Wednesday, October 12, 2005

TxDOT Executive Director Behrens pitches TTC-35 to rural newspaper reporters

The Trans Texas Corridor will be built ... somewhere

by Richard Stone
Editor & Publisher
The Cameron Herald
Copyright 2005

Get ready. TTC-35 is coming.

Though Michael Behrens wouldn't use those words, not exactly, and he'd probably cringe to realize it, that's the impression he left at the end of an hour and a half of questioning Thursday.

"Something is going to have to be built somewhere," the executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation said after meeting in Cameron with a group of reporters from several rural newspapers. There was touch of resignation in his voice when he said it.

The Trans Texas Corridor is a proposed multi-lane transportation network designed to carry passenger, freight, rail and utilities. The TTC-35 portion of the corridor would roughly parallel Interstate 35 from Laredo to the Oklahoma border north of Dallas. Along the way, it will slice through a portion of east Williamson and Bell counties, or a portion of west Milam and Falls counties. Maybe both.

Behrens said that traffic demands on IH-35, Texas' primary north-south transportation corridor, have grown to the point of bursting. That's what's behind the push to build this portion of the corridor now.

"We were seeing the pressures on IH-35 eight, nine years ago while we were going through this same process for Texas 130," he said, referring to the new toll road under construction looping east of Austin. "We were already thinking back then that it would have to go off and head to Dallas. I don't know about you but I've driven IH 35 many times and wished there was another road to go on."

Behrens, who has worked for TxDOT for over 35 years, often recalls Texas' early experiences with IH-35 when talking about the TTC-35 concept.

Early on, Texas didn't buy enough right-of-way for IH-35. Access to the highway was strictly controlled. Entrance and exit ramps were sharp and short. The entire concept of separating passenger and freight traffic on the highway was absurd, as was the idea of carving space out of the right-of-way for passenger and freight rail lines.

"What we're trying to do here is think ahead," Behrens said. "The interstate system was 100 percent financed by federal government. They said, 'go out an buy the right of way you think you'll need for the next 20 years.' That's how the right of way was bought."

At first, Behrens said, Texas highway planners bought 22-foot rights-of-way but, as traffic patterns and design standards changed, so did the amount of land needed to build a highway.

"I understand fully where a lot of the comments are coming from but, if you have the opportunity to travel back east, and drive on US Highways that are 22-feet wide, you see that we have better farm roads than that. They have no space."

As a result, the right of way for TTC-35 will be 1,200 feet wide, on average. That's as wide as the length of four football fields.

Two other factors are driving this concept: population growth and cost.

Behrens said that the population of Texas is expected to double in the next 25 years. An awful lot of that growth will be along IH-35 and that highway is already at capacity, he said.

The second factor is money. Texas really doesn't have the money to build this kind of highway system.

Behrens explained how Texas gets money to build and maintain highways. Most of Texas' highway dollars come from a 20-cent gasoline tax. A nickel of that goes to public education. "Last year, we got $2.2 billion from the gasoline tax," he said. "We spent $2.3 billion just to maintain our current system, the 80,000 miles of highway out there."

He said that the only money the state has to add capacity is federal dollars, of which we get back roughly 80-cents for every tax dollar we send. "That's not a lot when you look at all the needs we have, especially in this part of the state."

That's why the TCC-35 concept evolved into a toll road built and maintained by a private contractor, and one of the reasons the Texas Highway Commission chose Cintras-Zachary to build this portion of the corridor.

Cintras is the Spanish company with the money - $7.2 billion - and the experience to build and operate a public transportation system. The company will invest $6 billion in construction and pay the State of Texas $1.2 billion as a concession to operate the toll road.

Zachary is a heavy construction company based in San Antonio. This is the part of the partnership that will build the highway.

"We didn't just pick some company out there," Behrens said. "We went through a competitive process."

Money is also driving the route of the corridor.

"There have been comments suggesting [that] we just use the existing footprint of IH-35. Just widen that enough ... what ever it takes."

But, the property along IH-35 is some of the most highly valued commercial real estate in Texas.

"We do not see it as financially feasible to buy and relocate everything along existing IH-35," Behrens said. "Granted, there some areas of IH-35 not built up, and some of that is being looked at ... there might be some areas along IH-35 where we could put a new facility. We don't think that it is [feasible to buy up everything along the corridor] because we just can't afford it."

But land in this part of rural Texas isn't that expensive, which leads another reason some oppose the idea.

"One of the myths [going around is] that this company, a foreign company, is just going to come in and take our property and we'll have 90 days to get off. I can assure you that that is not the case," he said. "It's not like we'll be there today and start bulldozing tomorrow. It does not happen like that."

Because the state will actually own the land - then lease it to Cintras-Zachary on a 50-year concession - the right-of-way acquisition processes are the same for this highway as they are for any other highway the state builds.

Right now, TxDOT's highway planners are slogging through a long, detailed process of picking one 10-mile wide corridor in which to locate a 1,200-foot wide right-of-way. This has been underway for some time and is expected to conclude in the spring of 2006.

Highway planners have a similar process ahead for the more detailed studies necessary before a final route can be chosen and it will be several years before anyone will make an offer to any property owner.

"It's the same process we always use," he said. That process, of course, includes the possibility of condemnation proceedings for property owners along the final route who won't sell, Behrens said. "That process has been there a long, long time."

Even then, Berhens said, it will likely be some time before the full width of the right-of-way will be used.

"It doesn't make any sense to have the land out there underutilized," he said. "I remember about 20 years ago I was building a 4-lane divided highway [near Yoakum]. We'd bought the land but some farmers had planted corn in one area. I told them not to worry about it because it would all be harvested by the time we got that far. We do try to use some good common sense. If it's workable, we'll work with people."

Other areas of opposition to the corridor revolve around access to the highway and its impact on rural life.

Behrens acknowledged that the project will have an impact but he insists that planners are sensitive to people concerned about this disruption.

"It's hard for me to sit here today and tell you exactly how that would be addressed, but we addressed a lot of similar things on IH-35 and other major thoroughfares. In a perfect world, you would like to build these things along property lines, which is being looked and taken into consideration, but, again, it doesn't always hit all the time."

And, he noted that an intended by product of the project is for communities along the corridor to realize some economic benefit from it.

"I think you'll see development along this corridor like we saw when we built IH-35," he said. "When we get to a point that the some segments are built, the people who see the opportunities of locating along the corridor will come."

He predicted that the initial opportunities will likely service traffic on the highway but that will grow. "I truly believe that you will see companies look at properties along these corridors to locate a business, whether it would be manufacturing or warehouse distribution centers like you see now."

He also stressed that access won't be as difficult as some opponents suggest.

"You will have access at every intersection of Interstates, U.S. highways, state highways and major farm-to-market roads," he said.

He said that a look at the evolution of IH-35 would show how county roads left out of the initial plans might find access to the corridor. "Those decisions will be made when we get down to a final alignment. Go back and look at the interstates. Most county roads did not have direct access to the interstate but, through the development of frontage roads and overpasses, this was solved."

Behrens said that there is still a lot of planning and study before TTC-35 moves off the TxDOT drawing board and onto the Blackland Prairie. And, he said, the Feds could kill it, though that's unlikely.

But the problems that drew the concept to this point - growth, money and highway capacity - won't be solved until TTC-35, or something very like it, is built.

If not here, then somewhere.

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