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burlesona

The problem with the Grand Parkway...

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Hey everyone,

I just uploaded a big post to my blog that I think you'll enjoy. You can read the complete story online at http://www.neohouston.com/2009/04/new-mobility-northwest/

Here's one of the main highlights:

grandparkwayareaexample.png

In the image above the red line represents the proposed route of the Grand Parkway. The black boxes represent an area approximately the size of the loop.

Generally the area "inside the loop", or "the Inner Loop", is considered Houston's urban center, this is represented by the red box in the image. The Inner Loop has a population of aproximately 600,000. It is crossed by 7 freeways, and of course, the loop. The average population density is about 6,500 people per square mile.

This area, Houston's densest overall, is significantly less dense than many other entire cities in the US, such as Los Angeles (~8,200/sqmi), Washington DC (~9,500/sqmi), Chicago (~12,500/sqmi). In other words, it's not that dense. The Loop is home to both skyscrapers and cottages, and in my experience (as an inner looper) it's considered to be a great place to live, and not terribly crowded.

The area between the loop and the beltway is shown in yellow boxes. As you can see this area is 6 times larger than the inner loop, though it is less dense. Some of the areas in yellow, in particular due south of the Loop, are scarcely populated. On average each of these areas is crossed by two freeways.

The area between the proposed Grand Parkway and the Beltway is about 14 times larger than the area inside the loop. Most of this area is barely populated, and most of these sectors are covered by only one freeway.

If the area between the beltway and the loop were built-out like the medium-density Inner Loop, it would be home to 3.6 million people. This would mean 4 million people living in Houston inside the Beltway. I don't know what the population actually is between the loop and the Beltway, but since the entire Houston-Galveston metro region is currently projected to be home to under 6 million people, it's clearly a lot less developed than that.

If the area between the proposed Grand Parkway and the Beltway were as developed as the Inner Loop, the area would be home to 8.4 million people. Add this to the 4 million living inside the Beltway (if the density level were the same) and Houston would be home to 12.4 million people.

Clearly, there is no way in this universe that 12.4 million people are going to be efficiently served by a single freeway. How, then, is building the Grand Parkway "just like building the loop" or "just like building the Beltway?"

It's not.

I hope you guys enjoy the post. I'd love to hear comments, either here or on the blog is fine, though I'll probably reply faster on the blog. Thanks!

Edited by burlesona

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unless we're all confined to one box, i'm not seeing the problem. when are the border guards deployed?

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unless we're all confined to one box, i'm not seeing the problem. when are the border guards deployed?

Well, sorry if the clipping from the post is too out of context. The boxes are not meant as any kind of constraint, they're just illustrating the relative areas served by different freeways.

My point was, most of the defenders of the Grand Parkway argue something like this:

"It's just like when Houston built the loop or the beltway. We have to build it or growth will overwhelm us and traffic will be out of control."

However, because of the size and scale of the Grand Parkway (the area between GP and the Beltway is 14 times bigger than the area inside the loop) you really can't compare the construction of the Grand Parkway to the Beltway and you especially cannot compare it to the Loop.

We don't need an outer-outer beltway. What we need is an inter-suburban connector. Therefore the proposed alignment of the Grand Parkway is a bad choice, and what we should build instead is a more direct connection between Katy, Cypress and Spring.

That's the idea that's explained in detail on the blog, it's a little long to re-post in entirety here though.

Anyway, sorry I wasn't more clear about what the drawing represented before, thanks for pointing that out :)

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I got an answer to this. The parkway makes a bunch of squares out of highways and interstates. You could be going on I-10 West then get on the beltway heading North. Then hit 290 going West. Then get on the Grand Parkway head south and then get back on I-10 and go East. That is virtually what it would do to all those squares. Just a bunch of square "loops" around each area. Might take awhile to decipher :P

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A lot of things have changed since the inner loop was built out. People were at one time limited by the distance that they were willing to walk regardless of route, then they were limited by the distance that they were willing to ride a fairly small number of fixed-guideway streetcars, then they were limited by the routes served by bus, and then--with the automobile--the commuter's route was unlimited and the distance was limited only by affordability and time. Each dominant mode of transit left a physical legacy that will never again be replicated. You cannot and should not expect the density of the inner-beltway to be the same as the inner-loop, nor the inner-parkway to be the same as the inner-loop. Not only are the physical patterns of growth simply not conducive to that, but household preferences totally and completely eliminate the possibility of complete 100% regional growth by way of urban infill. Sure, the area inside the Grand Parkway **could** accommodate 12.4 million people, but it isn't going to. We need to develop transportation infrastructure in anticipation of a realistic outcome.

A few other things to consider: 1) the requirements for flood control have become vastly greater than they once were; stormwater detention ponds take up a sizable amount of land area in the suburbs, not only including the vast Barker and Addicks Reservoirs, but innumerable little plots of land that will never again be developable. 2) Large regional parks, bodies of water, and water supplies including Lake Houston, Sheldon Lake, Clear Lake, Tom Bass, Bear Creek, Brazos Bend, Art Story Park, and many others are disproportionately located in suburban areas. 3) Large industrial concentrations such as will never be suitable for large-scale residential development are almost entirely located outside of the inner loop; these include the vast Houston Ship Channel complex, Bayport Industrial Park (which is much larger than just a container terminal), Barbour's Cut, and I'll also throw in airports such as Bush, Hobby, Ellington Field, West Houston Airport, La Porte Municipal Airport, etc.

My point was, most of the defenders of the Grand Parkway argue something like this:

"It's just like when Houston built the loop or the beltway. We have to build it or growth will overwhelm us and traffic will be out of control."

However, because of the size and scale of the Grand Parkway (the area between GP and the Beltway is 14 times bigger than the area inside the loop) you really can't compare the construction of the Grand Parkway to the Beltway and you especially cannot compare it to the Loop.

We don't need an outer-outer beltway. What we need is an inter-suburban connector. Therefore the proposed alignment of the Grand Parkway is a bad choice, and what we should build instead is a more direct connection between Katy, Cypress and Spring.

That's the idea that's explained in detail on the blog, it's a little long to re-post in entirety here though.

Anyway, sorry I wasn't more clear about what the drawing represented before, thanks for pointing that out :)

The route of the Grand Parkway is already divisive as it is because it encroaches into the built-out northwestern and northern suburbs. The problem with moving it closer in is that the land that would've made a good inter-suburban connector has already been so thoroughly built out. There's no clear path. Either we cut directly through neighborhoods, we buy out extremely expensive strips of commercial land along major thoroughfares to try and follow pre-existing routes, or we shift the route just a little further out beyond the urban periphery in anticipation of the periphery continuing to expand in the future, which it's going to do one way or the other, with or without the Grand Parkway being there.

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We don't need an outer-outer beltway. What we need is an inter-suburban connector. Therefore the proposed alignment of the Grand Parkway is a bad choice, and what we should build instead is a more direct connection between Katy, Cypress and Spring.

so you want to doze existing homes and businesses instead of using an alignment that has already been set aside?

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We don't need an outer-outer beltway. What we need is an inter-suburban connector.

Doesn't the Grand Parkway accomplish both of those goals?

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My point was, most of the defenders of the Grand Parkway argue something like this:

"It's just like when Houston built the loop or the beltway. We have to build it or growth will overwhelm us and traffic will be out of control."

It's not really meant to do anything other than spur development, which in turn is retroactively used to justify building it in the first place.

Edited by N Judah

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I understand your point and you can certainly make an arguement for a direct connector between the outlying cities. When it comes to actually laying out the route, it's going to get a lot more problematic. I'd be very interested to see a Katy-Cypress-Spring route that can be completed without causing dislocation of thousands of people in the process. Even if eminent domain was used to seize that land, I expect it would quickly turn into a lengthy legal process and an alignment that would end up never being built.

Regarding the density inside the loop, I agree that the density inside the loop is not high in comparison to other major cities and that, for many people, it is a very desirable place to live. However, Houston has been the one of the least regulated markets in the country and has had one of the lowest housing costs for many years now, so I would argue that, for the most part, people live where they choose to live. Many of them have chosen to live outside the loop.

The assumption behind your post is that increased density is an acceptable solution for all, but it is ignoring the economic reality that many people will choose low density if they have the opportunity. There is plenty of land inside the loop for density development. The reason that it isn't getting developed to achieve Chicago levels of density is that there isn't sufficient demand for it.

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Doesn't the Grand Parkway accomplish both of those goals?

Exactly right. Problem solved.

And Burlesona really went off the tracks with the last paragraph:

"Clearly, there is no way in this universe that 12.4 million people are going to be efficiently served by a single freeway. How, then, is building the Grand Parkway "just like building the loop" or "just like building the Beltway?""

How are we suddenly trying to serve 12.4 million people with one freeway? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think the Grand Parkway plan includes tearing out all of our existing freeways... ;-)

I presume what he meant to say was that we would be serving 8.4 million people with one freeway. But of course that is equally wrong. First, in his theory, the 8.4 million people would all live between the Beltway and the Grand Parkway. They would obviously be served by both freeways. Second, they would also continue to be served by the spoke freeways. In fact, many, if not most, of the boxes on his map show two freeways serving the territory.

Edited by Houston19514

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@theNiche: You're right, I meant 8.4 million, my bad.

@Everyone:

What I'm saying is Houston is screwed either way with the current plan. Either:

A. That area doesn't develop very densely and form new activity centers, in which case the mega-freeway isn't needed...

or

B. The area does grow as projected, in which case the Grand Parkway won't be enough.

As you get farther and farther out from the core there are fewer and fewer major through routes. This is the biggest cause of congestion and the biggest restraint on infill development.

If y'all are interested in really arguing this topic with me, I'd love to hear what you have to say after reading the entire post on the blog and considering it in context. What I'm arguing is that Grand Parkway is too far out to make any difference on today's traffic issues, and that a better investment of the money TODAY would be to build several multiways (something like Allen Parkway) that can fit in the ROW of a major thoroughfare but carry far more capacity than an ordinary surface arterial. We need one that rings close-in to existing development (alt. grand parkway), we need major improvements in the SH-6/1960 corridor, and we could use a few others to connect up the network in between. You can see an illustration of this idea on neohouston if you care to look.

Those improvements are more cost effective and more relevant to Houston as it is today - a city already choking on traffic. If we use Grand Parkway to pave the way for a huge new wave of low-density strip development without doing something significant to improve traffic in the existing areas, then the net effect of Grand Parkway will be a far worse traffic nightmare for most in Northwest Houston.

If anyone wants to argue that the proposed Grand Parkway alignment will offer *any* measurable improvement for CURRENT traffic issues in NW Houston, I'd love to hear your thinking.

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Not that it really matters, because I agree with the gist of the critiques given so far.. but since you gave the pop density numbers for the inner loop, it would have been nice to see the same for the other two zones instead of using "scarcely" and "barely"

I'll give you an A for the map though... It is an interesting way to depict the relative sizes of our loops... you should send it in to Bill at Radical Cartography...

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Not that it really matters, because I agree with the gist of the critiques given so far.. but since you gave the pop density numbers for the inner loop, it would have been nice to see the same for the other two zones instead of using "scarcely" and "barely"

I'll give you an A for the map though... It is an interesting way to depict the relative sizes of our loops... you should send it in to Bill at Radical Cartography...

I'll try and figure those numbers out. I calculated the pop and density inside the loop using the census estimates broken down by zip code, and it took a long, long time. There are way more zip codes outside (ie it would take even that much longer) and they don't match the boundaries of the freeways as much... so I'm not sure it would be as accurate.

In any case, I'll gladly post numbers if I can find them, or if I have the time to calculate them (or find a better way to calculate them). Thanks.

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What I'm saying is Houston is screwed either way with the current plan. Either:

A. That area doesn't develop very densely and form new activity centers, in which case the mega-freeway isn't needed...

or

B. The area does grow as projected, in which case the Grand Parkway won't be enough.

It's somewhat difficult to provide a single answer because Houston's growth hasn't radiated outward evenly from the center.

The areas to the southwest, west, north, and southeast have already grown far beyond the proposed alignment of the Grand Parkway, so obviously those areas are going to use it (or are already using it). Even neighborhoods just inside the Grand Parkway will use it as an alternative to using their major thoroughfares, helping to relieve local traffic. The area around Cinco Ranch is probably a pretty good model for the use of the other already-developed sections immediately upon completion.

Areas to the northwest and north-northeast have lots of development coming within a short distance of the Grand Parkway's proposed alignment. It'll be an alternative to using their existing major thoroughfares, helping to relieve local traffic. And no doubt, there are plenty of places where the major thoroughfares leading to the Grand Parkway will have to be upgraded.

Areas to the northeast, east, and south really are out in the boonies. In each case there is development out there, but it is sparse. The northeast and east sections will be a long time in coming. By the time that they actually do get built, the situation may have changed. The south section is on a weird and inefficient alignment. I'm not clear what's going on with that, but even given its odd path, it'll make travel between League City, Alvin, or Sugar Land/Richmond/Rosenberg much easier; currently there aren't any good surface routes.

In any event, it is far from clear that we're screwed. By the time that the segments of the Grand Parkway get built out even in all the places where development has already surged beyond its alignment, there may already have been enough growth in the other areas to justify those segments. Today's transportation demands simply don't apply to a roadway that is variously between about two and ten years away (optimistically) from completion.

...a better investment of the money TODAY would be to build several multiways (something like Allen Parkway) that can fit in the ROW of a major thoroughfare but carry far more capacity than an ordinary surface arterial. We need one that rings close-in to existing development (alt. grand parkway), we need major improvements in the SH-6/1960 corridor, and we could use a few others to connect up the network in between. You can see an illustration of this idea on neohouston if you care to look.

Those improvements are more cost effective and more relevant to Houston as it is today - a city already choking on traffic. If we use Grand Parkway to pave the way for a huge new wave of low-density strip development without doing something significant to improve traffic in the existing areas, then the net effect of Grand Parkway will be a far worse traffic nightmare for most in Northwest Houston.

If anyone wants to argue that the proposed Grand Parkway alignment will offer *any* measurable improvement for CURRENT traffic issues in NW Houston, I'd love to hear your thinking.

We couldn't build them TODAY. These projects are years in the making, before ground is ever broken. We have to build them to accommodate the conditions of TOMORROW because that's when they'll become operational. The logic applies to any project, whether it is a new suburban freeway, an urban parkway, or light rail in the inner loop.

I like the idea of implementing urban parkways along a number of new routes, however I don't believe that it is plausible in a great number of cases. I especially like the idea of making major improvements to Highway 6 or FM 1960, however I don't consider those improvements as mutually exclusive to the need for the Grand Parkway.

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We couldn't build them TODAY. These projects are years in the making, before ground is ever broken. We have to build them to accommodate the conditions of TOMORROW because that's when they'll become operational. The logic applies to any project, whether it is a new suburban freeway, an urban parkway, or light rail in the inner loop.

I like the idea of implementing urban parkways along a number of new routes, however I don't believe that it is plausible in a great number of cases. I especially like the idea of making major improvements to Highway 6 or FM 1960, however I don't consider those improvements as mutually exclusive to the need for the Grand Parkway.

My concern is that people are thinking only of tomorrow's growth and not on the area as it's currently built. All I'm really trying to argue is that we need to pay attention to addressing the regions most urgent transportation needs today rather than giving up and skipping on to the next problem. That's why improvements in the SH6/1960 corridor are so important.

My other biggest concern is that people are content that the proposed GP alignment will be the only major route crossing NW Houston, and that if that ends up being the case the areas in the middle of the GP, 290, 8, 10 'wedge' will be too far removed from any major regional transportation to develop efficiently.

Thus, it's more important to build new routes close-in to where the already existing underserved developments than to build it super wide. We could offer phenomenal improvements in transportation access by providing multiways (which can fit in the existing ROWs) for those areas, and that should be our top priority in NW Houston. I don't really have a problem with planning for the next ring beyond that (closer to where GP is currently proposed) so long as we don't ignore the tremendous unmet needs already existing.

Anyway, thanks for all your feedback, it's very interesting and I enjoy opportunity to expand my thinking on these things.

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While I support the GP, I also like the idea of more Allen Parkway-type solutions closer in where RoW is available. The trick is paying for them. The GP will be self-funding with tolls. I wonder if we could build similarly self-funded AP-type roads with small EZ-tag toll fees on the underpasses? (if you don't want to pay, stay up top and go thru the light)

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My concern is that people are thinking only of tomorrow's growth and not on the area as it's currently built. All I'm really trying to argue is that we need to pay attention to addressing the regions most urgent transportation needs today rather than giving up and skipping on to the next problem. That's why improvements in the SH6/1960 corridor are so important.

My other biggest concern is that people are content that the proposed GP alignment will be the only major route crossing NW Houston, and that if that ends up being the case the areas in the middle of the GP, 290, 8, 10 'wedge' will be too far removed from any major regional transportation to develop efficiently.

Thus, it's more important to build new routes close-in to where the already existing underserved developments than to build it super wide. We could offer phenomenal improvements in transportation access by providing multiways (which can fit in the existing ROWs) for those areas, and that should be our top priority in NW Houston. I don't really have a problem with planning for the next ring beyond that (closer to where GP is currently proposed) so long as we don't ignore the tremendous unmet needs already existing.

Anyway, thanks for all your feedback, it's very interesting and I enjoy opportunity to expand my thinking on these things.

One of the reasons that so many parts of Houston are not already well-served is because we failed to look ahead in the first place and be proactive. I agree that there need for transportation infrastructure improvements made to areas where people already live, but making this a priority to the exclusion of projects that will serve future populations just creates today's problems tomorrow, all over again. It's far easier and less expensive to be proactive than reactionary--it is unfortunate that being proactive is not politically popular.

In an ideal world, routes like Highway 6 and FM 529 would've been built with grade separations decades ago. I agree that these areas are underserved. But those roads are so completely built out and highly-trafficked that they just aren't low-hanging fruit the way that the west, northwest, and north Grand Parkway segments are. ...besides which, the political mechanisms for funding are completely different.

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While I support the GP, I also like the idea of more Allen Parkway-type solutions closer in where RoW is available. The trick is paying for them. The GP will be self-funding with tolls. I wonder if we could build similarly self-funded AP-type roads with small EZ-tag toll fees on the underpasses? (if you don't want to pay, stay up top and go thru the light)

I've thought about that, and I think it's a great idea from a technical standpoint. The question is, can it happen politically?

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I've thought about that, and I think it's a great idea from a technical standpoint. The question is, can it happen politically?

I think it can. It sort of already has with the ramp from the Beltway to 249 outbound. You pay a toll to get out of the Beltway regardless, but it's cheaper and smoother to have an EZ-Tag.

I've been back and forth on my support of GP, but I think that I can finally say that I support it--with conditions. If it is built as currently conceived with few feeder roads and is tolled, I can live with that. Furthermore, if it can have some sort of scenic designation along it and within say, 100 yards of its ROW, then I would consider it a winner. It could be one of the great hinterland drives in the nation. Hopefully, they will green all the stack interchanges that will be along it as well (12 or 13 of them if my count is right) Also, I know people get tired of playing this card, but anything that will help in evacuations is a necessity, which makes me think that the next segments to be built should have been the ones connecting Gulf Freeway to Katy Freeway, instead of Katy to 290.

The best version would have been the originally conceived version, with multiple lakes, ponds, and greenery along it.

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some updated information regarding the Grand Parkway & the usage of federal stimulus dollars

Our large coalition of neighborhoods that joined together ten years ago under the banner of United to Save Our Spring still fights the battle to stop the Grand Parkway from destroying our part of NW Harris County, that which the Grand Parkway Association affectionately refers to as Segment F-2. We have shared information between neighborhoods and between other groups also fighting the Grand Parkway, and still the battle continues, ten long years later.

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One of the reasons that so many parts of Houston are not already well-served is because we failed to look ahead in the first place and be proactive. I agree that there need for transportation infrastructure improvements made to areas where people already live, but making this a priority to the exclusion of projects that will serve future populations just creates today's problems tomorrow, all over again. It's far easier and less expensive to be proactive than reactionary--it is unfortunate that being proactive is not politically popular.

In an ideal world, routes like Highway 6 and FM 529 would've been built with grade separations decades ago. I agree that these areas are underserved. But those roads are so completely built out and highly-trafficked that they just aren't low-hanging fruit the way that the west, northwest, and north Grand Parkway segments are. ...besides which, the political mechanisms for funding are completely different.

ROFL!! Looking ahead?? that's just not in our DNA as Houstonians. We live La Vie Boheme... in the moment. Then we deal with the consequences later :)

You said this earlier, but the suburban growth in Houston (hell the U-R-B-A-N growth in Houston) is very disproportionate to the supposed "center-out" setup of the freeway infrastructure. Even within the loop... of the nearly 600,000 people that live here, I'd be willing to bet that if you split the loop in half, 500,000 of those people are going to live WEST of downtown and main street. As you go further out between the loop and the Beltway, this disparity only intensifies... packed in areas like Gulfton and Sharpstown, and then large tracts of next-to-nothing like the C.E. King Parkway.

Having lived in various parts of the city (Northshore on the East side, Meyerland and Galleria area on the West, and now Greater Eastwood), I think the Grand Parkway would work REASONABLY well as a connection between I-45, 290, and I-10. Thanks to our good buddy sprawl, the first segment of GP now has a regular stream of traffic between La Canterra and Sugarland Town Square (literally, just those two areas). But in any other directions, it's just simply not needed. For goodness sake, the B-E-L-T-W-A-Y between 59 north and I-10 East isn't completed yet.

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ROFL!! Looking ahead?? that's just not in our DNA as Houstonians. We live La Vie Boheme... in the moment. Then we deal with the consequences later :)

You said this earlier, but the suburban growth in Houston (hell the U-R-B-A-N growth in Houston) is very disproportionate to the supposed "center-out" setup of the freeway infrastructure. Even within the loop... of the nearly 600,000 people that live here, I'd be willing to bet that if you split the loop in half, 500,000 of those people are going to live WEST of downtown and main street. As you go further out between the loop and the Beltway, this disparity only intensifies... packed in areas like Gulfton and Sharpstown, and then large tracts of next-to-nothing like the C.E. King Parkway.

Having lived in various parts of the city (Northshore on the East side, Meyerland and Galleria area on the West, and now Greater Eastwood), I think the Grand Parkway would work REASONABLY well as a connection between I-45, 290, and I-10. Thanks to our good buddy sprawl, the first segment of GP now has a regular stream of traffic between La Canterra and Sugarland Town Square (literally, just those two areas). But in any other directions, it's just simply not needed. For goodness sake, the B-E-L-T-W-A-Y between 59 north and I-10 East isn't completed yet.

I suspect that the number of folks that live east of Main Street inside the Loop is probably more in the 175,000 to 225,000 range, and I do believe that there is a good reason for the Grand Parkway to be extended into Galveston County, but otherwise I agree pretty well with your assessment.

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