Monday, November 29, 2004

Corridor Feud

Corridor route sparking fight

Trans-Texas plans pit I-35 cities against the Valley.

November 29, 2004

Jeorge Zarazua
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2004

Two regions of South Texas are preparing to feud over a Trans -Texas Corridor route that will carry billions of dollars in merchandise for trade with Mexico.

Cities and counties along southern Interstate 35 are pledging to fight any efforts from the Rio Grande Valley that would divert traffic away from them as part of the Trans -Texas Corridor , Gov. Rick Perry's 50-year plan to build 4,000 miles of toll roads and rail lines.

Officials in cities such as Laredo, Cotulla and Pearsall fear that thousands of trucks - and the dollars they bring - will stop rolling through their communities and instead take an alternate path the state is proposing from Oklahoma to the Valley. State transportation officials included it in their proposals for the new Trans -Texas Corridor route known as TTC-35.

To ensure traffic isn't lured away, a River of Trade Corridor Coalition was formed to defend the traditional NAFTA Trade Corridor - a route firmly tied to Laredo and stretching north to Texarkana via Dallas.

"We don't want our money going to Hidalgo or Brownsville," Pearsall City Manager Albert Uresti said at a recent council meeting. "We want to keep it here."

Pearsall is one of the growing number of cities that have passed resolutions in support of the River of Trade Coalition's effort to keep the new Trans -Texas Corridor as close to existing Interstate 35 as possible. They're also calling on state lawmakers to halt the Trans -Texas Corridor proposal altogether.

Dallas City Council member Sandy Greyson, who serves as chairwoman of the coalition, said the plans should be delayed until more studies can be done on its economic effect.

"Laredo would like to see the existing route kept," she said.

Greyson argues if the corridor is built far from the interstate, cities and towns that dot I-35 would be economically crippled.

"If they would build it three or four miles away from the existing interstate, then it would still be close enough where the economies of these communities can benefit," she said.

The formation of the River of Trade coalition surprised Valley officials, who for years have been asking state and federal officials for a major interstate linking the region to the nation's interior.

The Valley has supported an Interstate 69 corridor , but McAllen City Manager Mike R. Perez admits the region would like to see the Trans -Texas Corridor built there if it means it would finally get a major highway.

Perez said fears that cities along Interstate 35 would suffer irreparable harm if the corridor bypasses them are baseless.

The executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation also has weighed in, criticizing the coalition's tactics for building support against the TTC-35 proposal.

"They are wrong," Executive Director Michael Behrens wrote in a letter to communities along the NAFTA route. "Their position ignores reliable population growth projections and seeks to protect existing commerce at the expense of future economic opportunities."

TxDOT has labeled the corridor a high-priority project, needed to meet the state's future transportation needs. It estimates the four largest metropolitan areas along Interstate 35, including San Antonio, would need a minimum of 16 lanes to meet demands in 2025.

The direction the corridor will take has not been decided. Next month, transportation officials will choose one of three bids from private contractors that would help them draw the blueprints for the 800-mile corridor . An additional study expected soon will narrow the routes the corridor could take, with a final decision made by the end of next year.

But David Stall, co-founder of Corridor Watch and an opponent of the Trans -Texas Corridor plans, said the state favors building the Oklahoma-to-Mexico path through the Rio Grande Valley instead of Laredo, which is now the nation's busiest inland port.

Corridor Watch opposes using transportation projects to make state revenue, turning highways into toll roads and giving businesses control of public land or infrastructure.

Stall agrees with the coalition's effort to sway state lawmakers to intervene during the coming legislative session.

"The only hope that anybody has to get anything changed is legislatively," he said.

© 2004 San Antonio Express-News: