Saturday, November 13, 2004

Opposition to Trans-Texas Corridor Builds

Opposition builds to toll, corridor plans

Cities, groups meet to discuss fighting state transportation projects

November 12, 2004

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2004

While state leaders have pinned their hopes on toll roads to keep Texas road construction moving, a small but growing number of groups and cities – including Dallas – are questioning the plans.

Today, about a dozen groups – some opposing tolls or the Trans-Texas Corridor and environmental groups – will meet for the first time in Austin to discuss how to fight the state's transportation plans.

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"We have seen each of these groups combating this issue as if it were a local issue," said Fayetteville resident David Stall, co-founder of Corridor Watch. "We can be effective in having our concerns addressed if we work together."

Last year, state leaders passed the largest transportation bill in state history. It calls for converting planned or expanded highways to toll roads, like State Highway 121 in Denton County. The bill also provides initial funding for Gov. Rick Perry's highway and adjacent high-speed passenger and freight rail concept that stands as big as the state itself: the $175 billion Trans-Texas Corridor.

The proposals may not be popular with everyone, but they show the importance the governor places on transportation, said RicWilliamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission and a Perry appointee.

"This governor is not going to let urban Texas rot while doing nothing," Mr. Williamson said.

Parallel to I-35

Dallas, Hillsboro and Laredo have questioned plans to build the 800-mile Trans-Texas Corridor highway to parallel Interstate 35. Opposition also is coming from other areas. Property rights concerns have led the Republican Party of Texas' latest platform to urge the repeal of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Mr. Stall's effort "started out as a not-in-my-back-yard issue," he said. "But we became concerned about the government's growing role."

Public meeting schedule

The Texas Department of Transportation will conduct public meetings in North Texas next week to collect input on plans to build the Trans-Texas Corridor. The route will parallel Interstate 35 from the Red River to Brownsville. All meetings will be from 5 to 8 p.m.

Monday: Grauwyler Community Center, 7780 Harry Hines Blvd., Dallas; and Cleburne High School, 1501 Harlin Drive, Cleburne.

Tuesday: Texas Woman's University, Hubbard Hall, 304 Administration Drive, Denton.

Wednesday: Holiday Inn Ballroom, 1300 N. Central Expressway, McKinney.

Thursday: Terrell High School cafeteria, 400 Poetry Road, Terrell.

Dallas City Council members emphasize that they do not oppose all of the state's plans to build the Trans-Texas Corridor. Dallas officials will not attend today's meeting.

"We are not pro-toll or anti-toll. We have not taken a position against the Trans-Texas Corridor," said Dallas City Council member Sandy Greyson, chairwoman of the council's transportation committee. "We believe the new route will harm all the communities along the I-35 corridor. Our council is very supportive of keeping the traditional route."

Cities including Dallas are pushing the state to study the economic impact of building a parallel road that could take away traffic and tourism from cities along one of the state's busiest highways.

Plans are moving forward. The Texas Department of Transportation could soon choose one of three bids it received from private groups that want to develop the corridor. In addition, the state could soon narrow its study areas to several 10-mile-wide corridors. A single study area could come by the end of 2005. No construction dates have been established.

Recent corridor draft plans showing possible routes near I-35 cities have eased some concerns from Dallas and other city leaders.

"We're not saying you couldn't build a corridor three to five miles outside of town. That would not discourage people from stopping in Hillsboro. But if you go too far, it will," said Hillsboro Mayor Will Lowrance.

With all the attention on the corridor, cities don't want the state to lose sight of other needs. Laredo has more than 100 railroad crossings that need improvement, said Rene Gonzalez of the Laredo Development Foundation and a legislative liaison to Laredo Mayor Elizabeth "Betty" Flores.

"They need to worry about yesterday's projects before they worry about tomorrow's projects," he said, adding that the corridor could bring a new highway to Brownsville and away from Laredo, whose ports still have expansion room.

I-35 will continue to be widened to as many as four lanes in each direction throughout Texas, Mr. Williamson said. But he and other state leaders are looking at the state's needs beyond I-35's peak traffic loads.

"The things that will save urban Texas are the very things we are doing," he said, adding that the cost of fuel will push more freight to rail lines, increasing the need for projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor. "A lot of the corridor is going to get pretty close to existing communities."

Toll battles begin

When the Legislature passed the bill last year, it also included provisions for a major expansion of toll roads in Texas. The first salvos in the toll battle have been fired in Austin, Houston and North Texas.

Opponents of the new toll roads hope to get the attention of lawmakers during the legislative session that begins in January.

"We think we've got a lot of people unhappy with the law that there are going to be some changes," said Randy Jennings, founder of the Web site and a co-sponsor of today's meeting. "We all have commonality. We need to leverage that."

In reality, changing a major transportation bill may be difficult, said state Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving.

"We are always open and receptive to looking at changes that would enhance what's been done," said Ms. Harper-Brown, a House transportation committee member during the last session. "I don't know if you really want us to change a lot of the creative ideas that allow us to do transportation projects more creatively and efficiently."


© 2004 The Dallas Morning News Co