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Grand Parkway eases congestion in Tomball
 
A year after segments F-1, F-2 and G opened to traffic in early 2016, officials said the Grand Parkway has noticeably reduced through traffic in the Greater Tomball area.
 
“In terms of congestion relief, [the Grand Parkway] has accomplished exactly what everyone hoped that it would,” said Marlissa Briggs, executive director of the North Houston Association.
 
The new tollway segments have also brought in significantly more toll revenue to the state. The Grand Parkway received $53.4 million more in toll revenue during fiscal year 2015-16 than the previous fiscal year—largely due to the opening of segments F-1, F-2 and G—according to an annual report from the Grand Parkway Transportation Corporation, a corporation within the Texas Department of Transportation.
 
 
By the end of FY 2015-16, drivers had paid $83.9 million in tolls across the length of the Grand Parkway.
 
Due to the number of cars traveling on the Grand Parkway, local officials agree the Grand Parkway has not only improved existing mobility but will shape future road projects surrounding it. In addition to Harris County Precinct 4 road projects scheduled for construction, direct connectors at Hwy. 249 are also on the horizon, officials said.
 

Improved mobility

While some local residents questioned the need for the Grand Parkway, traffic on the toll road’s segments has increased since opening in the first quarter of 2016, said Bruce Hillegeist, president of the Greater Tomball Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Just from six or eight months ago to now, there’s a dramatic increase in traffic [on the Grand Parkway],” Hillegeist said. “People are finding their way. It takes a while to adjust the travel routes for work [and] for shopping.”

TxDOT has not yet released 2016 traffic counts for intersections near the Grand Parkway, such as Hwy. 249 at FM 2920. However, local officials said traffic has noticeably decreased at major intersections in Tomball since segments F-1, F-2 and G opened.

Mark Seegers, communications director for Harris County Precinct 4, said the Grand Parkway segments have eased the existing traffic in the Greater Tomball area, specifically heavily trafficked east-west corridors.

“[The Grand Parkway is] a true game-changer in terms of how quickly people can get places,” Seegers said.

Seegers said travel times have decreased heading eastward from Hwy. 249 toward I-45 since the Grand Parkway opened, shedding 10-15 minutes off of a previously 30-45-minute trip.

“For the people that are heading to the major corridors, it gives them options that [do not] slow everybody else down,” he said.

Grand Parkway drivers can get from Tomball to Hwy. 290 in about half the time the drive took on FM 2920, said Darrin Willer, chairman of the board of directors for the NHA. As drivers taking longer trips begin using the Grand Parkway, local traffic on FM 2920 sees the benefit, he said.

“I have noticed a marked decrease in the waiting at the [traffic] signals [on FM 2920] because the traffic has shifted over to the Grand Parkway for folks that are doing the through movements, which is exactly what [the Grand Parkway] was intended to do,” Willer said.

Hillegeist said mobility at the intersection of Hwy. 249 and FM 2920 has greatly improved as well despite the Grand Parkway’s placement outside city limits.

“[The Grand Parkway has] really been an asset and [is] greatly valued by the residents and those visiting our area, because it’s seen as such a convenience in today’s mobility infrastructure,” Hillegeist said.

Indirect effects

In addition to improving mobility, the Grand Parkway has helped improve connectivity between residents and their communities, Briggs said.

“It allows a lot of the major business centers and communities to feel much closer,” Briggs said. “It seems to make us more efficient.”

Additionally, Briggs said the Grand Parkway has attracted more through traffic, or drivers traveling through an area without stopping, therefore improving safety on lower-capacity roadways and giving local roads a longer lifetime.

“That, of course, will help us as a region save on the wear and tear on our roads that were not intended to have high traffic counts,” she said.

However, the Grand Parkway has caused increased traffic on Boudreaux Road in Tomball, Willer said.

“Boudreaux [Road] has become more heavily traveled now, because you have to exit the Grand Parkway to get to [Hwy.] 249 and vice versa, so that’s the big challenge that’s remaining,” Willer said. “[TxDOT] didn’t anticipate [the Grand Parkway] was going to be that successful this early.”

More than 68.5 million transactions—which are recorded each time a vehicle passes through a toll facility, plaza or ramp—were made in total along the Grand Parkway in FY 2015-16, according to a year-end report from TxDOT. Additionally, TxDOT received about $31.2 million more in toll revenue than anticipated in FY 2015-2016—the first year in which toll revenue was collected for segments F-1, F-2 and G.

Nearby road projects

While the Grand Parkway has eased traffic in the Tomball area, Seegers said an average of 80,000 people are moving to Harris County each year.

“Too frequently, the growth catches up to very old, two-lane roads, and then it just becomes a nightmare in addition to a traffic hazard,” Seegers said.

As the growth that spurred the construction of the Grand Parkway continues, several roads close to the Grand Parkway are undergoing improvements to keep ahead of the growth in Harris County.

“Growth within Precinct 4 has necessitated the need to upgrade Precinct 4’s two-lane asphalt rural roadways to improve mobility and mitigate congestion,” said Pamela Rocchi, Precinct 4 capital improvement projects director.

Precinct 4 officials said road projects include the widening of Hufsmith-Kohrville and Telge roads—with the design phase to commence in 2017 for various segments of the projects. The two widening projects are estimated to cost the county $64.4 million.

Additionally, Precinct 4’s master list of capital improvement projects includes improving a portion of Boudreaux Road as funding is available, officials said. Fagan Lane, a $1.3 million project, was completed in late 2016 to provide Grand Parkway-area neighborhoods better roadway access.

Looking ahead

As required by an agreement between TxDOT and the seven counties through which the Grand Parkway will pass, toll prices along the Grand Parkway increased Jan. 1. According to TxDOT officials, toll prices will continue to increase 2 percent or in accordance with the regional consumer price index—whichever is greater—each year.

Along segments F-1, F-2 and G, toll prices increased between 1 and 4 cents from 2016 to 2017 for two-axle vehicles, according to TxDOT. Willer said he believes the convenience of the Grand Parkway offsets the cost of a toll.

“The toll issue is not really there,” he said. “[Drivers] understand the value that [the Grand Parkway is] bringing to them, and the toll is saving them time.”

To further decrease travel time and ease congestion, Hillegeist said he has advocated for direct connectors between Hwy. 249 and the Grand Parkway since the highway construction began. To qualify for a connector, Hillegeist said TxDOT required daily usage of 15,000 vehicles, which studies did not predict at the time.

However, as the volume of traffic grows on the Grand Parkway, TxDOT officials said eight direct connectors between Hwy. 249 and the Grand Parkway are slated for a 2021 opening date. TxDOT officials said the agency is working with the Harris County Toll Road Authority to find the funds for the direct connectors.

“Taking into account the design effort, construction could begin in summer 2019, with the [direct] connectors opening to traffic in summer 2021,” said Raquelle Lewis, TxDOT public information manager for the Houston district, in a statement.

Meanwhile, construction is expected to begin by early 2018 on Grand Parkway segments H and I-1 as well, which will connect the toll road from Hwy. 59 North to I-10 East, according to TxDOT.

“The Grand Parkway has been a wonderful thing for business and quality of life here in Tomball,” Hillegeist said. “I think the Grand Parkway has made a believer in everyone [that it] was something that needed to be done.”