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Road Bond Realities

The $350,000,000 price tag on the Montgomery County Road Bond on Saturday’s ballot sounds outrageous to the common person with no firsthand knowledge of such matters. It is an enormous amount of money, but for a county the size of Montgomery, it’s not unheard of and many feel it’s not only reasonable, but necessary.

For example, Williamson County, adjacent to Travis County, had a population of 474, 014 according to the 2013 US Census, and it contains 1,124 square miles. Similarly, the 2013 Census lists Montgomery County with a population of 499, 137, and includes 1,077 square miles. The biggest difference in the numbers between the two counties is in the amount of county roads that must be maintained. Montgomery County has 2,700 miles of county roads, and Williamson County includes only 1,400 miles of county roads.

Another major difference in the counties is their residents’ and leaders’ willingness to work together to approve road bonds. In 2000, Williamson County voters passed a $350 million road bond package. In 2006, Williamson County voters approved a $228 million road bond, and in 2013, Williamson County voters passed two propositions supporting $275 million in road bonds. The impetus for these bonds was a plan adopted by that county’s commissioners in 1999.

One of the major sticking points in the Montgomery County Road Bond debate has been the fear of increased property taxes. County Judge Craig Doyal, a proponent of the Road Bond, said the county has added $363 million in new debt over the past decade while cutting the tax rate four times.

Proponents say voters need to remember that the folks traveling all over the county to rally support for their cause only have one issue with the Road Bond, which is the extension of Woodlands Parkway. This contention is evidenced by the Keep Montgomery County Moving resignation letter of Gordy Bunch, who is leading the charge against the Road Bond.

The letter was posted on the website woodlands online (Click here to read the entire letter)

Bunch’s letter reads, in part, “Quality of life is paramount to residents throughout Montgomery County. However, The Woodlands cannot suffer an intrusion by contiguous communities where more than 1,005,003 people will reside within a 15-mile radius of here as soon as 2018. Even a small percentage traffic increase onto already overcrowded Woodlands Parkway is unsupportable.”

Those who still think Bunch is vehemently opposed to the bond should also read an article dated March 9 in The Woodlands Villager, where Bunch is quoted as saying, “I would love to see this bond clean with unanimous support throughout the county,” he said. “If they removed the extension from the project list then my opposition goes away and I turn into the biggest fan and I advocate for the bond passage.”

Julie Turner, president of The Woodlands-based Texas Patriots PAC who has also been very vocal in her opposition to the bond, echoed Bunch’s sentiments in the same Villager article, saying, “People want to work together,” she said. “But it is so confusing to have one project in that is putting this bond in jeopardy. Unless it is removed, not delayed, removed (Tuesday), we cannot support this bond. If it is removed, I will be out there advocating it pass.”

Those voting against the Bond in other parts of the county could be very disappointed if the Bond fails and proponents, for whatever reason, concede to remove the Woodlands Parkway extension from the project list, which would make it likely to pass the next time.

Past and present local leaders openly supporting the bond include, Sheriff Tommy Gage, State Representative Cecil Bell, State Representative Mark Keough, former State Senator Tommy Williams, former County Judge Alan “Barb” Sadler, former Tax Assessor-Collector J. R. Moore, Jr., The Woodlands Township Chairman Bruce Tough, former The Woodlands Township Chairman Nelda Luce Blair, Mayor of Shenandoah Gary Watts, Mayor of Oak Ridge North Jim Kuykendall, Mayor of Panorama Village Howard Kravetz, Mayor of Conroe Webb Melder, and a large percentage of your neighbors, friends and co-workers around the County.

Saturday’s vote will settle, if only temporarily, the most heated and countywide polarizing political battle in many years. As with any such battle, both sides claim the other is being deceptive and the adversaries are producing conflicting information to support their positions.

In the current Road Bond Election, most country residents have heard significantly more from opponents of the bond, who have produced media releases one after another, and reached out in other ways as well. Until very recently, most of the information from proponents was simply in self-defense. With the continuously hailed economic and population growth, coupled with constant complaints about traffic, perhaps they assumed the bond would easily pass, despite Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack’s opposition. The one thing Bond proponents are likely guilty of doing is underestimating the opposition and the effort they would put into seeing the Bond fail. Those in favor of the bond say much of the information from bond opponents is either misleading and taken out of context, or completely incorrect.

A 2011 road bond proposal with a $200 million price tag failed to win approval and it took four years to get another one on the table. The previous bond was heavily criticized for the lack of specificity. That mistake was not repeated with the current proposal. Unfortunately for proponents, the specificity may be what sinks it this time if the group so publicly rallying against it has their way.

The most controversial part of the bond is the extension of Woodlands Parkway, which the bond’s opponents say is set up to directly benefit developers- a theory with its own obvious and unsettling implications. However, Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal says that theory is ridiculous for several reasons, beginning with the extension having been part of the county’s major thoroughfare plan for more than 30 years and there is physical proof.

“When TxDOT built what are now the SH 249 feeder roads in the early 1990’s, they actually put curb cuts and the stub-outs,” Doyal said. “It’s been part of the plan since then.”

Ten years ago, then Commissioner Doyal got a bond issued from the South Montgomery County / Woodlands Chamber of Commerce in support of purchasing right of way from FM 2978 to Dobbin Huffsmith. Between then and 2009, Commissioner Doyal purchased that right of way, acting as an agent for the county. In that same role, Doyal says he did not purchase any right of where the two developers had land. Since the roadway would benefit those developers to some extent, Doyal said, he felt they could donate the right of way that was part of their properties.

Both developers in question already have ways to access their land from major thoroughfares, with Weems’ property abutting Dobbin Huffsmith and Richfield’s property having a stub-out from the SH 249 feeder road from his property, he said.

“They could start developing right now,” Doyal said. “They don’t need the extension to do it.”

Doyal says the county has a commitment in writing from Tim Weems to build the road and donate the right of way through is property. Richfield has committed to do the same, he said, and commissioners are working on getting that commitment in writing as well.

Another issue raised by the anti-road bond faction pertained to Fish Creek Thoroughfare. Doyal says the developers responsible for Montgomery Trace and Sendera Ranch donated the rights of way and built the roads through their developments.

“They didn’t build the bridge over Lake Creek and they didn’t build the overpass at FM 2854,” Doyal said. “There’s a gap between the two, and around 1990 they donated the entire right of way all the way through from FM 2854, almost to FM 1488.”

The county built the bridge over Lake Creek and made a road in the small gap between Sindera Ranch and Montgomery trace to tie it all together, creating what is now Fish Creek Thoroughfare. That road extends from FM 2854 all the way to FM 1488.

“You used to have to come down McCaleb and go over to Honea Egypt,” Doyal said.

All the tracts along the disputed Woodlands Parkway extension belong to different people, according to Doyal. If all the property belonged to one owner, he would never have bought that right of way on behalf of the county, because he would have expected the one owner to build the roadway, he said. Contrary to rumor, Doyal said the tracts of land along the extension belong to dozens of owners. Besides, he noted, a developer cannot exercise eminent domain and acquire a right of way through privately owned properties, making it impossible for the developers to build that road.

“What we’re looking at doing is trying to find another east / west corridor,” Doyal said. “That’s why it’s on our major thoroughfare plan. The more east / west and north / south corridors we create, the better traffic flow we could have.”

Doyal says the Road Bond will help alleviate the horrible traffic on FM 1488 by creating an alternate route to Pinehurst or Decker Prairie, or the other development occurring in that area, and ease congestion on FM 2978 by creating another east / west corridor.

“That’s why (the extension) has been on our major thoroughfare map for 30 years,” Doyal said. “That’s why TxDOT put the curb cuts in back in 1991, and that’s why we bought the right of way several years ago, he said.

“All the people that live on the other side of The Woodlands, Sterling Ridge and Alden Bridge- if they want to get to 249, they can take 249 to the Grand Parkway, the Beltway, or into North Harris County as opposed to going to I-45, or all the congestion on 2978,” Doyal said. “It allows an additional corridor to get over 249, to College Station, Waco or anywhere to north and west.”

The county’s Major Thoroughfare Plan, developed in 1979, was updated in 1985 and again in 1998, and is currently undergoing a major update with HGAC.

Another plan frequently mentioned is the South County Mobility Plan, an approximately two year old plan that is far more detailed and based on a $500,000 mobility study for which Precinct 3 picked up the tab. To do the same for the entire county would cost roughly $2 million, Doyal said.

“David Wardlow with HGAC recommended that we not do a detailed study countywide because the Major Thoroughfare Plan is more than adequate to provide us with the information,” he said.

Multiple acquisitions and projects have been based on the Major Thoroughfare Plan, which is updated continually, with a full staff of engineers involved, not to mention the Judge and two of the commissioners’ experience. Doyal said he has worked on these roads for 28 years, Commissioner Meador for 20 years, and Commissioner Riley for 15 years.

“I don’t need a $2 million study to tell me what roads need to be built or that 1488 is congested,” Doyal said.

He also pointed out how critical the Highway 105 part of the bond is to drivers who find its congestion has rapidly increased on both sides of Conroe. However, Doyal says he truly believes all 77 projects on the list are critical.

“The concerns I have are people pinpointing projects and jeopardizing the entire project,” he said. “It’s needed today for mobility.”

Doyal has been accused of everything from having a hidden agenda to wanting to build a $200 million jail. Contrary to current rumors, Doyal was opposed to that idea from the beginning and says it was never a consideration as far as he was concerned. That claim is supported by a September 6, 2014 article in the Conroe Courier quoting Doyal and Road Bond opponent Commissioner Noack as calling the $200 million jail plan “pricey.” Doyal said he supports a plan for a four story facility on the existing property, with ground level parking, and a price tag of $17 to $18 million.

As for wasting money on the Joe Corley Detention Center, nobody denies the county made a profit from its sale. Many questioned why it was built only to be sold in such a short time and never used for its intended purpose. The fact of the matter, according to Doyal, The County made a contract with US Marshals to put Immigration detainees in the facility for compensation, until the County needed it. The deal specified in five years, 30.5 percent of the prisoners must be from the Montgomery County Jail. Meanwhile, the federal compensation was helping to pay for the cost of the facility.

However, Doyal said when the five years was over, the county did not need as many beds as expected, due to a lull in jail population increase around 2008. The feds then told the county they could legally keep the facility open by moving in enough prisoners to fill the percentage, but that would mean the County was paying someone else to house jail inmates, while the Sheriff’s Office was still liable for them. According to Doyal, Sheriff Gage was not at all comfortable with that idea. The facility was sold and made a $22 million profit that was divided among commissioners, spent on capital projects, and left $14 million in escrow.

Sheriff Gage supports the Bond, saying, “law enforcement depends on good mobility to keep our citizens safe.”

Everyone has their own reasons and opinions and some former enemies have become allies in this fight and vice versa. Many issues have been raised and topics thrown into the mix from both sides, having little or nothing to do with the Road Bond. Ultimately, the voters will have the last word and should be as informed as possible before casting their votes.

Here are some helpful links to weigh all sides of the issue:

County’s Road Bond info site

http://vactx.org/montgomery-county-road-bond

http://keepmontgomerycountymoving.com/slide-1/

http://www.texaspatriotspac.com/

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