NAVASOTA — Nearly 100 Grimes County residents and landowners gathered in the gymnasium at Navasota Junior High School last week to voice their displeasure with a proposed 15-mile toll road that would cut through the county and disturb numerous properties.
The hearing was their last opportunity to communicate their concerns to the Texas Department of Transportation, which is looking to select a final route for the toll road — a new connection between Houston and College Station — by the end of the summer. While residents appeared to be coming to terms with the inevitability of the project, it didn't stop them from voicing their displeasure with the available options and toll roads in general.
"I would like to, at this point, take a quick poll," said Robert Nobles, turning his back to the podium where he spoke so he could survey the crowded gym. "Would people please raise your hands if you're opposed to toll roads?"
Nearly every hand in the room — except those of TxDOT employees standing along the room's perimeter — shot into the air, accompanied by a cacophony of cheers.
"Thank you," said Nobles, turning back towards the microphone. "We have, what's that, 85 percent of the room for no toll roads? Listen to the people."
Chad Bohne, the director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT's Bryan's office and the intended recipient of Nobles' plea, shifted in his seat at the front of the room as the crowd applauded once more. It's TxDOT's policy not to reply directly to comments during public hearings.
"The proposed project is needed to facilitate the safe and efficient movement of people and goods between the Grimes County, Brazos Valley Region and the Houston metropolitan area," Bohne explained at the start of the meeting, addressing 100 or so Grimes County residents who gathered to comment. Bohne has worked on project since its inception in 2013.
"The proposed project needs to address safety; existing, future and seasonal traffic congestion; transportation system connections and emergency evacuation routes," he added.
The project is an extension of Texas 249, which currently stretches from Interstate 45, just north of Houston, to FM 1774 in Pinehurst. TxDOT aims to create a more direct corridor between Houston and College Station, a plan that was initially referred to as the "Aggie Expressway."
"I've got no dog in this fight," said Dan Agan, a resident of Spring who owns land in Grimes County that would be unaffected by either route. "But the people in Houston, and I guess I'm one of them, don't have a divine right to get to College Station in an hour."
The extended road would stretch from the current end of the highway, known as the Tomball Parkway, toward the tiny town of Todd Mission. From there, it would loop through Grimes County and into Navasota, where it would eventually connect with State Highway 105.
A preferred route has already been identified by the department for all of the extension — except for the approximately 15-mile stretch through Grimes County that was the subject of last week's meeting. After much deliberation and many public meetings on the subject, two possible routes have emerged for consideration.
While Bob Colwell, a spokesman for TxDOT's Bryan office, said the department's goal is to select a route by the end of the summer, residents remain deeply divided.
"The study has not been able to determine a route that can be fully supported by all landowners along the corridor," said TxDOT spokesman Mark Cross in an email.
That conclusion certainly rang true at the hearing, although almost every speaker urged the department not to construct any route through the county — with or without tolls. In spite of the opposition to any road, many residents concluded their remarks by ultimately championing one route over the other.
"I'm here today to tell you, TxDOT, don't build the toll road," said Chad Nobles, who owns land with his father Robert Nobles. "But I'm also here with 250 signatures who all want the yellow route."
The financial difference between the routes — labeled "yellow" and "green" — is minimal, as Bohne said either option will end up costing somewhere between $165-170 million. The proposed road would be two lanes wide, although Bohne said the state would acquire enough land to widen it later.
Despite clear frustrations with the introduction of a toll road from numerous landowners, both Grimes County and the City of Navasota have come out in support of the project.
"We're a community that's growing," said Navasota Mayor Bert Miller in an interview last week. "Rather than being a pass-through, we'd rather be involved in the discussion and be a part of it and get the best for our community."
Grimes County Judge Ben Leman said he realizes the proposal has caused "a lot of heartache" for people, but ultimately he deems it as a plus for the county.
"For the first time in the history of this county, we will be within 30 minutes of Beltway 8," he said, referring to the ring road around Houston. "Right now it takes an hour plus with all those stoplights ... I do understand [the frustration], but at the same time I also recognize the full power and authority of the state of Texas."