Sunday, July 25, 2004

"By the time people catch on, I hope we're not at the ribbon cutting."

Critics unified on toll roads

Perry's 4,000-mile plan draws ire of some residents, activists, lawmaker.

July 4, 2004

W. Gardner Selby, Austin Bureau
Copyright 2004

A 50-year plan ushered by GOP Gov. Rick Perry to build 4,000 miles of Texas toll roads and rail lines has drawn unlikely opposition stoked by two Republican activists joined by a rural Democratic legislator.

And some residents who have attended public hearings on the plan have also raised questions about the scope of the project.

Rep. Robby Cook of Eagle Lake, who attended a crowded public hearing on the Trans -Texas Corridor in La Grange, said he wants to slow down or possibly cancel the plan.

As envisioned, corridor projects would crisscross the state with separate highway lanes for passenger vehicles and trucks, passenger rail, freight rail and commuter rail, and dedicated utility zones at a cost of up to $183 billion.

Cook said the state is "moving way too fast. I don't think the general public is aware of all the information they need to know and whether or not this is good for all areas."

David and Linda Stall of Fayetteville, near La Grange, agree. The Stalls attended the GOP convention in San Antonio last month and won approval of a platform plank calling for repeal of a 2003 law authorizing the Texas Department of Transportation to proceed.

Corridor Watch, founded by the Stalls in February, opposes using transportation projects to generate state funds, converting highways to toll roads or granting vendors control of public land or infrastructure - elements of the corridor strategy.

"It's just wrong, I don't care what your political affiliation is," said David Stall, expressing doubts about granting 30-year concessions to vendors who could profit from building and managing projects.

"By the time people catch on, I hope we're not at the ribbon cutting," he said.

TxDOT held hearings throughout the year in every county; most were lightly attended.

Residents probed the amount of needed land, possible lease arrangements with private interests, the impact on local economic development and taxes, and how the corridor might connect to existing highways.

Many "asked why can't we just continue to expand along our existing corridors ," an agency summary states.

TxDOT engineers at the hearings, where residents sketched desired routes, said little is settled. Nobody "knows exactly where (the corridor is) going to go, exactly what it will look like," one said.

The first major project could run parallel to Interstate 35.

Three vendors are competing to build and manage the I-35 corridor . A winner could be determined by early next year with the preferred path narrowed to a swath 10 miles wide after preliminary environmental studies.

The agency also wants to focus on the Interstate 69 corridor from Texarkana around Houston, with links to Corpus Christi and Laredo.

A Bandera woman questioned demands for up to 1,200-foot rights-of-way - enough space to assure 10 lanes for cars and trucks plus rail and utility lines.

"Why are they even contemplating that? I don't get it."

A TxDOT representative said: "It seems inevitable that San Antonio and growth will continue to come this way whether we do anything or not."

Another resident said Texas has enough roads, adding: "What you need is a program that teaches people how to drive."

In La Grange, near Interstate 10, hundreds of residents questioned a contemplated east-west corridor .

The Fayette County Commission said in May the corridor "would negatively affect rural Texas , splitting farms and ranches, uproot wildlife, have a negative impact on the local economy and would create pollution and trash."

County Judge Ed Janecka, a Democrat, called the plan "a joke" due to possible quarter-mile land takings, adding his personal doubt that it would relieve congestion in cities.

"Somebody might be able to go to Houston or San Antonio faster (but) it's of no benefit to the county whatsoever. It takes a lot of land off the tax base. It's just an incursion."

Ric Williamson, Perry's appointed chairman of the five-member Texas Transportation Commission, said he welcomes such critiques.

Williamson said landowners deserve to know the state might pay royalties for property access and there might be ways for the corridor to shrink to 800-foot swaths.

But "you can't say the idea is a joke when you've got three international companies proposing multibillion-dollar investments in the first piece (I-35)," Williamson said.

Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, stressed TxDOT has yet to accept a proposal.

"Are we going to start addressing our transportation needs and the NAFTA challenge? Yes. Have we decided what we are going to build and where? No."
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