Saturday, August 20, 2005

Hutchison: “I don't want tolls on federal highways. Period. End of statement”

Hutchison touts I-69 project at regional transportation meeting

Longview News=Journal
Copyrignt 2005

TYLER – Planes, trains and automobiles were the topics of discussion for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and local and state lawmakers Friday at a regional transportation summit in Tyler.

Hutchison, R-Texas, who outlined recent federal transportation legislation, was the keynote speaker during the daylong conference at Tyler's Holiday Inn Select.

“Transportation is our lifeblood, and we will never walk away from our responsibility to protect it,” Hutchison said on behalf of her colleagues in Washington.

Sponsored by the East Texas Council of Governments and the East Texas Rural Transit District, Destination East Texas: “Moving People” attracted about 230 city and county officials in addition to industry leaders and experts. Topics ranged from passenger rail service in East Texas, airport planning, alternative fuels and the proposed Interstate 69 corridor, which would link Mexico to Canada and go through this part of the state.

U.S. Congressman Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, while not on the program, made a stop at the conference, saying opportunities for regional planning are never wasted.

“It does my heart good to see cities like Tyler and Longview working together. What a great opportunity,” he said.

Hutchison said the Surface Transportation Reauthorization Bill was good news for Texas because the state's share of highway funding increased by almost $800 million to about $2.89 billion annually.

Texas' rate of return will increase from 90.5 cents for every dollar to 92 cents within six years, she said.

Hutchison said the $50 million I-69 project will be good for Texas because 80 percent of traffic from Mexico comes through Texas.

The high traffic boosts the state's economy, but it also means more wear and tear for Texas highways, she said. The I-69 project will alleviate some of the congestion and road wear on highways already in place.

Hutchison, interrupted by applause several times during her 20-minute speech, said funding is a critical issue, but she doesn't believe it should come from tolls on interstates.

“I don't want tolls on federal highways. Period. End of statement,” Hutchison said.

Hutchison expressed her opinions about rail travel, as well, saying more people would take advantage of Amtrak's passenger rail if it were more reliable.

“If we had a fair shot at on-time performance and funding, Amtrak would be a viable transportation opportunity,” she said.

She said the federal government spends $40 billion annually on highways, $15 billion on airports and only $1 billion on Amtrak.

During eight break-out sessions throughout the day, local leaders and transportation officials met in smaller groups of about 10 to 30 to discuss a variety of issues.

Dietrich Johnson, the director of public transportation for the city of Longview, sat on one panel devoted to developing a regional transit plan for East Texas.

Officials from the city of Denton were on-hand in another morning session titled "Making the Transition to Alternative Fueled Vehicles" to give East Texas city council members and county commissioners a glimpse of Denton's newly-opened Biodiesel Production Facility. The city's solid waste fleet runs off the biodiesel blend produced on-site with – among other things – used cooking oil from restaurants.

The Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority, a three-year-old collaboration project between Smith and Gregg counties and the cities of Tyler and Longview, also was among session topics.

Robert Nichols, a former TxDOT commissioner, spoke during the lunch hour about the Trans-Texas Corridor plan.

He said the state needs a highway system that will support its population and its projected populations for the future. In 2050, it is expected that 40 million people, nearly twice the current number, will reside in Texas.

“What are we going to do with them? We've got to take different approaches. We've got to plan for the future,” Nichols said.

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