Thursday, March 25, 2004

Over 500 jam hall to voice opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor project.

Fayette farmers say no to transportation proposal


Victoria Advocate
Copyright 2004

LA GRANGE - Some farmers and ranchers fear that a proposed statewide transportation plan calling for a 4,000-mile network of highways, railways and utility zones will cut across Fayette County, the heart of what they call cattle country, destroying their livelihood.

Those people were among the more than 500 who jammed into the Knights of Columbus Hall in La Grange on Tuesday night to voice opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor project.

"I live and work in cattle country. I can look out any window of my house and see a cow. I know cows. And, let me tell you, the Trans-Texas Corridor is no cash cow. It's just bull," said David Stall of Fayetteville. "This plan is dangerous. This plan is dangerous to the immediate mobility needs of our state's biggest cities. This plan is dangerous to homeland security. This plan is dangerous to free enterprise. This plan is dangerous to the Texas tourism industry. This plan is dangerous to local economies. This plan is dangerous to individual's property rights. This plan is dangerous to all Texans."

The crowd erupted in applause after Stall read his three-page prepared statement. Half the people gave Stall, who helped create a Web site called to keep an eye on the proposed project, a standing ovation during the meeting, the second one held in La Grange in less than a month to discuss the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Fayette County Judge Ed Janecka called for the meeting after residents were left with more questions than answers at a Feb. 25 meeting with Texas Department of Transportation officials.

For Tuesday's meeting, he invited Mike Behrens, the executive director of the department of transportation, and John W. Johnson, the past chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, to come answer questions about the project.

Some at the second meeting, though, said they were still left with more questions than answers.

"I have this weird feeling you know more than you're saying," Jason Cook of La Grange said. Later as he sat and listened to others ask questions regarding such issues as mineral rights, a plan to subsidize taxes for loss of land used for the roadway and the possible expansion of Interstate 10, the rancher commented "Big Bird may as well have been here. He knows as much about it as they do."

Both Behrens and Johnson said at the start of the meeting that there would probably be questions they would not be able to answer.

But, Behrens' answer that he did not know specifically when - or even if - a corridor would be built through South Central Texas, drew grumbles from the crowd. And shouts of "yes you do" accompanied louder grumbles when Behrens said he did not know where the corridor would be located.

Asked specifically if the corridor would be built eight to 10 miles north of Interstate 10, putting it between Schulenburg and La Grange, Behrens answered, "we do not know where that route will go at this time."

He noted that there is a map with proposed corridor routes scrawling across the state on the transportation department's Web site, but he explained "the lines on the map are strictly a concept.

"Yes, there's a line on that map, but that line does not mean anything," Behrens said, explaining that where the corridors will be located will depend on various factors such as traffic congestion, population and environmental studies.

John Paul Jones of Ammannsville said a conceptual line was going over his very real property, and he wondered what to do as far as selling the land.

Jones asked Behrens for a recommendation on what to do about his property if it falls in the corridor's proposed zone.

"If that's in the line," Jones said, "I might as well bulldoze my house right now."

Behrens said "I would recommend that you just carry on with your daily life."

Jones then asked, "Are you guys interested in buying any property?"

"Well, if the price is right," Behrens answered.

The crowd moaned at Johnson, too, as he reiterated Behrens' statement, saying "one thing that we are trying to emphasize is this is purely conceptual."

"If you don't believe that, you might as well go on," he said after hearing the crowd's reaction. "What you see on the Web site are lines on a map that do not represent where the corridors are necessarily going. Some of them may. Some of them may not."

The Trans-Texas Corridor, which could be up to 1,200 feet wide and have separate lanes for cars and 18-wheelers, is proposed to run parallel to segments of Interstate 35, Interstate 37 and the proposed Interstate 69.

House Bill 3588, which was approved in June 2003, was the enabling legislation for the corridor project. The bill also calls for the network to be paid through tolls and the sale of bonds.

State Rep. Robby Cook, a Democrat from Eagle Lake, who represents Fayette County, was booed Tuesday when he said he voted for the legislation. He said he did so because he favored the need to expand roadways in urban areas, such as Houston and Dallas, to alleviate congestion. He noted that he was a fourth-generation farmer and did not want his land taken away for a corridor. He also assured the crowd that if there is a part of the legislation, such as a funding mechanism, that does not work, he would fight to get it changed.

Answering the comment "so it doesn't really matter what we think about it at all," Behrens assured "we hold public hearings, we get comments and we work with the local officials. We address the concerns of the community and the local officials, and then we make a decision whether or not we proceed with a proposed project.

"We do listen," he said, "There will be many, many more meetings - just like we do for any project that we do."

Johnson added that it was his "best guess that it will be two or three decades before anybody knows, and especially the department of transportation, what is specifically going to happen in and around La Grange, Texas," Johnson said.

Even though it could be decades away, some residents voiced concern that this meant the Trans-Texas Corridor would plow through their living rooms, leaving their grandchildren and great grandchildren without a home.

Willie Bohuslav, who lives in Austin but was born and raised in Ammannsville, meanwhile, said he was just looking out for himself.

He said he'd be glad to sell his home in Ammannsville that he plans to retire in - if he was given 200 or 300 percent of what it's worth to re-locate.

"I do know we need roads. I know (Interstate) 35 is congested. I know we need to do that. But, look, you don't care. You have no compassion because you don't lose anything, but I am going to lose something. If you go 10 miles north of I-10, you're going to go right through my living room. I just remodeled my home."

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