Thursday, June 16, 2005

TxDOT tries to "take some of the sting out of the TTC" in Beeville

Trans-Texas Corridor plan raises questions


Charles Steward
Beeville Bee-Picayune
Copyright 2005

The Texas Department of Transportation held a public meeting to discuss the Trans-Texas Corridor with area residents Wednesday night in the Beeville Community Center, answer questions and show maps of where the corridor may eventually be built. Because of the nebulous nature of this project, many of the charts and maps displayed included the verbiage “preliminary” and “projected.” While extremely informative, the meeting seemed to raise as many questions as were answered.

“We don’t have a schematic yet and we don’t have a right of way map yet,” said Nelda Eureste, TxDOT right of way agent with the Corpus Christi District. “It’s so preliminary I can understand why people are so concerned.”

The Trans-Texas Corridor project was first announced in early 2002 by Texas Gov. Rick Perry as a 4,000-mile transportation network costing $175 billion over 50 years and passed through the Texas Legislature as House Bill 3588. The corridor is described as a new multi-use transportation system that includes roads, freight and passenger rail and a utility zone all lined up in parallel proximity. The corridor would generally follow the path of Interstate Highway 35 from Laredo through San Antonio, Austin and Dallas.

Citizens with concerns

Rather than an individual speaker addressing those attending, there were TxDOT staff and consultants throughout the room to discuss issues on an individual or small group basis. In fact, there appeared to be more TxDOT employees and consultants present than area citizens. Among the citizens present were those who have already made their positions clear regarding the corridor, including the Texas Farm Bureau. Primary concerns raised were limited access to the corridor, farming and environmental issues, eminent domain and the corridor becoming a toll road.

The notice sent by TxDOT to announce the meeting stated, “The initial environmental study is expected to be completed by spring 2006. The goal is to identify a preferred corridor approximately 10 miles wide.”

Cliff Boast, assistant public information officer with TxDOT, explained, “The 10-mile width is strictly for study of the future route.” Tracy Hill, an environmental consultant of TxDOT, added, “The final route will be between 1,000 and 1,200 feet wide, but there might be some instances where the rail is more separate from the road.”

Highways congested

Boast continued, “There are some highly congested areas along I-35. “I don’t drive on I-35 if I’m going to Austin because I don’t want to deal with the congestion. I drive other routes to be honest with you. If I have a choice, I’m going where there is less congestion. The corridor will ultimately make it smoother for communities with through traffic using the corridor. It will also be safer for the communities with trucks hauling hazardous material.”

Where vehicles get on and off the Trans-Texas Corridor is still to be determined. Steve Wright, public affairs officers for TxDOT in Austin, said, “The planners will work very closely with the communities with regard to linking and access. We are listening to the people and their concerns.”

A poster at Wednesday’s meeting stated, ”Although not shown, there are also numerous potential connections outside the urban areas. Through the project development process, and particularly during Tier Two of the environmental study, TxDOT will work collaboratively with local planning and transportation officials to address local connectivity issues.”
Dieter Billek, advanced project development director with the Texas Turnpike Authority Division, said ramps could ultimately be five miles apart in rural areas and added, “It might be decades before some portions of this project are completed. We are still in the planning phase.”

Opposition voiced

Questions about access and land use are more than a concern for the Texas Farm Bureau. The organization is one of the more outspoken groups against the Trans-Texas Corridor concept.
“The Farm Bureau does not like this, but it has already passed through the Legislature,” said Pat Calhoun, president of the Goliad County Farm Bureau, during the Wednesday’s meeting. “We see problems with property use and how this cuts through land, problems with moving farm equipment and water use.”

Also present was Arthur L. Bluntzer, Texas Farm Bureau state director for District 12, covering 13 counties including Refugio, Bee. Victoria , Calhoun, Jackson, DeWitt, Karnes, Wilson, Gonzales, Guadalupe, Caldwell, Goliad and Lavaca counties. He said Thursday morning, “There are two key factors. One would be the concern of taking of land where farms and ranches will be split into two parts. With the proposed tollways how will farmers and ranchers have access to cross the road? Would there be a cost involved and how far would they have to travel? Another factor is the loss of tax revenue. Other landowners would have to pay more to make up the difference.”

The official statement from the Texas Farm Bureau on the corridor includes the statement, “All interstate highways should provide frontage roads on both sides of the highway for farm machinery.

Bluntzer suggested the state build the corridor parallel to the current highway.

Calhoun noted there is legislation in process “to try and take some of the sting out of the TTC.”

Entrances and exits

House Bill 1273 introduced by Rep. Lois W. Kolkhorst of Brenham would amend the Trans-Texas Corridor code Under this legislation, entrances and exits to the Trans-Texas Corridor must be provided at every intersection with a state highway or farm-to-market road. In addition, access must be provided across the corridor at these intersections. The maximum width of the Trans-Texas Corridor would be reduced from 1,200 to 800 feet. The bill limits the condemnation of private property to be used by private businesses to generate revenues for the Trans-Texas Corridor. The bill would also require any private entity that contracts for the collection of fees using the corridor to have a plan outlining the collection of fees and the rates.

House Bill 1794 introduced by Glenn Hegar Jr. of Katy has introduced legislation that will impact development of the corridor. The bill requires a public hearing in each county impacted by the Trans-Texas Corridor before the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) files a final environmental impact statement. The TxDOT is required to identify each mode of transportation that is projected to use the corridor and each proposed entrance to and from that segment of the corridor. Also, the bill requires that affected county and state officials be notified at least 30 days prior to the public hearing. The bill prohibits any limitation of access to the corridor which economically benefits a particular facility or group of facilities located on the corridor. There is also a prohibition to the capture of groundwater from under the corridor and its export. If an entity begins negotiations or discussions regarding using the corridor to transport groundwater, they must notify the local water authority and commissioners court of the county in which the groundwater originates.

Eminent domain case

Patricia Dougherty, a landowner in northern Bee County, said Wednesday night, “The priority seems to be the buying and selling of goods from Mexico. What about wildlife, agricultural use, land use and property rights?”

Referring to an eminent domain case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, Kelo v. City of New London, Connecticut, that decision could throw into question whether or not the Trans-Texas Corridor is legal. At issue with the Kelo v. City of New London case is whether governments can forcibly seize homes and businesses for private economic development. Under a practice known as eminent domain, a person's property may be condemned and the land converted for a greater “public use.” It has traditionally been employed to eliminate slums, or to build highways, schools or other public works.

The New London case tests the ability of local and state governments to raise what they see as much-needed revenue, which they argue serves a greater "public purpose." Legal experts see the case as having major implications nationwide in property rights and redevelopment issues.
Toll roads

Toll roads are also a sour point with many citizens, especially in rural areas of the state. According to a TxDOT release, Cintra, a multinational corporation based in Spain, had been selected to build a $6 billion in a toll road between Dallas and San Antonio by 2010 as part of the Trans-Texas Corridor, give the state $1.2 billion for additional transportation improvements between Oklahoma and Mexico, and to extend the corridor into the Lower Rio Grande Valley to Mexico.

“This is an historic change in the way major transportation assets are built and paid for in Texas,” said Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. Cintra proposes to negotiate for a 50-year contract to maintain and operate the new highway as a toll road. “The private sector is willing and able to invest in transportation improvements to reduce congestion, improve safety, provide economic development, and protect our quality of life,” Williamson said.

Boast summarized the decisions being made regarding highways and transportation corridors Wednesday night when he said, “This is all driven by traffic count.”

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