Texas Department of Transportation officials say work on the Grand Parkway north of Interstate 10 is still on schedule, as various groups work toward a possible legal settlement concerning ancient bones discovered in the path of the new roadway through northwest Harris County.
The Harris County Historical Commission is appealing a recent state district court ruling that said TxDOT could move human remains discovered in two locations earlier this summer. The commission, which toured the sites last week with TxDOT, state historians and a University of Houston anthropologist, is seeking more time to study the area before highway work proceeds.
A 15-mile, four-lane extension of the Grand Parkway - known as Segment E - is under construction between I-10 and U.S. 290. Work on the $322 million project began last fall and is expected to be complete in late 2013.
While the appeal is underway, construction crews are at work on other parts of the fast-moving project, under four separate construction contracts, said TxDOT spokesman Danny Perez.
"This is new road so we have other opportunities and other areas to address," he said. "It's not stopping or impeding progress."
Perez said the bones were discovered during "prep work" such as soil sampling - not heavy construction. Because signs of early civilization were expected in that area, there were "contingencies" in place, he added.
"It's not something we didn't know was a possibility. There were contingencies in place so we could continue progress," Perez said. "When you build a brand-new freeway, you're bound to run into issues. It does happen and we try to be respectful."
TxDOT filed a request in July to move leg and jaw bones it found in the path of construction. The ruling by 234th District Judge Reece Rondon also granted the agency's request to remove and reinter any other bones it may find, including arm and leg bones found at a second site near the first.
Clarissa Bauer, a senior assistant Harris County attorney representing the Harris County Historical Commission, said she is "optimistic" that the sides can reach a "mutually beneficial resolution of the lawsuit."
"It's in everyone's best interest to maximize the scientific data that comes out of this discovery," she said.
The bones are estimated to be more than 2,000 years old and, perhaps, as old as 9,000 years. The historical commission sought to delay construction, saying scientists needed more time to excavate and study the sites.
Bauer said the find is a "big deal" and "hugely significant." Meanwhile, construction work is occurring simultaneously elsewhere, along four sections of the roadway.
The section of work from Kingsland Boulevard to Colonial Parkway is approximately 57 percent complete as of the last progress report in August, Perez said. Work in this area includes pouring bridge columns, footings and caps, setting bridge beams and pouring concrete for the bridge deck.
The section between Colonial Parkway to north of Mason Road is about 52 percent complete. Crews here are busy with earthwork, preparing the roadway base and pouring concrete.
The project section from north of Morton Road to the south side of Cypress Creek is about 37 percent complete, but also on schedule. Work here also consists of preparing the roadway base, pouring bridge columns, footings and caps and pouring concrete for roadway and bridge decks.
A section of the project from Cypress Creek to U.S. 290 is about 32 percent complete, but has "greatly accelerated" with the acquisition of a final large parcel of land, Perez said. At U.S. 290, the contractor is working on four direct connectors, as well as a new westbound frontage road. On the Grand Parkway portion of this contract, work includes two overpasses with retaining walls and an underground storm sewer on the north side of Cypress Creek.
Pavement will begin "soon," Perez said.
"Right now it's looking fine. We're moving as scheduled," Perez said. "But that could change. We'll have to wait and see."
Bauer said UH anthropologist Kenneth Brown's Sept. 21 site visit with representatives from Harris County, the State Attorney General's Office, the State Historical Commission and TxDOT was his first since receiving copies of previous state reports on the archeological find. Brown, who testified for the historical commission, has been asked to "re-evaluate whether the state is doing all that needs to be done or is there a possibility of doing more work at the sites," she said.
"They are telling me that this is one of the most significant archaeological sites in the United States … because of the age of the human remains," Bauer said. "The hope and expectation is that this could be resolved. Of course, TxDOT has to agree to any plan we come up with."