Monday, May 16, 2005

Rural areas wary of Trans-Texas Corridor

Rural areas wary of Trans-Texas plan

May 16, 2005
Roger Croteau, Staff Writer

The Trans -Texas Corridor , an ambitious plan to crisscross the state with new highways and rail and utility lines, is generating increasing opposition from rural counties.
So far this year, commissioners courts in 25 rural counties have passed resolutions opposing the plan, complaining that the 1,200-foot-wide corridors would divide farms and communities while giving rural areas little but headaches in return.

''It's just too much,'' said Guadalupe County Judge Donald Schraub last week, when his county went on record as opposing the plan. ''It's a good concept, maybe, but it's not well thought out at this point.''

Texas Department of Transportation officials said much of the rising opposition is based on misinformation. The corridors would help the economies of rural counties by generating commercial activities and boosting land values, they insist.

''We need to get out accurate information on the corridor and why it's needed,'' said TxDOT spokeswoman Gabriela Garcia. ''I think some of their concerns will be addressed.''

TxDOT is conducting preliminary environmental studies for the first two legs of the plan, the Interstate 35 corridor and the planned Interstate 69 corridor from the Rio Grande Valley to Northeast Texas .

''Those two are the focus now,'' Garcia said. ''Nobody can argue that they are not congested and what we've got on the ground now is going to be sufficient in the future. Does anybody else have another plan for how to address what's coming in the future?''

The Trans -Texas Corridor would feature toll highways with separate lanes for cars and trucks, freight railways, high-speed commuter railways and water, oil and gas pipelines, as well as electric and telecommunication lines, all running together on 1,200-foot-wide rights of way.

The routes have not been determined and likely would incorporate portions of existing and new highways, railways and utility rights of way.

The plan envisions completion in 50 years.

Last month, TxDOT signed a comprehensive development agreement with Cintra-Zachry, an international group of engineering, construction and financial companies, to develop TTC-35, the first element of the corridor plan, which would reduce congestion on the I-35 corridor .

Cintra-Zachry is proposing to invest $7.2 billion to help build the corridor . The first phase of the proposal calls for building a $6 billion toll road between Dallas and San Antonio by 2010.

Fayetteville residents David and Linda Stall formed a group called Corridor Watch in February 2004 after they became concerned about the plan and the speed with which it was being pushed. Many of their objections are echoed in the resolutions being passed in commissioners courts around the state.

They claim putting highway lanes, rail and utilities adjacent to each other will be a security problem by creating a ''soft'' target for terrorists. By avoiding urban areas, the corridor will create a public safety problem because rural emergency services do not have the resources and response times needed to deal with potential disasters along the route.

The group's Web site also claims the corridor would harm the environment by paving over 580,000 acres of land and would fragment communities and the habitat of many species. The group also has concerns about the effect on tourism, property rights and local property tax revenues.

Rural counties often welcome highway projects, which bring the promise of increased property values and commercial and industrial development. But not this time, David Stall said.

''What's different about this one is that it's a closed corridor ,'' he said. ''It will have very limited access.''

But that is just one of the many myths TxDOT needs to debunk, Garcia said. The department recently developed a three-page paper, ''Myth vs. Reality,'' which addresses more than a dozen of the criticisms leveled at the project.

Local officials in counties that have come out against the project often focus on the sheer size of the corridors , with the projected 1,200-foot rights of way.

''The fear factor is that it's a quarter-mile wide,'' said Kendall County Judge Eddie Vogt. ''It's taking way too much of a swath through the county. It's just the huge size of this project that has boggled everybody.''

Hill County Judge Kenneth Davis complained that the preliminary alignment would be too far from the county seat of Hillsboro and would draw business away.

''We just don't want to make ghost towns out of some of our communities,'' Davis said. ''We'd like to think (opposition from rural counties) would have an impact at the Legislature, but the reality of it is 60 percent of the representatives in the state Legislature are from urban areas. So any hope we have depends on getting some comrades from urban areas to join us.''