Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Protests from McLennan County officials and residents.

Transportation group recommends area corridor location, but many oppose project

Wednesday, May 25, 2005
By Matt Joyce, staff writer
Waco Tribune-Herald Copyright 2005

The Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization recommended Tuesday that the Trans-Texas Corridor should run east of Interstate 35 if built through McLennan County, despite a string of protests from county officials and eastern county residents.

The planning organization's policy board accepted the possible route, which would place the corridor from five to 10 miles of I-35, but also strengthened its position that the state should drop the corridor project until I-35 is fully expanded and more construction is warranted.

The resolution passed 8-4 after a discussion that ranged frequently into outright opposition to the state's proposal to build a tolled transportation network of highways, railways and utility infrastructure from Oklahoma to the Mexico border.

Critics of the eastern alignment said the corridor would harm the communities, school districts and agricultural foundation of eastern McLennan County.

McLennan County Commissioners Lester Gibson and Wendall Crunk each spoke against the corridor's passage east of I-35, where their precincts are located. They urged the policy board to reject any sort of resolution related to building the corridor in McLennan County.

"My precinct is part of the farming community," Gibson said. "(The corridor) would be very disruptive in regards to what has been accumulated by long-term work."

Supporters of the resolution said McLennan County communities would lose their opportunity for local input into the corridor project by remaining silent.

They also said their emphasis on urging the Texas Department of Transportation to concentrate on expanding I-35 to six lanes in rural areas and eight lanes in urban areas might buy time before the state commits to building the corridor in McLennan County.

The Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization sets regional transportation priorities for projects that use federal highway or transit funds. The policy board is made up of representatives from McLennan County, the state transportation department, the city of Waco and 18 other McLennan County cities.

Policy board member Mike Nicoletti, Lacy-Lakeview's city manager, voted for the resolution but said he is against the corridor project.

"Who knows if we'll need an alternative route in 15 to 20 years?" Nicoletti said. "There's a lot of expansion still possible in I-35."

The resolution will be submitted to the transportation department and the Texas Transportation Commission, said Christopher Evilia, director of the planning organization.

The transportation department is working through an environmental study to narrow a 50-mile-wide corridor study area to 10 miles wide by spring 2006. Department officials have said they hope to break ground on the first section of the corridor, a four-lane divided tollway from Dallas to San Antonio paralleling I-35, by 2010.

The local resolution is non-binding on the state.

"I just don't want (the transportation department) to think that if we're approving this resolution then we're supporting the corridor," said McLennan County Commissioner Joe Mashek, a board member who voted for the resolution based on his support for completing I-35 improvements. "Personally, I think this resolution will have no bearing."

The policy board adopted the same route decided on last week by a planning organization technical committee.

Evilia said the committee's recommendation was based on a few primary considerations for a possible corridor route:

No further than five miles from the Waco urbanized area.

Completely outside of the Lake Waco watershed.

Accessible to existing freight rail lines running east from Waco's industrial areas.

The policy board also followed the technical committee's recommendation that any passenger rail elements of the corridor should run through downtown Waco, rather than east of the city.

Rick Wegwerth, of Robinson, questioned the corridor's affect on water sources other than Lake Waco.

"There are at least 30 rural water supplies on the eastern side of McLennan County," he said. "What do you tell those people?"

Jim Jaska, the mayor of Ross in northern McLennan County, voted against the resolution.

"If they go through and get the improvements on I-35, there's a possibility we may not need an alternate route," Jaska said. "Who's to say five to 10 years from now that alternate we chose today will be the best one?"