Property owners in Grimes and western Montgomery Counties are facing the grim prospect of losing their land to pave the way for a new toll road running through rural Texas. For years, Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) bureaucrats and Texas A&M University leadership have dreamed of extending State Highway (SH) 249 to connect Houston to College Station, often referred to as the “Aggie Highway.”
In 2013, TxDOT began conducting environmental studies and proposing routes for a toll road extending from the current end of SH 249 in Montgomery County to Navasota in Grimes County. The extension will require the use of eminent domain, forcing residents off land that has often been in the family for generations. Local farmers worry that the highway will disrupt cattle operations, increase traffic noise, and disrupt the county’s rural way of life. Although the project has been strongly supported by Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, who is currently suspended, it was originally opposed by the Grimes County Commissioners Court. County Judge Ben Leman and others campaigned against the toll during their elections, and condemned it in a resolution by the court.
However, the Grimes County Commissioners Court reversed their position when TxDOT offered $4 million for limited feeder roads along the tollway. With TxDOT threatening to build the toll through Grimes with or without feeders, the commissioners accepted the money and threw their support behind the project in a 4-1 vote.
Among the toll’s supporters is former State Sen. Tommy Williams (R- The Woodlands), who served as the Senate Transportation Committee Chair and now works as a Vice-Chancellor of Texas A&M. He also owns land in Grimes County. At a recent Transportation Commission meeting, he explained why he believes the road is necessary:
“As we see this traffic coming out from Montgomery County, a project like this is just absolutely critical that we be able to move traffic through. It’s also critical for the Texas A&M University system as our ties with the Houston area continue to grow with our recent new partnership with the Methodist hospital to have medical students there. We’ve got a lot of activity in the area so having easy access to the Houston region is just absolutely critical to the Texas A&M University and all our system components.”
Opponents contend that if more traffic needs to be moved from Houston to College Station, TxDOT should widen the existing route through FM 1774 and SH 105. Both roads have seen a growing traffic problem, with traffic on SH 105 West tripling since 1980. TxDOT has plans to eventually expand the roads, in addition to the SH 249 extension.
TxDOT plans reveal limited feeder roads in the Grimes section, forcing local residents in most cases to enter the toll road to travel even short distances. With the tollway’s main purpose being to foster travel between Houston and College Station, the SH 249 extension will bring little benefit to people living along its route, many of whom worry that the limited feeder access will not allow the local economy to benefit from potential customers passing them on the new toll, creating a “dead zone”.
With a lack of leadership from local government in fighting the project, a number of landowners along the proposed route formed the Grimes Citizen Advisory Group (GCAG) in 2014 to oppose the toll road and in the words of GCAG founder David Tullos, “give citizens a voice.” GCAG has also worked to oppose the Texas Central High-speed Rail and various pipelines requiring eminent domain, growing to include members from across Grimes County. Grassroots opposition to the toll road was evident at a recent hearing held by TxDOT, where residents packed the local high school gym to voice their concerns.
Tullos, whose family owns land along the proposed route, echoes the demands of many Grimes County residents:
“Citizens and landowners of Grimes County do not want a toll road. If TxDOT wants a road they should consider 1774 and 105. If they truly need a road through the proposed 249 route, it should be a free highway, not a toll road, that benefits the citizens of Grimes County and provides the opportunity of future economic development.”
TxDOT is currently in the process of finalizing a few miles of the toll road’s route, and plans to begin construction in Summer 2017.