TX County Ponies Up $140M for Toll Roads

Mon March 17, 2003 - West Edition
John Pape

Following the lead of Houston, its sprawling northern neighbor, suburban Fort Bend County, TX, is turning to toll roads to help alleviate increasing traffic congestion.

With the overwhelming approval of a $140-million bond issue in November 2000, the Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority is now starting work on the first of two new toll roads. Once the two projects are completed, drive times from Fort Bend County to major employment corridors and areas of interest throughout the greater Houston area are expected to decrease significantly.

The cost for the new toll roads is approximately $70 million each. Both are being built in areas that are currently not served by freeways.

Except for a small segment of Interstate 10 that cuts through the extreme northern end of the county, the heavily-populated suburbs of Fort Bend are served by only one freeway. The Southwest Freeway, a part of US Highway 59, is currently the only major artery for commuters traveling into and out of Houston. However, a multi-year major reconstruction of the Southwest Freeway has only added to the congestion by significantly restricting the number of available travel lanes throughout the heart of the county.

The addition of the two toll roads will bring welcome relief to frustrated commuters, according to Norm Mason, chairman of the county’s toll road authority.

“When these projects are completed, we will have almost tripled the major thoroughfare access in and out of Fort Bend County,” Mason said.

Fort Bend, Westpark

The first of the two projects, the Fort Bend Parkway Toll Road, is about to begin construction. Completion is expected in the first quarter of 2004, according to Bill Jameson of WJ Interests LLC. WJ Interests is a consulting firm contracted by the toll road authority to assist in the construction.

When finished, the Fort Bend Road will connect to the existing Sam Houston Tollway, operated by the Harris County (Houston) Toll Road Authority, and extend southward into Fort Bend County with major interchanges at State Highway 6, the Lake Olympia Parkway, and Farm Road 2234. This will provide better access between the suburbs of northeastern Fort Bend County and Houston.

Much of the Parkway will cut through Missouri City, the only major municipality in the county not directly linked to the Southwest Freeway. Many city residents work at Houston’s Texas Medical Center, and the new toll road should provide a more direct route .

Additionally, by linking with other existing freeways, the new toll road will make it possible to drive virtually interrupted from the Missouri City area to Houston’s Galleria shopping district and all downtown destinations.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority is planning to build an extension of the Parkway in that county, extending north from the Sam Houston Toll Road to US Highway 90-A. This will provide improved access to the business and industrial areas of southern Houston. The extension, a four-lane limited access tollway, will be built in two phases. The first project will connect to Hillcroft Avenue, and the second will take the extension to US 90A and Chimney Rock Drive.

The second Fort Bend County project is the Westpark Tollway. The 5.6-mi. (9 km) road will lie within the Westpark/Farm Road 1093 area from Farm Road 1464 to State Highway 99, both major suburban thoroughfares. It will tie directly into the Harris County Westpark Tollway project, which is under construction.

The Westpark Tollway will provide enhanced transportation benefits to other rapidly-growing suburban areas in Fort Bend County, particularly for thousands of residents living in major master-planned communities along State Highway 99.

As with the Fort Bend Parkway project in the northeastern areas of the county, the Westpark Tollway is expected to reduce existing traffic congestion problems and improve commute times. The road should be ready for use in early 2005.

The Westpark project will be a four-lane controlled-access highway. Additionally, the Texas Department of Transportation will widen Farm Road 1093, which parallels the new toll road, from two to four lanes.

Although the two toll road authorities are separate entities operating in adjacent counties, drivers will be able to easily travel from the Fort Bend system onto Harris County toll roads, according to Jameson.

“It will be a seamless system. The only thing motorists will notice is a difference in the road signs,” Jameson explained.

He also noted that the Fort Bend County system will be contracting with the Harris County Toll Road Authority to provide maintenance and operation for the new toll roads. .

“The project will be developed for seamless toll collection facilities with the Harris County portion of the toll road. This coordination between the two systems will enable Fort Bend County to employ all-electronic toll collection systems to match the Harris County’s segment, and will assume variable time-of-day pricing” Jameson said.

EZ Tag

The all-electronic collection system will not have traditional tollbooths, with all fees being collected via a sensor tag attached to the vehicle’s windshield. Dubbed “EZ Tag,” this system is already used as an option in the Harris County Toll Road system.

A recent analysis of Harris County’s EZ Tag system revealed that there are already almost 76,000 tag owners in Fort Bend County, and that number is expected to rise with the completion of the two toll roads. The current total represents 17.5 percent of all EZ Tag ownership in the combined Harris and Fort Bend County areas.

“The data furnished by the Harris County Toll Road Authority validates the importance of the toll road system to Fort Bend County residents and areas within the greatest EZ Tag ownership density,” said Dr. Jim Condrey, a member of the Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority. “This new EZ Tag data supports our current analysis and starts to show growing toll tag demand trends, while quantifying the importance of alternative traveling routes and easy highway access for the increased number of Fort Bend and west Houston commuters.”

Toll prices have not yet been set, but Authority Chairman Mason expects the average fee to be one dollar or less depending on the time of day. Tolls will be higher during peak traffic times.

Engineering and design for the Fort Bend Parkway Toll Road is being done by the Houston-based firm of Turner, Collie and Braden. Brown & Gay Engineers Inc. is providing engineering services for the Westpark Toll Road.

Mason also noted that between 15,000 and 18,000 vehicles per day are expected to use the toll roads in their first year of operation.

Appearance also is being emphasized with the adoption of a bridge aesthetics program by the Toll Road Authority. The project will minimize the impact of concrete bridge structures by incorporating classic, simple features that enhance the look of the bridges. The designs will emphasize horizontal elements of the bridges and strengthen the appearance of the bridge piers while concealing electrical conduits and drainpipes.

The designs call for an “earwall” attached to the bridge pier to cover the ends of the beam. On the earwall will be a raised star, a signature element of the Fort Bend Toll Road logo.

“We recognize the significance and value of our aesthetic planning to the citizens and future businesses of Fort Bend County,” explained Charles Rencher, another member of the Toll Road Authority. “We want to support the quality-of-life features and current developments already under way in the area by adding aesthetically pleasing artistic details to the Parkway that will represent the Fort Bend County history and lifestyles.”

The Fort Bend County Toll Road Authority was created by the Commissioner’s Court, the county’s governing body, to aid, assist and act on behalf of the county in determining and managing the feasibility and development of county toll road projects. The Commissioner’s Court appoints the Authority’s members and sets its annual budget.