Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Trans-Texas Corridor Roadblock?

Trans-Texas Corridor running into a roadblock?

Monday, January 17, 2005
By Jason Whitely / KHOU 11 News, Copyright 2005

If everything's said to be bigger in Texas, this next story could certainly prove that.

The state is preparing to create a new highway stem that would take 50 years to build and cost $175 billion.

It's the cost that's keeping a lot of people on the side of the road about what may be our future.

It's no secret that Texas is in a jam -- a traffic jam.

Freeways are overcrowded and the state can't afford to build new ones. It can barely maintain the ones we have.

"We're a state of 21 million people. We're going to grow to at least 35-40 million people. Where are we going to put those people with the congestion we have today?" asked TxDOT's Deputy Executive Director, Steve Simmons.

TxDOT wants to put them on a new highway system. The Trans-Texas Corridor would be the biggest of its kind in the country.

The plan is for 4,000 miles of roads for cars, trucks, pipelines, and high-speed rail, designed to relieve congestion.

"Our citizens are wanting and demanding improvements in that and we can't continue to expand on the existing footprint that we have," said Simmons.

Financing the project is the tricky part. The state will take thousands of acres of land by eminent domain then lease it out to private companies. They'll build and maintain each section of the corridor. Texas will own the land and the highway, but corporations will make money, too.

A Spanish company called Cintra won the first deal to build a stretch of the corridor from San Antonio to Dallas, parallel to I-35. To recoup its construction costs, Cintra gets to charge tolls for the next 50 years.

"It's not something communities or companies in Texas were clamoring for. It doesn't solve the problem of congestion in urban areas," said David Stall, CorridorWatch.org.

In fact, according to Stall, it won't even go into urban areas. The corridor will just skirt around them.

Stall is a vocal critic of the project and runs a Web site called CorridorWatch.org.

"This is a project of the Governor. It was ramrodded by the Governor. It was sold as being good for Texas transportation. And there wasn't much investigation done of it," said Stall.

Opponents are now trying to repeal the bill in Austin.

Even Governor Perry's own political party, the state GOP, opposes it in its platform, saying, "Because there are issues of confiscation of private land... and other similar concerns, the Party urges the repeal of HB 3588 authorizing the Trans-Texas Corridor."

The Texas Farm Bureau is against it, too, fearing it would split farms, making fields difficult to access since the toll road is designed to have few exits.

"It's going to help those in the big urban areas get from Point A to Point Z and bypass B to Y. Those points will just be visions out their window," said Stephen Gertson, farmer.

Wharton County commissioners don't like the idea either, worrying the county's gas stations and restaurants won't generate as much tax dollars since the toll road will have its own services. That's a concern a lot of towns share. "I've never seen a town dry up because a relief route was built. I think it's important to understand our roads are still going to connect to the Trans-Texas Corridor," said Simmons.

But most every opponent points to the Camino Colombia Toll Road. It was built in Laredo in 1997 to reduce truck traffic in town. Only problem is trucks didn't use it. Hardly anyone did.

The toll road couldn't make money. Lenders finally had to foreclose.

TxDOT said Camino Colombia was a failure because it was entirely private and didn't have the experience the state is planning to bring to this project.

For now, the exact route of the Trans-Texas Corridor still hasn't been decided and construction may not begin until the end of the decade.

Opposition to the project is starting to grow, as is the number of vehicles crowding onto Texas freeways.

TxDOT said it will start holding meetings around Houston soon.

TXDOT tells us relief for the I-35 corridor is most important.

Another stretch from Texarkana, through Houston, to the Rio Grande Valley will be built next.

Opponents still hope to put the brakes on the massive project during this legislative session.