"The general opinion was that TxDOT has its mind made up and that in reality it will do no good to comment or express concerns."
Judging by the reaction of nearly 200 Grimes County citizens last Tuesday evening, the proposed TransTexas Corridor's route through the area isn't a source of joy.
The Aug. 9 Texas Department of Transportation's informal meeting at the Navasota Intermediate School gym featured map displays and other informational charts set up around the perimeter of the gym.
TxDOT employees and employees of its consulting firm were on hand to answer citizens' questions while promoting the plan for a gigantic swath of multiuse transportation facilities from the Texas-Mexico border to the northeast corner of Texas and continuing through other states to Canada.
The artery would require a right-of-way of 1,200 feet - almost one-quarter mile - and is proposed to include multiple roadways. Plans are to serve passenger and transport vehicles, with dedicated truck lanes, railroads to carry high-speed passenger trains and freight and commuter trains. Utilities would include water, electricity, natural gas, petroleum and communications.
Those present overwhelmingly expressed an aversion to the proposal as presented by TxDOT and queried the department's representatives about how the route was selected.
State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst said after the meeting she, too, has issues with the project.
"I'm not against new highways. I just have grave concerns about the width, accountability, access and that the project goes against my free trade-enterprise values," Kolkhorst said.
Kolkhorst has authored HB 1273 in the state legislature, a measure that narrows the project's scope and seeks accountability safeguards.
As currently proposed, the corridor would enter Grimes County in the southwest corner and traverse northeasterly, exiting the county northeast of Shiro. The distance would be approximately 40 miles.
Over 4,000 acres would be taken for what many frankly see as a boondoggle. Their fears are that it would not only physically divide the county and impede their ability to get from one area of the county to another, but would also remove that acreage from making a positive economic impact on the county as they do now through agricultural or other business use, mineral rights or property taxes.
Citizens were told the corridor must provide for on-off ramps where it intersects state or federal roads, but no other access is to be provided. Such a concept is new in that the corridor is intended to be a pass-through. Historically roads, rails and utilities have connected cities and towns. The proposal, many think, will not substantially relieve the transportation problems in the county's cities and towns.
While one citizen expressed her belief that the corridor will cause growth in the vicinity of the ingress and egress points of the corridor, possibly creating new population areas, others thought it would sound an economic death knell by severely impeding growth.
A fairly recent economic study indicated that in the Navasota area 21.4 percent of the households have an annual income of $10,000 or less - more than twice the state average of 10.3 percent.
Whether the economic impact is positive or negative, the consensus was that it will negatively affect the rural lifestyle. The proposed route may even run near the new elementary school Navasota ISD is building in the Stoneham area. The potential for accidents in the area does not foster peace of mind for many people.
In response to citizens' inquiries about how this proposed toll road would be paid for, who would use it and at what cost, and who would be awarded the contract for building and for managing it once built, the state's representatives did not have any definitive answers.
They indicated that Texas does not have the funds to build the corridor, so the state has sought private investment through a company or consortium of companies to build the road and are negotiating a rate of return that the private investors can be guaranteed in the form of a percentage of the tolls.
Several citizens responded that these terms should not be negotiable items, but should be set terms offered by the state in a contract, without guarantees that investors will be repaid any money from taxpayers if the project fails or if toll revenues are not sufficient.
There have been reports that the contract was going to be awarded to a Spanish company, but the TxDOT response was that no decision had been made. Some attending were emphatic that the contract - if and when awarded - should go to an American company and preferably to a Texas company.
The state's representatives did confirm that the contract for the I-35 corridor from San Antonio to Dallas had been awarded to a consortium headed by a Spanish firm with only a 25 percent interest by an American company.
No dollar figures were mentioned for the cost of the total project, and citizens expressed great concern about the lack of information in this area.
Some think if there is any cost to the taxpayers at any stage of this project, or through higher guarantees to the investors, the legislature should give citizens an opportunity to vote on this matter before it can go forward.
Several people pointed out that if such a corridor is needed a more practical plan would be to use the current routing of U.S. 59 as much as possible, expanding the rights-of-way as needed. Several also said that wherever possible, lands already owned by the state or federal government should be utilized rather than using the eminent domain process to acquire land and displace people.
None of the state's representatives were able to answer the questions of how they could ensure that railroads, pipeline companies and others proposed to utilize portions of the rights-of-way would be interested in participating in this plan, or how those users would be determined or selected.
One person posed the question of what this corridor would connect to at the Texas-Mexico border. Are Mexico and Canada working on a similar connecting transportation facility? Otherwise, it would seem to be a road to nowhere, being built for the benefit of Mexico and Canada.
Others expressed concern that illegal immigration and drug traffic could be greatly increased because of easier access into Texas and concern about the criminal activity this could bring.
Although comment sheets were available, the general opinion was that TxDOT has its mind made up and that in reality it will do no good to comment or express concerns. Those wishing to comment have until Aug. 29 to submit their views to TxDOT if they want them to become part of the official record on this issue. After that date, comments will not become part of the official record. These should be sent to the TTC website at www.keeptexasmoving.org or by mail to Ed Pensock, Jr., P.E., Director of Corridor Systems, Texas Turnpike Authority Division, Texas Department of Transportation, P. O. Box 14428, Austin Texas, 78761.