Grand Parkway, Seg E: Traffic Benefits Vs Environmental Costs

First there was Loop 610, next came Beltway 8, now planners are working on a possible third ring road that would circle around Greater Houston. A section of the Grand Parkway that would connect I-10 with US 290 is next in line to be built. In the second of our two-part series, Wendy Siegle looks at the expected traffic benefits and the potential environmental costs of Segment E.
Yesterday we met Brandt Mannchen from the Sierra Club. Mannchen has been railing against the Grand Parkway for 25 years. He calls Segment E a “road to nowhere.”

“You want to put your transportation where the people already live. And as you can see out here there just aren’t a lot of folks. There’s a lot of birds. There’s a lot of prairie grasses. There’s a lot of wetlands. But there’s not just a whole lot of people out here.”

Mannchen’s right. The 14 mile section would run through mostly undeveloped land. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t ease up traffic on some of Houston’s congested roadways, says David Gornet. He’s the director of the Grand Parkway Association, which is working to get the Parkway completed.

“Segment E would address mobility issues in the west side of Houston and address the growing demand for use on I-10 and 290 in this west Houston corridor.”

Gornet says Houston needs all segments of the Grand Parkway if it wants to be able to support all the cars that are expected to be whizzing through the region in the future. Local planners say Houston’s poised to gain three and half million people over the next thirty years.

“This is one of those areas where there’s a lot of growth that is anticipated to occur. Rather than to have people screaming ten years from now that, 'Oh, do something!'—We’re trying to be more proactive rather than reactive in this situation.”

But whether or not you believe the roughly $500 million dollar road is truly necessary, there is no doubt the Katy Prairie will suffer environmental damage if it's constructed. That’s because to build it, the Texas Department of Transportation will have to wipe out nearly 27 acres of wetlands. Harris County is currently waiting on a permit that would allow builders to do that. Fred Anthamatten is a regulator with the Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District, the agency that issues wetlands permits.

“Those areas that are going to be filled to construct this road would require a permit under the Clean Water Act.”

Wetlands are easy to overlook. They don’t stand-out like a rainforest, or have a face like a polar bear. And they’re easy to miss on a drive around the flat Katy Prairie. It’s so flat out here that rain water just flows across the prairie’s bushy bluestem grasses. And that’s a good thing for the wetlands, says Mannchen.

“It recharges these little prairie potholes, these little wetlands out here which are really good for wildlife: for ducks and wading birds and all kinds of other critters that need water to survive.”

But Mannchen says wetlands are more than just a water source for animals. They’re good for humans, too. They filter out toxins as water moves through. And act like a sponge by soaking up heavy rain to help prevent flooding downstream, in Houston for instance. Anthamatten says that’s why projects like Segment E need permits.

“Filling in wetlands essentially destroys the quality and the function of wetlands and so getting a permit would be a way of regulating activities in this resource.”

That means whoever builds the Grand Parkway has to make up for the destruction of the wetlands. Anthamatten says the developers will have to preserve, restore, or create more wetlands somewhere else. It’s preferable to replace the lost wetlands in the same area, but Anthamatten says it’s not possible to do that in this case. That concerns people like Mannchen.

“What they’re proposing is to protect wetlands, but not here in Cypress Creek, but thirty miles away in Greens Bayou. The impacts are going to be here; therefore, we should protect the water quality here and not thirty miles away in a totally different water shed.”

So if Segment E gets built the wetlands in its path will be compensated. It’ll just be on a 1400 acre wetland bank near Lake Houston instead of on the Katy Prairie. Anthamatten says the Corps expects to make a decision on the wetlands permit by the end of March. If it gets issued work could begin on Segment E as early as August.