resolve issues on the proposed highway projects.
United to Save Our Spring coalition member Connie O'Donnell said the coalition pushed for this meeting because several residents who live in the study area were sent letters last week from a Harris County Toll Road Authority consultant seeking access to their properties for a right-of-way study.
"It was time to get all of the issues on the table with all of the people involved in the project," O'Donnell said.
Remember, HCTRA officials LOVE to tell local media that HCTRA invites public input:
The Toll Road Authority said even though it doesn't have open forums, it has never gone against public outcry to build a project.
Eckels goes on to say the public has a chance to give input on these toll roads at the county commissioners' meeting every two weeks.
Jonnie Bryant, public information officer for the Harris County Toll Road Authority, said that while the toll road authority is not required to hold public hearings, it invites public comment.
"We always welcome comments," Bryant said. "We have an open-door policy, and individuals or groups can meet with our director, Mike Strech."
But this was the first time Spring residents and others interested in the Grand Parkway had been able to meet with HCTRA officials, and according to a first hand account, Art Storey and Mike Strech of HCTRA weren't thrilled at having the meeting. AND state Sen. Jon Lindsay has never met with Grand Parkway opponents, even though they are his constituents.
More of the Chronicle's story is in the extended entry. I get the feeling that HCTRA is a bit defensive and is attempting to keep the focus on TxDOT -- by continuing to say that the project remains in the hands of TxDOT and that no decisions have been made. Of course, opponents aren't buying that. Why else would HCTRA be spending $5.6 million to study the Grand Parkway if it didn't have a good idea that it wants to build the segment through Spring?
State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Houston, has supported the SOS group's efforts
"Is it true that the Harris County Toll Road Authority can do what they want, when they want and where they want without having public meetings and doing environmental studies?" said Riddle. "We are here to build a foundation of trust, but I feel we are starting out with a cracked foundation if we don't have the truth."
Coalition members said they wanted to know which agency controlled the project, and, if opportunities for public input into the study process would be ruled out if the Harris County Toll Road Authority took control of the project.
Also, they asked about the fate of TxDOT's long-awaited draft environmental study.
Art Storey, executive director of Harris County's Public Infrastructure Department, and Gabe Johnson, TxDOT director of transportation planning and development, said throughout the meeting that the Grand Parkway was a TxDOT project.
Storey said the toll road authority was studying the feasibility of a partnership in the project, but that was the extent of the agency's participation at this time.
In February, Harris County Commissioners Court authorized $5.6 million to pay three engineering firms to design one-third of the Grand Parkway as a toll road. The four segments the Harris County Toll Road Authority could build run from Interstate 10 to U.S. 59, including the 12-mile Spring segment.
"The myth is that there is a preemptive strike under way, and we are going to build the road by gosh, by golly, where we want to," Storey said. "A sneak attack is the furthest thing from what we are doing. We have the capability to be a financial partner and an implementing agency, but TxDOT can build the road if we do not participate."
Storey said he doubted Harris County would move forward with a project through Spring if the entire project was canceled.
"We are conducting the study to see if we can afford it and where it could go. Harris County Commissioners Court needs that information in order to make their decision," Storey said.
Johnson said TxDOT has given the toll road authority first right of refusal to participate, and if they choose not to, there are other methods of constructing the road. He said as long as the Grand Parkway is labeled a state highway project, and it is, there will be a public involvement process.
That includes the draft environmental study, Johnson said. TxDOT will hold public hearings on that revised study in early 2006, and the results would be forwarded to the toll road authority for review and possible use in their study process.
The Texas Department of Transportation/Grand Parkway Association and the Harris County Toll Road Authority are conducting two separate studies on the the 12-mile "F-2" Grand Parkway segment that could run through Spring.
Jim Blackburn, the coalition's attorney, said coalition members were concerned the toll road authority's focused study on only a route through Spring could influence TxDOT's study of several routes through the affected area.
"This flies in the face of evaluating all alternatives, including routes to the north of Spring," Blackburn said. "What do we do to make sure the TxDOT study isn't biased?"
Blackburn asked what could happen if TxDOT decided not to move forward with the project.
"If TxDOT pulls out, there is nothing stopping the toll road authority from stepping in," Blackburn said. "We'd like to get an agreement that says if TxDOT stops, the toll road authority will stop, also."
Storey said an agreement was possible, but he did not have the authority to carry it out.
Though invited, there were no representatives from the Grand Parkway Association, a nonprofit state transportation corporation formed in 1984 to facilitate studies and construction on the 182-mile Grand Parkway loop around Houston.
"We are part of TxDOT and they said they would be attending the meeting," said Robin Sterry, assistant executive director of the Grand Parkway Association. "A lot of of the issues presented involved TxDOT policy questions, which we cannot answer. We are here to work on the supplemental draft environmental study, which we continue to do."
United to Save Our Spring coalition member Tom McCurdy asked if there would come a time that transportation officials would agree it is too late to build through Spring.
"At what point do you stop asking which way to move the road and start looking at how many subdivisions, homes and businesses you will have to snake, weave, dodge and run over to build it?" he said. "At what point do you decide there is no longer a realistic alternative?"