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Dayton train, rail district lead discussions at economic summit

May 23, 2019

The railroad in Dayton has been there since 1922.

It’s success and failure has largely been tied to the economic joys and woes of the city’s economy. It has also been the thorn and bane of drivers for years who have complained bitterly about blocking US 90 leading into and out of Dayton, but now, after nearly 100 years, relief is on the way.

“It’s been a problem, but as Dayton has grown, so has the problem,” said County Judge Jay Knight.

But with the problems of the train blocking intersections, the railyard has also produced a good bit of the local economy.

It may be that very angle, on how it blocks commerce for the city and county, that may have sparked the conversation to make a move now.

Dayton train

Following the announcement that the Houston-Galveston Area Council has pitched in nearly $46 million to move the tracks and build overpasses at the new location, speculation rages wild on when and why so long before it gets done.

“It took a team effort to get this done,” Knight said. “It involved most of the county, state, and federal officials sitting down and working together to find a way to make this happen. You’d be surprised at the team that worked to get this together,” the judge said.

Efforts in the past failed, but the loss of commerce for the county and city, the coming growth, and a benefit for Union Pacific may have been the catalyst that will see all stakeholders turning dirt on a much-needed project.

“The economic development of the county and city plays a role. How you grow your economy is up to you, but you’d better plan,” the judge told stakeholders at the quarterly Liberty County Economic Summit in Cleveland last week.

While the $46 million is a big bite, it falls short of the needed amount just for the highway portion.

“It will cost about another $10 million more to finish the highway portion,” Knight said, “and another $100 million to finish off the rail portion.” But don’t swallow too hard, the judge has a plan.

“We anticipate those funds will most likely come from private funds unless we can get some more grants and incentives from another direction.”

One such direction is a new federal grant that wouldn’t require any matching funds. Knight said they expected to know more by the end of the year.

It isn’t the only grant being looked at by officials. A ‘Build’ grant, formerly known as a Tiger grant, is also worth considering, but matching funds may be attached.

Also, the participation of the Liberty County Rural Rail District as a piece of the puzzle could also help solve the dilemma of the last funding mechanism.

“We are well on our way to getting that done and we expect construction to begin and coincide with the opening of the Grand Parkway,” he said.

“We’re not finished, but we will finish,” he promised.

The more expensive of two proposals given to H-GAC to consider, was approved and asks for a Y-connection on US 90 for the railroad which would eliminate the treacherous curve currently being used.

“This would move the rail back closer to Gulf Inland,” the judge said.

According to Alan Clark with H-GAC, TxDOT would not combine the two lanes currently coming down US 90 into Liberty, but they would remain separate for traffic safety.

With the Y-shape, it would require two overpasses on each side of traffic or four altogether.

The railroad would be able to get rid of the curve in the track which would speed up the trains on the track leaving and entering the yard.

Participation of the rail-use stakeholders is currently under negotiation and once completed, the funding mechanism, Knight hopes, would be complete.

If engineering and all other pre-build planning is completed soon enough, construction could begin even sooner.

“They’ll build the highway for it first and then the track would be laid following that,” Knight said he believed would be how it would happen.

The combination of SH 99 and the train overpasses could generate an economic boom never seen in Dayton. Some major projects are already underway but could not be revealed because of sensitive negotiations.

Drainage district progress

In preparation for that growth and to solve existing issues, State Rep. Ernest Bailes filed a bill that would allow Liberty County voters to decide on the creation of a drainage district to address the county-wide flooding issue.

Knight said current drainage districts were formed for farmers, but with fast growth in the county, something must be done or face disastrous results down the road.

“Six districts were originally created, and three have gone away,” Knight said, but neither cover the entire county.

HB 1820 has wound its way through the House and is in the Senate, with a few words stricken from the bill, namely ‘eminent domain.’

Knight said the county is seeking a $2.2 million grant to get funded by December that would pay for a drainage study and a drainage plan.

“We’ll work to get this on a referendum for the voters to decide whether or not they want it,” the judge said. “I’m not going to force it down anyone’s throat.”

Knight said they’d provide the figures for what it would cost to take care of it now versus the cost if the voters decide to wait.

“I just don’t want us to end up like Harris County where it’s costing billions to take care of their issues,” he said. “It’s my job to at least make the offer and go from there,” he said.

Of the two major TxDOT projects in the county, both have experienced some setbacks with the rain, but are on target to complete the highways.

TxDOT Construction

The James Construction Group received $102 million contract for construction converting a non-freeway four-main lane asphalt facility to a freeway facility consisting of widening to six concrete main lanes with asphalt frontage roads. The project began on May 1, 2019 and completion date is anticipated to be May 2022. Currently, the contractor is setting up a field office complex placing traffic control signage and devices and placing stormwater pollution prevention plan devices in the area.

Progress on State Highway 99 continues. Construction began last summer on July 26 and they remain hopeful for a Feb. 27, 2022 substantial completion of the project. According to Omar DeLeon of TxDOT, the design continues to progress and is approximately 84 percent complete. Of the 234 estimated right-of-way parcels, 86 are in possession and cleared for construction.

Work at the Coastal Water Authority siphon system at Luce Bayou is progressing. Clearing operations north of Luce Bayou and bridge substructure are ongoing. The clearing and grubbing work may start next month, however, the actual roadway and bridge construction along US 90 and other major intersections in Liberty County won’t start till Spring of 2020.

CLEVELAND

McKinley Development continues to progress at the Grand Oaks Reserve. In commercial development along SH 321, Huddle House is going through a final inspection and should open in the next few weeks. The five model homes have been completed and are open to the public.

“All the infrastructure is in place and they are permitting for the first section of homes,” said Kelly McDonald, city manager for Cleveland.

A second development on the west side of SH 105 will have another 800 homes and backs up to the McKinley Industrial Park and three new warehouse projects already built.

“We have as many as three or four developers coming in to meet with us on a regular basis,” McDonald said. Three developers are in the midst of building 100-plus lots.

The Cleveland EDC has been working with Retail Coach to complete a marketing study and is now being sent out to developers and retail for development. One of the merchants in talks is a new grocer, and more casual dining for the community. They have also been in negotiations with landowners of 700-acres are more along the US 59/69 corridor to extend the roadways into those areas and develop those into more industrial areas.

“We’ve had discussions with the Port of Houston who have connected us with potential commercial development,” she said. McDonald said they needed those jobs to return to Cleveland following the loss of the major hospital and the GP plant.

BNSF has purchased 842 acres west of Cleveland along the SH 105 and Fostoria Road area. No plans or designs have been revealed yet.

LIBERTY

The city is in negotiations with a hotel chain company.

“It’s something that we desperately need. Council will take action on the 380-agreement next week,” said Tom Warner, city manager of Liberty.

While Liberty is not experiencing the same growth trajectory as Cleveland or Dayton, there is growth potential being explored by one local developer.

“He’s starting with a 10-acre development, or basically four lots, and another 380 acres available to him. He will expand to 50 acres after that and we hope that it will spark the development of the remaining acres,” Warner said.

The city is land-locked but there’s another 400-acre pastureland site that is also available as additional rooftops for the city.

“We hope that will also attract additional retail development,” he said. PLC is building a strip center on 146, north of Liberty. “It’s a Class One project,” Warner said.

DAYTON

City Manager Theo Melancon told stakeholders that the city was looking inward before looking outward as the growth comes.

“Right now, we’re working on taking care of the current infrastructure including water and sewer lines, and major road projects,” he said. To subsidize those efforts, the council passed a Certificate of Obligation last year that will open up funds for much-needed road repairs.

The city manager said they wanted to make the current city footprint more attractive to investors in the area.

“We want to maximize what we have today,” Melancon said. “We’ve been working on projects with the county and the relationship in this room is not the same as it is with other counties around the state,” he said about the cooperation of stakeholders.

Melancon said the city is focused on creating shovel-ready projects and is also negotiating a deal with a hotel that will be in a prominent site in the city.

“Our growth this year has been more controlled and manageable. The home-building is going strong and will continue,” he said.

The next meeting of the Liberty County Economic Summit is scheduled for July 10 at 11:30 a.m. at the Dayton Community Center.

dtaylor@hcnonline.com

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