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Toll road money to kick-start miles of new trails under plan approved by Harris County

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 5/11/2022 By Dug Begley, Staff writer

Surplus revenues from Harris County’s toll road system for years have paid for improvements to nearby roads and infused funds into street rebuilds around the county.

Now, the Harris County Toll Road Authority is about to go off-road. Under a plan unveiled Tuesday, the tolling agency will spend $53 million connecting existing cycling, running and hiking trails and building new ones. The projects, sketched out in a sweeping plan presented to Commissioners Court, aim to reconnect neighborhoods on opposing sides of the county’s tollways and leverage county money with that of management districts and other local agencies aiming to add trails.

“The toll road for a long time has been focused on finishing its system,” Executive Director Roberto Trevino said. “That’s changing to how do we manage it, and provide better mobility and connectivity even if you are not on the toll roads.”

The court approved the plan on a 3-2 vote, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle voting against it.

If fully built, the plan envisioned by HCTRA officials is a network of 236 miles of trails, usable by cyclists, runners and others, mostly adjacent to the sprawling county toll road system, primarily the 82-mile Sam Houston Tollway that rings the metro area. Made up of longer “network spine” projects of 5 miles or more, smaller community connectors that link local neighborhoods and targeted projects to build onto existing trails proposed by others, the total cost of all the links could reach $600 million or more and take years to build.

The effect, Trevino said, would be a much more inclusive transportation system.

“We are putting a focus on the areas around the toll road and putting back quality of life,” he said, noting the safety challenges some areas face because of the region’s large roads and the “divisive” discussions about how to integrate bicycle and pedestrian safety without compromising automotive travel.

“The challenge has been, are those users in a safe environment?” Trevino said. “The goal of this is to create that higher level of safety.”

Adding trails, meanwhile, has the potential to eliminate some car and truck trips, according to the Tolls to Trailways Plan, developed for the authority by Houston-based TEI, which has consulted on many of the trail plans around the area. Using regional planning data, the report’s authors note one-third of the trips taken in the Houston area are less than 3 miles and another 20 percent are less than five miles.

Sixty-three possible projects are listed in the report, spread across the four commissioner precincts, with some crossing precinct lines. Trevino said officials would prioritize them based on costs, importance and other factors, and then chip away at the list. Each project, he said, would be designed separately, with public meetings likely for areas or specific projects.

“A lot of the collaboration has already happened,” Trevino said, with toll road officials already speaking with Houston officials about their own on-street bike lanes and trail plans.

In Westchase, where officials focused in recent years on repairing sidewalks and creating continuous trail systems, pedestrians said they welcome better amenities, but remain skeptical the region can be revived for cyclists and runners, aside from parks and special nature trails.

“There’s too much traffic, way too much traffic, and people drive like NASCAR,” said Lina Bounds, 26, who lives off Walnut Bend, parallel to the tollway. “I just stick to the places cars can’t go.”

HCTRA, which took in more than $854 million in toll revenue annually prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was established in 1983 when voters approved $900 million in bonds to build toll roads.

That windfall, meanwhile, can be aimed at all sorts of projects. Under state law, surplus revenue — the money collected above the debt owed and expenses to operate the system — can be used for a “transportation project, highway project, or air quality project.”

Harris County routinely transferred toll money to the county road departments in the four commissioner precincts. In 2019, HCTRA assumed costs related to the Lynchburg Ferry and Washburn Tunnel in Precinct 2.

Trails, Tevino said, also fit the bill as a transportation cost.

“It is well within the statute,” Trevino said. “It is to enhance connectivity along or across the highway system.”


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