Wednesday, September 14, 2005

"This road leads to three cities. One's called political patronage, the other's called corruption, and the other's called graft."

Trans-Texas Corridor critics denounce project at meeting

September 14, 2005

By Matt Joyce
Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2005

TOURS – Trans-Texas Corridor critics denounced the state's handling of the project on Tuesday and called on McLennan County residents to organize against the proposed transportation network.

In a meeting at Tours Hall in eastern McLennan County, speakers urged the roughly 200 attendants to slow down or stop the Texas Department of Transportation's plan to build a network of tolled highways, railways and utility infrastructure from San Antonio to Dallas.

“We have to raise the political cost, and how you raise political cost is you organize,” said Chris Hammel, chairman of the Bell County anti-corridor group Blacklands Coalition.

The McLennan County group DERAIL, which opposes the corridor, scheduled Tuesday's meeting to update people on the corridor project, said Rick Wegwerth, a group organizer.

Hammel said next year's gubernatorial primary and general elections will be the “beachhead at which we as people who are opposed to this can send a very clear signal to both parties that are in office that there's something wrong going on in Texas.”

Gov. Rick Perry proposed the Trans-Texas Corridor in 2002 as a way to handle current and future trade traffic and population growth by providing an alternative to the state's interstate system.

The transportation department later identified a corridor running parallel to Interstate 35, with a likely path through McLennan County, as its top priority for construction and targeted 2010 to break ground.

The department is now working through an environmental study of potential routes for the corridor. Transportation officials have said that they hope to have a 50-mile-wide study area narrowed to 10 miles by December.

The state's decision to bring private investment into the project also came under attack Tuesday. In March, the transportation department signed an agreement with developers Cintra Zachry for the developers to spend $6 billion to build the corridor in exchange for a lease to operate it as a tollway for 50 years.

Transportation officials have said that the private investment enables the state to conduct much-needed infrastructure projects that it could not otherwise afford. But critics argued that such arrangements distract the focus from citizens' opinions on the project.

“Yeah, they're going to build this road, and it leads to three cities: one's called political patronage, the other's called corruption, and the other's called graft,” Hammel said.

Also at Tuesday's meeting, Austin lawyer Erik Cardinell, a specialist in eminent domain law, walked attendants through the condemnation process. He encouraged landowners who find themselves in the corridor's path to seek legal advice before accepting the state's appraisal of their land value.

“It's a very intricate, involved and complex area of the law, and landowners can be taken advantage of if they don't seek help,” Cardinell said.

He said condemnation attorneys do not charge by the hour, but are paid a percentage of however much their work increases the land's appraised value.

Jimmy Jaska, who lives between Leroy and Elm Mott, said he had only heard small bits of information about the corridor before Tuesday's meeting. He said the rising price of fuel may cut down on traffic to the point that the corridor is not warranted.

“My thing is, they started expanding I-35 and I think they need to finish that,” he said. “If (the corridor) is still needed then, then they could look at it.”


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