Wednesday, May 25, 2005

"Citizens Advisory Commitee" meets for the first time

Transportation corridor panel formed
By Gordon Dickson, Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Copyright 2005

AUSTIN -- Until Wednesday, they were mostly 22 strangers.

A Gulf Coast banker. A Waco veterinarian. Dallas-Fort Worth politicians past and present. A smattering of businesspeople who know something about oil, water or electricity.

The statewide group, which met for the first time Wednesday, is the Trans- Texas Corridor Advisory Committee -- and its task for the coming years may be as tedious as its bureaucratic name.

The committee will keep a watchful eye on the construction of the multibillion-dollar toll road network known as the Trans-Texas Corridor, which is currently being planned and designed. Their charge: to ensure that state leaders understand public sentiment as they make decisions along the way.

The entire 4,000-mile network is expected to take about 50 years to build. The first piece is a planned toll road from Dallas-Fort Worth to San Antonio, which is tentatively scheduled to be under construction by 2007 and completed by 2015.

"I want to know if the Texas Department of Transportation is listening to us," said Tarrant County Commissioner Glen Whitley of Hurst, a member. "I want to know how we connect into it and what it does to rural areas. I am very anxious that local representatives know where to look."

The group was appointed in March and April by the state transportation commission at the encouragement of Gov. Rick Perry. He has been fiercely criticized for his aggressive support of toll roads.

Watchdog group members are unpaid and will travel to Austin monthly at their own expense. They have no legal power -- other than persuasion.

Over the next several months, members will be expected to decide what issues of the Trans-Texas Corridor they think Texans care about the most -- perhaps the taking of private land for right-of-way, access to the toll roads or water rights along public property.

With the transportation department's research staff at their disposal, they can investigate those issues and vote on official positions. Then they can announce those positions to the public.

Another member from Tarrant County, former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr, said his main concern is that he doesn't want the Trans-Texas Corridor to siphon jobs away from established areas such as the Interstate 35 corridor. To address that concern, Barr may push to restrict development along the toll roads.

"I want to make sure that we aren't artificially creating sprawl," he said.

Some members aren't convinced that the watchdog effort will do much good.

"I wonder ... if it's scripted," said Linda Stall of Fayetteville, an escrow officer who was asked to join the watchdog group after becoming co-founder of an opposition online newsletter, CorridorWatch.

Stall believes state leaders would like rubber-stamp approval of the state's toll road plans, and forming the watchdog group may have been a way to control opposition.

"I don't have high expectations, but I will participate," she said.

At least a third of committee members are opponents of the Trans-Texas Corridor, or represent communities with large pockets of opposition -- including Dallas and Waco.

As a result, Whitley said, the group should have a loud voice for its views, even if it lacks raw legal power.

"I don't know if this group will have any teeth to it, but the minute this group finds out it's a rubber stamp, all hell will break loose," he said.

Transportation commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford said the amount of influence the group carries will depend upon how much work it puts into the task.

"Some members would like to influence whether we build the Trans-Texas Corridor or not, and that's not the purpose of the committee," Williamson said.

But, he said, if the group wants to weigh in on a specific project -- perhaps a future road alignment -- "It's very early, and there's plenty of time to have input."

Trans-Texas Corridor Advisory Committee members:

-Kenneth Barr, Fort Worth, former mayor
-K. Stephen Bonnette, San Antonio, engineer, businessman
-Louis Bronaugh, Lufkin, mayor
-Tim Brown, Belton, Bell County commissioner
-Sid Covington, Austin, commuter rail district chairman
-Deborah Garcia, El Paso, speech pathologist
-Sandy Greyson, Dallas, councilwoman
-Judy Hawley, Corpus Christi, port commissioner
-Roger Hord, Houston, civic leader
-Alan Johnson, Harlingen, banker
-William Madden, Dallas, businessman, former state water official
-Marc Maxwell, Sulphur Springs, city manager
-Ann O'Ryan, Austin, AAA auto club
-Charles Perry, Odessa, chemical engineer and businessman
-Jose R. Ramos, Buda, engineer and planner
-Wes Reeves, Amarillo, energy industry
-Grady W. Smithey Jr., Duncanville, councilman
-Linda Stall, Fayetteville, escrow officer
-John Thompson, Livingston, Polk County judge
-Martha Tyroch, Temple, councilwoman, medical rehabilitation
-Roy Walthall, Waco, college instructor, veterinarian
-Glen Whitley, Hurst, Tarrant County commissioner