July 8, 2016 Updated: July 8, 2016 5:37pm
Get a good look at the wide grass median on Texas 288 while you can. In three years, it’ll all be a memory, as motorists drive up and down a brand new tollway.
“This is going to look very different,” said Greg Snider, public-private partnership program manager for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Houston office, recently standing in the median.
By fall, more and more workers will descend on Texas 288 south of U.S. 59 in Houston, as state officials – in conjunction with private companies – prepare for a four-lane tollway stretching from Brazoria County to downtown Houston, with key connections to the Texas Medical Center, Sam Houston Tollway and Loop 610.
In a rarity compared with most freeway projects, however, the work is not expected to have serious consequences for commuters. Some freeway closings are planned, and lanes along a lot of Texas 288 could be narrowed to allow for a work zone.
“The real challenge is going to be Loop 610,” said Snider, who will oversee the project for TxDOT.
At the loop, crews will rebuild the entire interchange, remaking every connection between Texas 288, Loop 610 and the future toll lanes. If work starts ramping up as expected in October or November, Snider said the entire project is on pace to open in August 2019.
Blueridge Transportation Group was the winning team selected by TxDOT. The company has six equity partners, led by the Spanish construction giant Grupo ACS, global investment firm InfraRed Capital Partners and the Israeli building and real estate company Shikun & Binui Ltd. Another 24 companies are involved in the project.
Officials reached agreement in March with the business team developing the project, estimated to cost $815 million to build. Approval came a few months late, as officials and the company haggled over final details. Based on earlier time lines, a late 2016 construction start is about nine months later than proposed.
State officials have stressed Texas is paying $17 million of the cost, slightly more than 2 percent.
“Essentially the developer is financing the project for TxDOT,” Varuna Singh, TxDOT’s director of strategic projects in Houston, told a city council committee in June.
The project, however, relies on sizable loans from federal programs, with the blessing of state officials. The project received approval in April for a $357 million loan through the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which aims to invigorate large projects along key transportation corridors. Another $296.8 million comes from private activity bonds, which while not backed by the state, give private borrowers access to tax-exempt bonds.
Toll revenues will repay both the federal loan and bondholders, according to the financial plan. Tolls will be set based on the financing plan. Though the final rates are not set yet, TxDOT spokesman Danny Perez said they will likely be comparable with other local tollways, such as the Grand Parkway. The roughly 15-mile trip between Interstate 10 and U.S. 290 on the parkway costs $3.01, or about 20 cents per mile.
Over the course of the agreement, which lasts until 2065, officials estimate the toll lane construction and maintenance encompasses a $2.1 billion investment along Texas 288.
The agreement includes the private team taking over maintenance of all of Texas 288 in Harris County. That transition, Snider said, could begin later this year when significant work begins along the road.
The centerpiece of the project is the four toll lanes down the center of Texas 288 – two in each direction from south of U.S. 59 in downtown Houston to the Brazoria County line. Brazoria County, meanwhile, has a separate project that will extend the toll lanes to County Road 58.
“They would like to time their toll lanes to open with our toll lanes or shortly thereafter,” Singh said.
Weather and various factors could alter both schedules.
The project has critics, especially as Texans have become frustrated with what some consider an over-reliance on tolling.
“I sick and tired of everything being a toll road,” said Todd Smith, 49, who commutes along Texas 288 from Pearland.
Smith said he would prefer more free lanes along Texas 288, especially given the ample room state transportation officials left. “Now they’re giving it away,” he said.
Work also includes a number of features aimed at improving access in key spots. New ramps to and from the Sam Houston Tollway will make it possible to get directly from the new tolled lanes to the beltway managed by the Harris County Toll Road Authority, something Brazoria County officials said last year was vital for the project’s success.
The project also includes direct connections from the new toll lanes to Holcombe Boulevard near the Texas Medical Center.
Construction, officials hope, could also clear up some long-standing challenges associated with Texas 288. At Loop 610, the freeway is especially prone to flooding in heavy rains. A total rebuild of the interchange means a complete overhaul of those pipes and detention basins as well.
“Certainly this would be an opportunity to correct any historical flooding problems,” Snider said.
Commuters have long said access between the freeway and medical center is critical, just as Pearland and southern Harris County has been marketed as a convenient location for many health professionals to live.
Prompted by the enormous rate of residential building along Texas 288 in Harris County and Brazoria County, transportation officials sought a solution to rising demand on Texas 288, knowing they lacked funding. Harris County officials passed on developing the tollway, handing over the right to build a tollway to the state.
State officials opted to make Texas 288 the Houston area’s first comprehensive development agreement, where the state awards a long-term contract to a private team – usually a mix of finance, construction and engineering companies.
Use of tollways in the Houston area continues to increase. Both HCTRA and TxDOT have seen increases in use and revenue in the past three years. The Grand Parkway, which opened an additional 38 miles of tollway earlier this year, has exceeded initially estimates of vehicle use.
Development of the lanes comes as commuters clamor for traffic congestion relief, even as that takes on other options than driving. City officials briefed last month on the project encouraged TxDOT to consider plans for using freeways in different ways, citing commuter rail as one example.
“We can’t pour enough concrete to get out of this,” At-Large Councilman Jack Christie said.