Saturday, August 20, 2005

Nichols: Aim is to centralize thoroughfares for tollways, railways and utility lines to streamline the process of acquiring private property.

HIGHWAY BILL REVISIONS PLACE STATE IN DRIVER'S SEAT

By: SARA FOLEY, Staff Writer
Tyler Morning Telegraph
Copyright 2005

Increasing financing for Texas highways and improving state Amtrak routes are priorities U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison discussed Friday at the East Texas Transportation Summit.
Sen. Hutchison said Texas will be receiving 92 cents for every dollar it sends to Washington for highway construction, because of recent revisions to a federal highway bill. Under earlier legislation, Texas received 90.5 cents per dollar.

"Good things are happening for Texas roadways," she said. "It wasn't everything I wanted, but we've come a long way."

The increase will result in $800 million more a year for roads. Sen. Hutchison said she will continue to work toward getting an even larger return for every dollar as long as she is a senator.

Sen. Hutchison also emphasized the importance of transportation alternatives such as Amtrak, adding that current Amtrak financing was inadequate.

"We're trying to make it go with one arm tied behind our back," she said.

Sen. Hutchison said she didn't think it was fair to subsidize Amtrak when it is mainly concentrated in the Northeast.

"We started the concept of 'national or nothing,'" she said.

A skeleton of standard Amtrak routes, which includes routes through southern Texas and one running down the middle of the state, is one solution Sen. Hutchison offered.

Sen. Hutchison said she valued Friday's conference because it helped build relationships between communities that could result in better roadways.

"Any time you can address transportation on a local level, you need to know the plan as a whole," she said. "The only way you can do that is to have planning by region. That's why this is so important."

Former state transportation commissioner Robert Nichols said that just seven or eight years ago, communities wrangled with each other over projects, whereas today they are more willing to make concessions on local projects in order to benefit an entire region, such as Northeast Texas.

"They focused on getting their piece of the pie," he said. "They felt like they were fighting."

Nichols also gave an overview of the Trans-Texas Corridor, Gov. Rick Perry's $184 billion vision of thousands of miles of tollways, railways and utility lines crisscrossing the state.

Part of the aim, Nichols said, is to centralize thoroughfares for those three items to streamline the process of acquiring private property easements for each component.

As an example, he said next-generation electricity transmission lines span as much as 250 feet, or twice the width of a typical four-lane divided highway. By incorporating space for the power lines alongside highway corridors, the state and utility companies can avoid having to "go through thousands of more parcels of private property."

Ed Pensock of TxDOT discussed Interstate 69, the planned north-south highway that will be part of the Trans-Texas Corridor, running from South Texas through Houston and Northeast Texas.

"I-69 is about linking the opportunities, markets and materials in Central and South America with North America," he said.

Building the Texas portion of I-69 the traditional way will only invite congestion within a few decades, similar to that seen today on Interstate 35, he said. Building it into the Trans-Texas Corridor will extend the life and usability of the highway, he said.

The Trans-Texas Corridor will provide separate lanes for commercial, passenger and rail traffic, and will be funded with tolls.

State officials are working on new, disposable toll tags for vehicles to allow quick passage through tollbooths around the state.

Mark Collette covers Smith County. He can be reached at 903.596.6303. e-mail: news@tylerpaper.com

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