Thursday, August 25, 2005

"A path as wide as seven football fields."

Transportation officials discuss how corridor land would be acquired

August 25, 2005

By Matt Joyce
Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2005

AUSTIN – It's the Trans-Texas Corridor's size that sets it apart. While the state has amassed thousands of miles of land for roadways since the early 1900s, never has it sought to clear a path as wide as 7 football fields.

Texas Department of Transportation officials laid out the framework for how the department will appraise and acquire land for the proposed tollway project at a Wednesday meeting of the Trans-Texas Corridor Citizen's Advisory Committee.

“We are talking about a significant amount of land and how it's going to impact landowners,” said John Zimmerman, head of the department's acquisition section.

But the department's methods for obtaining land for the 1,200-foot-wide corridor will be no different than other road projects, Zimmerman said.

Wednesday's meeting was the fourth gathering of the 22-member advisory committee, which the transportation department formed this spring after complaints that it was moving forward on the tollway project without enough public input.

The department is working through an environmental study of potential routes for a section of the corridor – a network that could include roads, railways and utility infrastructure – running roughly parallel to Interstate 35 from San Antonio to Dallas.

Transportation officials said Wednesday that they hope to have a 50-mile-wide study area for the corridor narrowed to 10 miles by December. Further refinement of the route would take until at least 2009, they said.

Zimmerman said the department must complete its environmental study and settle upon a corridor route before it begins surveying land for acquisition.

Recent rumors that department crews have already begun surveying land for the corridor are untrue, said Phillip Russell, director of the department's turnpike division. The department's investigation of reports into surveying for the corridor have showed that they originated from crews working on local projects, he said.

“We're not doing any surveying and probably won't for quite a while,” he said.

Once the corridor alignment is set and the land is surveyed, appraisers are required to meet with landowners to discuss the property, including improvements like drainage structures, before settling on a value, he said.

“We want to see the landowner get what that property's worth in the market,” Zimmerman said. “It's a balancing effort. The public should pay what's required, but they shouldn't pay an excessive amount.”

Bell County Commissioner Tim Brown, chairman of the advisory committee, asked how a farmer will be compensated if the corridor splits his property to the point that accessing the other side is an inconvenience, such as a farmer having to move equipment 25 miles to work his crops.

Zimmerman said recent legislation requires special consideration in the appraisal process if a landowner's property is devalued in that way, but that the department also has provisions that could allow landowners to move equipment or livestock under the corridor.

If the state and a landowner cannot reach agreement on a property's value, the department then asks the state Attorney General's Office to begin the condemnation process, which starts with a hearing before a special commission of three citizens. If either the state or landowner objects to a property's value as decided by the commission, then the dispute heads to a jury trial.

Waco Tribune-Herald