Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Feds agree to "streamline" environmental study for Trans-Texas Corridor

Trans-Texas Corridor boosted with ruling on environment


Peggy Fikac Chief, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2004

AUSTIN — Federal highway officials agreed to a streamlined environmental study process for the Trans-Texas Corridor that could speed progress on the Mexico-to-Oklahoma portion of the ambitious proposed web of highway, rail and utility zones.

State and federal officials said Tuesday the designation as a special experimental project won't impair environmental safeguards.

It's the second such designation to be granted in the United States, following a project in Virginia.

But the Sierra Club voiced concern over the action, which could allow right of way to be bought more quickly along the project's 600-mile strip meant to parallel Interstate 35.

It will allow the purchase of right of way for a particular road segment after an environmental study is completed on that segment — but before environmental studies are finished on the entire length of the road.

The action also will allow federal money to be spent on project planning before the environmental analysis is complete.

"We are not going to take any chances on harming the environment, and we're not going to change the process by which the environment is protected," Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said of the designation.

"I speak not only of plants and animals, but I speak of the social environment of our citizens as well," he said at a Capitol news conference.

"That process will be honored and followed to the letter — not because somebody makes us, but because it's what we want to do," he said.

Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said looking at the massive project in pieces rather than as a whole could miss some environmental effects.

"I think definitely the Trans-Texas Corridor project as a whole, and even any one corridor ... potentially has enormous environmental impacts," he said.

"Probably the biggest is the loss of open space and wildlife habitat, not just associated with the construction and operation of the corridor itself, but the indirect and cumulative impacts of the development that will occur as a result of the corridor being constructed," he said.

Williamson said allowing environmental, design and construction-related processes to proceed simultaneously could shave three to five years off the time needed for completion.

"Some have suggested as soon as 12 years, you'll see the largest portion of this corridor open and collecting tolls," he said.

That assumes the envisioned public-private partnership falls into place for the project, which has been championed by Gov. Rick Perry.

Three private partnerships are submitting proposals on developing and financing the Oklahoma-Mexico segment.

The overall project is envisioned as a 4,000-mile network including separate highway lanes for passenger cars and trucks, high-speed passenger rail, freight rail, commuter rail and a zone for utility lines. Its estimated cost is $180 billion.

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