By: Jessica Shorten
CONROE, TX – Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley accepted an award on behalf of Montgomery County for the TX 249 tollway project named “Project of the Year - Transportation Greater Than $75 Million” by the American Public Works Association, Texas Chapter on October 21, 2021, a massive milestone for a project which became the focal point of the 2018 election cycle and was very nearly scrapped altogether.
The TX-249 toll road, as currently situated, is part of a much larger roadway nicknamed the “Aggie Expressway.” As a thoroughfare on the books for decades to connect Houston to College Station, efforts to complete the project had been unsuccessful until around 2010, when a group of individuals from the Tomball Chamber of Commerce approached then-Precinct 2 Commissioner Craig Doyal about reviving the project with TxDOT.
After that initial meeting, Doyal held several meetings with Ned Holmes on the Texas Transportation Commission at that time and Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, who quickly agreed to participate in the project as the pair began working together to get TxDOT on board. Unfortunately, TX-249 was not on the list of priority projects for TxDOT at the time, meaning if Montgomery and Harris County wanted the project built, they would be required to fund the project. From the beginning, this meant the new roadway would be tolled.
In Harris County, Cagle was able to obtain some funding from the legislature for the Harris County portion of TX-249 through a partnership with former State Rep. Allen Fletcher. Harris County broke ground on their section in 2013 and completed construction in 2015.
In Montgomery County, the county loaned start-up costs to the Montgomery County Toll Road Authority. After Doyal became County Judge in 2015 and Charlie Riley filled the position of Precinct 2 Commissioner, planning for the TX-249 toll road continued. Numerous meetings and public hearings with TxDOT resulted in Montgomery County moving forward with financing the project using revenue bonds, which are backed by the revenue generated by the specific project being financed by the bond issue. In other words, the money raised by the bond offering finances the project, and the project–once complete–generates the revenue/tolls to pay the interest and principal on the bonds.
Unfortunately, opposition arose against the TX-249 project in Montgomery County due to the fact it would be a tolled roadway; and despite the fact the project included non-tolled frontage roads along the entire route and groups such as law enforcement heavily favored of the project.
Multiple studies indicated the $73 million dollar project would be highly successful in alleviating traffic in the Magnolia area, with around 60% of the expected tolled traffic coming from non-Montgomery County residents who only cut through Magnolia or traveled to special events like the Renaissance Festival. But TxDOT made clear on numerous occasions the only way the project would be completed any time in the near future was if Montgomery County financed the project.
TxDOT Commissioner Victor Vandergriff attended a session of the Montgomery County Commissioners’ Court to inform everyone, “If you don’t [construct the toll road], the road will probably not get built in our lifetime.”
When MCTRA finally agreed to go out for bids, the revenue bonds sold the same day. The $87.7 million in revenue bonds for the entire cost of the project, which included reimbursements to county funds used when they began work, received multiple buyer requests, resulting in a lower interest rate than originally anticipated.
“Despite the opposition, Montgomery County sorely needed to provide mobility to the residents of Precinct 2, and with it, created untold economic development opportunities,” said former County Judge Craig Doyal upon hearing the news of the award. “People saw the value in [TX-249] and saw the numbers now operating well above projections.”
After years of work paving the way for the construction of TX-249, Doyal lost his position as County Judge in the 2018 election cycle to current County Judge Mark Keough, but Precinct 2 Commissioner Riley retained his position and oversaw the actual construction of the massive mobility project which almost never was.
When County Judge Mark Keough issued orders to close non-essential businesses on March 26, 2020 due to COVID, the Montgomery County portion of TX-249 was set to open the main lanes just two days later. Both the State of Texas and Harris County Toll Road Authority suspended the collection of tolls, resulting in a loss of revenue for the Montgomery County Toll Road Authority.
According to former County Judge Doyal, the original budget planned for construction delays and the possibility of reduced collections at the beginning of the project, therefore, COVID-19 did not affect MCTRA’s ability to meet debt service requirements.
“We were working together with an impressive team of construction and engineering partners to offer an outstanding product that would benefit the west side of Montgomery County. The purpose was to improve mobility concerns for the current growing population”, stated Riley in a press release announcing the award. “The success of SH 249 has validated my expectations for what this road will do economically for Montgomery County.”
SpawGlass Civil Construction, Halff & Associates, and Jones & Carter each received a plaque at the ceremony for their participation in the TX-249 project as contractor, consultants, engineers, and architects.