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Grand Parkway news

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Sierra Club lawsuit to stop construction of the proposed SH99 toll road over the Katy Prairie will see its day in court by September,according to KUHF.

The Sierra Club filed suit against “the Federal Highway Administration due to the failure of that federal agency to do an adequate assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E in western Harris County,” according to the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Texas Department of Transportation, however, is moving forward with proposed SH99 toll road across the Katy Prairie, having received 23 letters of interest in a public private partnership to build the toll road, according to Project Finance.

I had noted that RFI last week. The Chron provides more details:

A list of the companies that responded is posted on the department’s Web site at www.gpprocurement.com. Their submissions, which were due July 6, have not been made public.

The list includes San Antonio-based Zachry Construction, which was also part of the Trans-Texas Corridor consortium; Balfour Beatty Capital, a U.S.-based arm of an English company; and China Construction America, a subsidiary of China State Construction Engineering Corp.

[…]

Robin Holzer, Citizens Transportation Coalition volunteer board chairwoman, said the coalition has no opinion about the firms on the list but is concerned about the details that end up in eventual contracts.

“It matters whether the state expects one of these companies to accept all of the project risk rather than pledging the full faith and credit of Texas taxpayers to back the project,” Holzer said. “At the end of the day, building a brand new toll road through undeveloped land is inherently speculative.”

Yes, I have a feeling that the public is going to be a substantial part of that public-private partnership. As for that lawsuit, it was filed in March of 2009. I don’t find any mention of it in my archives, so it escaped my notice at the time. You can see the Sierra Club’s complaint here. We’ll see how it goes.

The 290 FEIS

The prep work for the expansion/overhaul of US290 is entering its final stages.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the proposed transportation improvements on the US 290/Hempstead Corridor is now available for review. The proposed US 290 Program Corridor begins at the IH 610/US 290/IH 10 Interchange in Houston, TX and extends northwestward to Farm-to-Market (FM) 2920 near Waller, TX for a distance of approximately 38 miles. The proposed enhancements include roadway improvements along a portion of US 290, construction of the new Hempstead Tollway and associated connections to IH 610 and IH 10 in Harris County.

All relevant documents are at that link. One reason why these things are made publicly available is so that all stakeholders can review them and offer feedback. The CTC has given the environmental impact statement a thorough going-over, and you can read their feedback here (large PDF). They pointed out a number of issues, not the least of which has to do with the proposed Hempstead Managed Lanes.

At face value, this project includes both expansion of the US-290 main lanes and also construction of new managed lanes along Hempstead Highway. Any reader of this FEIS is likely to assume that both 290 and Hempstead project elements will move forward in a coordinated fashion. In fact, TxDOT has repeatedly told the public that the Hempstead Managed Lanes will be constructed before US-290 construction begins, to give people travel options and minimize disruption during construction.

However, TxDOT only controls the US-290 portion of the project. In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed SB 792, which specifically grants development rights for the Hempstead Managed Lanes to the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA). TxDOT has neither the authority nor the funding to develop this project.

This FEIS does not adequately reflect the separation of these two projects, nor does it address what happens if the County elects not to construct the Hempstead Managed Lanes. We urge FHWA to require TxDOT to prepare a supplemental FEIS which fully considers these impacts.

That’s quite a large assumption for this $4.6 billion project that involves taking a lot of property that hasn’t been addressed. One wonders where all those self-appointed Metro watchdogs are and why they’re not raising more of a fuss about that. Anyway, see what the CTC has to say, and we’ll see what if any response there is from the FHWA, which as we know is a lot easier to get money out of than the FTA.

Katy Freeway managed lanes set to open

Christof notices a banner ad on chron.com for the Katy Freeway managed lanes, which are set to open on Monday, April 18, and gives us an update on them.

The lanes will now be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Outside of rush hours, they’re a toll road: every car, regardless of how many people are in it, pays $1.10 to go the full length of the lanes. During rush hour, in the rush hour direction, single occupant cars pay between $2.00 and $4.00 and 2+ carpools are free. Those rates will need to be adjusted if the lanes are too popular, because HCTRA (who operates the lanes) has promised METRO (who gave up the HOV lane to make room for them) that buses will keep moving at full speed. Single occupant vehicles and carpools will be sorted out by a three-lane toll plaza: left lane for carpools, right two lanes for SOVs.

I guess they’ll have some sort of video surveillance to ensure that single occupancy vehicles are not trying to sneak through the non-toll lane. I predict that some time in the next year or so, we’ll see a story reported on how whatever system they have for monitoring this still has a few bugs in the system. The only question is whether they err on the side of caution or aggression.

Other potential problems:

Across the country, people have shown a distaste for tolls when a free option is available. Toll roads like Beltway 8 that don’t duplicate a freeway do well. Toll roads like the Hardy that do tend not to fill up. And Houston’s first managed lanes are in a corridor that just had a lot of free capacity added.

We may also begin to see problem with the lanes themselves. Nearly all the on- and off-ramps are from the regular lanes. If those lanes get congested, getting to the uncongested managed lanes will be hard for both carpools and buses. Some more direct ramps like those at Addicks and NWTC would have helped.

I think even if the free lanes don’t get too congested, having more vehicles cutting all the way across the highway to get on and off is going to increase the number of accidents. But maybe not so much if the free lanes stay relatively free-flowing. I wonder if anyone will do a study of this.

In other news, I recently realized that Bloglines has stopped noticing new updates from Intermodality’s RSS feed, so over these past few weeks as I’ve been wondering if Christof has been off the grid, it turned out that the problem was on my end. So, while I ponder the logistics of switching to Google reader – this is not the first time Bloglines has done this to me, and there are a couple of other feeds that are currently lost as well, I just noticed their loss sooner because they update more frequently – here are a couple of posts that I might have commented on:

Houston rail transit in an alternate universe. Maybe we are better off not having approved earlier rail referenda.

Why the feds like pavement and not rails. Don’t even get me started on this.

The transportation stimulus comes home. A look at where federal transportation stimulus money will be going around here. Some of it will even be spent on non-boondoggle toll roads.

The map – now with officially approved colors. An update to the Metro 2012 Solutions map, with station locations and other useful information.