Grand Parkway to get wider before new sections are finished
The Grand Parkway is many things: an enormous and unfinished freeway loop slicing through six counties, a magnet for real estate development, a flashpoint in the debate over how Houston should grow.
What it is not, in any meaningful sense of the word, is a parkway. It’s lined with houses, shopping centers and empty land, not the parks and lakes envisioned by planners a half-century ago.
In his 2003 book “Houston Freeways: A Historical and Visual Journey,” Oscar “Erik” Slotboom notes that in 1966, Houston Planning Department documents laid out a vision of the area’s outermost ring road as a sort of exurban green belt: “The freeway and accompanying parks would be a refuge for city dwellers in the future Houston of 1990 .” Slotboom writes. “The new freeway loop would be the centerpiece of a plan to provide the growing city with adequate recreation opportunities.”
The Grand Parkway probably doesn’t feel like a refuge to the thousands of commuters stuck in traffic on the congested stretch between Interstate 10 and FM 1093 (Westheimer). During an Oct. 24 public hearing, many who live in the area said they hoped for relief through a plan to widen that section from four lanes to six.
The widening would affect the northern part of Segment D, which opened in August 1994. Adding capacity to one stretch of the parkway (Texas 99) while other sections remain years away from design or construction seems a bit out of sync, like a kid who is older than his uncle. But that’s what happens when a public works project stretches out over decades.
The pastoral vision that inspired the freeway’s name soon gave way to more pragmatic considerations, as developers, Realtors and others recognized the opportunity that the new road represented.
The developers of Cinco Ranch, a master-planned community west of Houston, paid tribute to this potential in April 1994 when they relocated the development’s main entrance to its Grand Parkway frontage - complete with “masses of flowers and masonry monuments engraved with the community’s name in big burgundy letters,” as reported by Ralph Bivins in the Houston Chronicle at the time.
“The completion of the first leg of the Grand Parkway is opening up thousands of acres of virgin prairie west of Houston for development,” Bivins wrote. “It means more lot sales for land developers, more home construction for builders, and more stores and restaurants to feed off the pending population growth.”
All of that has indeed come to pass.
“The Grand Parkway has had a huge influence on the growth of Cinco Ranch; there’s no doubt,” said Jennifer Taylor, the regional vice president of marketing for Newland Communities, the developers of Cinco Ranch. “It’s been a huge factor in our ability to grow the community west.”
About 1,000 homes had been sold in Cinco Ranch by the end of 1994, Taylor said. When the community is fully built out a few years from now, she said, that number will be about 13,000.
Of course, this kind of growth is not universally embraced. Almost since the parkway’s inception, environmentalists and advocates of more compact, dense development patterns have argued that the freeway supports an unsustainable, destructive and inequitable model of human settlement.
The planned widening may ease congestion for a time - until the pattern of build-grow-build inevitably repeats itself and more capacity is needed, said Jay Blazek Crossley, the former executive director of the Houston Tomorrow think tank and a relentless parkway opponent.
“Given the terrible decisions of the past, this additional terrible decision might make things nicer for a little bit,” Crossley wrote in an email.
Yet the parkway marches on despite these arguments, lawsuits, and ethical conflicts involving officials connected to the project owning land along its route.
Financing difficulties, as documented in Slotboom’s book, have been the only real impediment to its momentum, and this problem was eased when Texas embraced tolling to pay for public roadways. More than 50 miles of the parkway, from Interstate 10 north and east to U.S. 59, have opened since 2013. All told, traffic is rolling on a bit less than half of the planned 185-mile route.
Many factors - a growing backlash against tolls, concerns about the relationship between development and flooding and the advent of autonomous vehicles - are among the factors that could influence when or whether the rest of the parkway is built. But as the Texas Department of Transportation prepares to pour concrete for more lanes, it seems clear that the model of growth this project represents will continue to flourish in the Houston area.