Friday, February 11, 2005

"Condemnations and tolls currently outside of legislative oversight."

Senators see need for highway corridor, question current plan

by James A. Bernsen
The Lone Star Report
Volume 9, Issue 24
Copyright 2005

The Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security held an informational hearing on the Trans Texas Corridor on Feb. 9.

Senators expressed frustration with toll roads, quizzed state officials on the details of the plan, and heard testimony for and against the multi-billion dollar project.

But Sen. Todd Staples could have been speaking for virtually the entire committee when he said that regardless of the solution, Texas has a “mobility crisis.”

“Our current situation should really be no surprise,” he said. “As far back as 1976, reports were printed predicting where we are today...The big question is, knowing these facts, what are we going to do about it?”

The committee looked into the changes in how Texas builds highways that were created in the 2003 session’s HB 3588. Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), remarking that legislators may not have understood the ramifications of the legislation, said she wants to know what options are now.

“What power do we have,” she said, “in any of these condemnations, in setting of tolls, which I thought we were going to at least get involved with, but I understand now we’re not...My concern is, are we once again, just studying an issue that we’re just going to study or take action at some time.”

Although condemnations and tolls would currently be outside legislative oversight, Staples said the Legislature ultimately has authority to do anything it wants, including repealing HB 3588, though he did not suggesting this should be done.

Robert Nichols , commissioner for the Texas Department of Transportation, addressed the senators’ questions. When Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) wanted to know the cost the state would incur if the plan were abolished, he put the number at around $20 million. But he said the state’s current needs argued against abolishing one plan without another in place.

Congestion in Texas , he said, has grown so bad that I-35 is “plugged” during most daylight hours. The improvement costs in the Waco district alone, he said, added up to $1.8 billion. Under current funding schemes, that bottleneck would take up to 18 years to solve, and would mean “orange cones” on I-35 for a large portion of that time – a prospect he said was the traveling public’s worst nightmare. At that, Nichols said, such a project would only get Texas up to current capacity.

Nichols outlined several other problems:

* Upgrades to highways within city limits means condemning existing businesses or homes, often at great expense. Even so, some areas can never be expanded laterally, such as I-35 in downtown Austin .

* Not only would businesses and homes have to be removed, but valuable infrastructure – built at great expense by the taxpayers of Texas – would have to be torn up. In the Waco district, 110 overpasses too narrow for additional lanes would have to be bulldozed and replaced to expand I-35 in the traditional way.

That makes moving new lanes outside of town the only real option, he said, and tolling the only means of getting them built in time to keep up with demand.

Farmers, ranchers opposed

That stance has brought opposition from the Texas Farm Bureau, which voted recently to oppose the corridor plan. Nacogdoches farmer, and Farm Bureau member, Albert Thompson outlined the organization’s reasons.

“As proposed, the Trans Texas Corridor provides for rights-of-way through rural Texas of up to 1,200 feet,” Thompson said. “If considered as acreage, it amounts to 146 acres per road mile. Furthermore, the corridor will negatively affect wildlife and hunting in many areas of the state in which hunting has become a major part of farm and ranch income. We believe the impact will be devastating to the agricultural industry and to rural communities.”

The extra width of the corridor, Nichols said, is to include space for rail lines, pipelines or other infrastructure.

But Sen. Jon Lindsay (R-Houston) said he has spoken with rail and pipeline companies who indicate that they aren’t as interested in utilizing the corridor as TxDOT thinks. Lindsay questioned the need for so much space, although Nichols said the 1,200-foot width was only an un-guaranteed maximum.

Another Farm Bureau concern is the dividing up of land. Thompson pointed out that with the current design of the project, a farmer whose property is split in two might be forced to drive as much as 30 miles to reach an overpass over the corridor, then drive that same distance back down the other side, just to get to his land across the roadway. Because equipment like tractors and combines must travel at slow speeds or be loaded onto trucks, costs to farmers in fuel and time would be staggering, he said.

“Not listening”

Shapiro said despite need for the Trans Texas Corridor, the plan is causing some concern among her constituents and around the state.

“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction out there amongst the troops,” she said. “The people that should be your allies are very angry about the process. My feeling is that we shouldn’t just take [the Trans Texas Corridor] and just toss it to the wind and forget it, but just start listening a little bit.

“One major focus of TxDOT is ,they don’t listen. Period,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what the project is. So when you come up with this big, giant, wonderful idea that may very well be the best thing that we can do for the state of Texas , you’re not listening.”

Nichols said TxDOT has conducted hearings in every county in the state, and is now on the second and third hearings in some area. After he described the format of the hearings, Shapiro said, “So you’re not really listening to those complaints, you’re just trying to convince them of your side.”

Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) expressed concern that the corridor project, and the shift to tolling new highways as created fear that those not tolling would miss out on funds.

Nichols said there was no requirement that roads be tolled to get funding, but admitted that areas that do toll will get a priority for funding. If communities don’t want to “leverage” their funds to move projects forward, he said, that will be their decision.

“The short answer is that bond money will migrate to communities that leverage” their projects, Shapleigh said. O

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