Thursday, April 15, 2004

"I think it's nothing but a scheme to raise money for the state of Texas."

Some voice ire at Trans-Texas Corridor proposal


Victoria Advocate
Copyright 2004

Victoria area residents have mixed reactions to the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor/Interstate 69 project.

The Trans-Texas Corridor is described by the Texas Department of Transportation as a 4,000-mile-long network of 1,200-foot-wide corridors including separate passenger and truck lanes, high-speed rail, oil, gas and water pipelines, and data infrastructure.

The state estimates it will need 584,000 acres of right of way to construct the project at a price between $145 billion and $183 billion. It would incorporate federal plans for Interstate 69.

Many highways are becoming congested because of local traffic, thus making intra- and interstate transportation more difficult, said Mike Cox, communications manager with TxDOT. The project would move vast amounts of traffic out of cities and allow for faster transportation of people and goods, he said.

But some area residents voiced concerns over property rights and a lack of necessity for the road during a TxDOT scoping meeting conducted Tuesday in Victoria to get regional comment on the project.

"The proposed area they are talking about going through is some of the best cattle and agricultural land along the Gulf Coast," said G.A. Gutmann, a Goliad farmer and rancher. The move would take good agricultural land off the tax roles, and thus demand increases of other taxes to compensate for the loss, he said.

Gutmann said he wouldn't be opposed to expanding U.S. Highway 59, even if the state took some extra right-of-way to expand the highway into the future. But the current project would take thousands and thousands of acres unnecessarily, he said. He added in the future there may be a need for I-69 itself, but there wasn't today.

"I just don't understand how our Legislature is letting this erosion of our property rights take place," said Cedric Popp, an El Campo landowner. "Frankly, I don't see a need for this roadway."

Others were concerned about the way the state would pay for the project. The state plans to make the corridors toll roads to help fund construction and maintenance costs, Cox said.

"It's way too big. It's just outrageous," said Ira Smith, a small area landowner and retired Union Carbide employee. "I think it's nothing but a scheme to raise money for the state of Texas."

The state could lease land along the corridor to toll concessionaires, who could sublease it to hotels, rest stops and other businesses, said David Stall, co-founder with his wife Linda of Corridor Watch. The corridor would be a restricted access highway without traditional interstate-like access roads.

"We're a transportation agency, not a revenue agency," Cox countered. The state is simply trying a funding model used in many other states. Rather than taking in tax dollars and building a road, the state would build the road and then fund the project with revenue generated from the road.

Smith said no one would use a toll road because there are simply too many alternate routes.

As an example, the Stalls pointed to the Camino Columbia Toll Road, a road that stretches from near the Colombia-Solidarity International Bridge 22-miles east to where it connects with Interstate 35.

In January the road was foreclosed upon because it couldn't generate sufficient revenue to pay for itself.

"We already have I-69 coming through. Give us I-69 and leave us alone," said Ken Schustereit, of Victoria's Water Research Group. The group recently added opposing the Trans-Texas Corridor to its goals.

William Yates, a Victoria resident, said it would be better if the entire project were moved 10 to 20 miles west of the area being examined.

"I would be in favor of it if it was more inland, away from such natural destruction like hurricanes," he said.

Putting it farther from population centers means less congestion, fewer problems if hazardous materials spill or train accidents occur, and would also mean less hassle in acquiring land, Yates said. There is already too much in the way of highways, pipelines and other infrastructure in the proposed area, he said.

Others spoke in favor of the project.

"I think the concept is a great idea," said Ray Miller Jr. with the Victoria Metro Planning Organization and City of Victoria, mentioning especially the separate truck, passenger and rail lines.

"I think it's probably got some promise," said Rick Collie, a Victoria resident. It would allow economic growth and was worth looking at, he said.

Carrol Norrell, a landowner in Weesatch, said she was reserving judgment on the project, but it did present a lot of possibilities.

The state is studying two legs of the system presently, the Oklahoma-Mexico element, which follows I-35, and the I-69/Trans-Texas Corridor element. The study areas can be up to 60 miles wide.

Based on environmental considerations and community feedback, the route will be narrowed to a specific corridor, which could be up to 10 miles wide.

Consultants hired by the state to conduct the initial studies expect to bring the narrowed proposal to the state's Transportation Commission in 2006, which would either vote to move forward with a new set of environmental studies for the refined route, or vote not to proceed with the project at all, Cox said.

Part of the study will be to determine how much of the proposal is needed, he said. For example, the state could decide to build only trucking and passenger lanes and exclude the pipelines and high-speed rail in the second planning stage.

The Victoria