By Catherine Domingue
The Aggie Expressway has divided two Texas A&M alums who serve on Montgomery County Commissioners Court.
The project includes a 3.6-mile stretch in Montgomery County that is being overseen by the Montgomery County Toll Road Authority, which is the same individuals who serve on Commissioners Court. The Aggie Expressway, also known as the Texas 249 tollway, among other names, goes from Houston to College Station.
While Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack supports the project, he says it should be the Texas Department of Transportation‘s responsibility, not Montgomery County. County Judge Craig Doyal disagrees, saying the project comes with little risk and will not cost taxpayers money in the long run. The two earned their college rings from Texas A&M University in College Station.
For Noack, the project is too much of a risk for the county, especially since TxDOT will fund the project. However,Doyal says the traffic data shows the need for the road, especially in West Montgomery County, where the road will run through with exits at FM 1774 and FM 149.
According to TxDOT’s website, planning for the tollway to College Station began in 2000 as part of its Major Investment Study.
Montgomery County will construct the main lanes of the toll road from Spring Creek to FM 1774. The cost of the project is about $85 million, with $10 million of that already spent on design work through Halff Associates. Funding for the project, according to Doyal, will come from revenue bonds that will be repaid through the tolls collected. Noack believes voters should have a say; and if approved, paid for through general obligation bonds.
Doyal said those bonds could be sold within the next few months.
For the toll road
Doyal said Montgomery County retains the right to build the tollway from TxDOT since the feeder roads for the highway are built. The need for the road, he said, is based on the current traffic patterns and future growth.
The congestion is horrible (between Magnolia and Tomball). … You’ve got a traffic signal every two miles and it just takes forever,” said Doyal, adding that traffic increases tremendously during the Renaissance Festival in October and November.
The project, he said, makes sense.
“We felt like that would be a fairly easy project for us for our first real toll facility,” said Doyal, noting the county would only be constructing the main lanes. “A free route already exists for people to use if they choose not to use the toll facility.”
As for who benefits from the road, Doyal said “everyone.”
“Everyone along there,” he said. The increase mobility will create a benefit for that portion in Montgomery County and the county will benefit from revenue that toll road will create.”
Doyal said if TxDOT builds the the toll road, it would dictate the tolls, the rate and control whether those tolls would ever go away. Also, in the case, Montgomery County may not beneift form the toll revenue because TxDoT would receive it and could use it anywhere across the state.
“Why would we not want to put ourselves in a position to recoup some of those costs from people cutting through Montgomery County,” he said. “It’s going to be a toll road no matter what.”
Against the toll road
While Doyal and the rest of Commissioners Court support the project, Noack says it is not a necessity because TxDOT will build it.
“It’s simple,” said Noack, noting he has not seen any studies showing the actual need for the road.
However, Noack’s biggest concern is that the project puts county taxpayers at risk.
“If revenue shortfalls exists, how will the bonds be (repaid)?” he said. “It would be the taxpayers because Montgomery County cannot afford to let those bonds default.”
With revenue bonds, the MCTRA would be loaned money from the county. The bonds would be repaid through the toll revenue. However, if that revenue falls short, it excess debt would fall on the county, and therefore taxpayers, who did not have a say in building the road because there was no vote.
Noack pointed out that the SH 130 toll road near Austin was not successful.
According to an Aug. 12, 2016, San Antonio Express-News article, the road’s private operator SH 130 Concession Co. filed a bankruptcy reorganization plan in August that proposed transferring company ownership to its largest lenders, which include the Federal Highway Administration and a group of European banks. The company owes more than $1.6 billion. It is owned by Spanish road developer Cintra, the majority stakeholder, and San Antonio-based Zachry American Infrastructure.
The company built the 41-mile southern section of Texas 130, stretching between Seguin and Mustang Ridge, south of Austin, and operates it as part of a 50-year lease agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March 2016, claiming the recession severely reduced the amount of traffic it expected the road to attract.
The company paid TxDOT $125 million upfront for the rights to operate the road, which was built to bypass Interstate 35 traffic between San Antonio and Austin and then became state property. It also agreed to share some of its toll revenue with the state as part of the lease agreement.
Noack said the success of the Texas 249 toll road is a gamble.
“My issue is there is not tangible benefit to Montgomery County,” Noack said.
Noack has suggested if the county is going to build the 3.6-mile toll road, it should use funds available through the state as part of the pass-through toll program the county has been a part of since 2005.
In May of last year, Jennie Taraborelli, with Pate Engineers, who originally prepared the pass-through toll agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation for Montgomery County, told commissioners the county has $66.6 million available for projects. She urged commissioners to consider possible projects to utilize the funding before it is swept into other projects outside of the county.
“The one thing that is going to have to happen is the county is going to have to put forward a list of projects,” she said. “I know the county has a lot of needs.”
Under the agreement and through the 2005 pass-through referendum, Montgomery County has funded projects on FM 1484, FM 1485, FM 1488, FM 1314 and the direct connector from Texas 242 to Interstate 45, which opened last year. The county has received state and federal reimbursement of more than $150 million through the pass-through toll program, which was part of the 2005 road bond referendum. The reimbursement rate is 7 cents per vehicle mile.
The minimum reimbursement for the construction projects is $10.5 million per year, while the maximum reimbursement is $17.4 million a year. The entire amount will be paid over 10-17 years, Taraborelli said.
But Doyal said that funding is needed for other county projects and it doesn’t make sense to use those funds for a project that is viable for tolling.
“Why would we use those dollars on a project that lends itself to tolls,” Doyal asked.
Noack disagrees and said the Texas 249 toll project is the right project for the funds.
Texas 249 and FM 2978 connection
While Doyal said a connection between Texas 249 and FM 2978 is not a factor, Noack believes it is by driving traffic to the toll facility.
In fact, Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley is moving forward with plans to connect FM 2978 to Dobbing-Huffsmith; and with developer roads ultimately will connect to Texas 249. While the connection originally was aligned with Woodlands Parkway, Riley has since moved the project south a quarter-mile to connect at Mansions Way Drive.
Riley denies the connector is an amended Woodlands Parkway extension. And, according to a county employee, the County Engineer’s Office sent a letter to The Woodlands Township saying the Woodlands Parkway extension at FM 2978 was not viable due to the radio towers and other environmental concerns in the area.
Township Chairman Gordy Bunch said the item was an executive session item and he could not “confirm or deny” the letter from the county engineer existed. He said the township board would be discussing the issue Jan. 25.
County commissioners approved two contracts related to Riley’s project Tuesday. The court awarded land surveying services to Tomball-based Arborleaf Engineering and Surveying Inc. for $264,855 and engineering services for the project to Houston-based R. G. Miller Engineers Inc. in the amount of $264,477, totaling almost $530,000.
Doyal said Riley is using his budget for the engineering of the project and added that the rights of way purchased several years ago would be used for the project. No timeline on the project was available.
However, funding for the construction of the connector could come from the $66 million pass-through toll program. In previous Courier articles, Doyal said developers have committed to constructing the connector from Dobin-Huffsmith to Texas 249.
The issue arose in early 2015 when residents learned Riley was planning to extend Woodlands Parkway from FM 2978 to Texas 249. The project was part of a $350 million road bond referendum that voters rejected in May 2015.
Concerned about the increase in traffic in the community, residents of The Woodlands urged the court to remove the project from the May bond. But the court, specifically Riley, refused to take the project off his list. And so it was overwhelmingly rejected, led by Woodlands voters.
In August 2015, the court agreed to move forward with another road bond for the Nov. 3 ballot in the amount of $280 million. That referendum excluded several projects, including the Woodlands Parkway extension. Voters passed the $280 million referendum easily, with 63.36 percent of the more than 45,500 votes for it.
The extension of Woodlands Parkway has been part of the thoroughfare plan since the original draft in the late 1980s.
Riley maintains his community wants and needs the road and that it would be unlikely motorists would use the route through The Woodlands as a way east to Interstate 45. Community leaders in The Woodlands, including Noack, pushed for Riley to go farther south with a connector, possibly widening Hardin Store Road to allow more through traffic between FM 2978 and Texas 249.
But Riley, along with Doyal, say Hardin Store is not a viable option because of the difficulty in obtaining rights of way to widen two-lane road. Doyal said one of the main reasons he purchased the majority of rights of way for the future extension of Woodlands Parkway while he served as Precinct 2 commissioner was because it was more difficult to purchase those rights of way along Hardin Store Road. He said the railroad tracks that cross Hardin Store Road would be a challenge.
Bunch said he will put the item on the next township meeting to have the board reaffirm a resolution against the project.
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