Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Deep South Texas leaders incensed by Texas Transportation Commissioner's comment

Officials look for other ways to fund superhighway

Nov. 29, 2005

Associated Press
Copyright 2005

WESLACO, Texas - With federal funding for the I-69 superhighway from the Texas-Mexico border to Canada dead for now, Texas and other states are looking for another route to fund the corridor, a state transportation official said Tuesday.

Mario Jorge of the Texas Department of Transportation sought to allay the concerns of the Rio Grande Valley Mobility Task Force, a group of elected officials and business leaders who lobby for funding for the highway - raised when Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton said recently that "I-69 is dead in the state of Texas. The road fairy has been shot."

"Yeah, we do not have the federal dollars to build the 69 corridor in its entirety," Jorge said. "From the Texas standpoint, we're proceeding as we have been."

Jorge said that Gov. Rick Perry's 2002 proposal for a 4,000-mile network of tollroads whose $175 billion price tag would be covered by private money was one alternative. Other states along the 1,600-mile route would have to find funding for their portions as well.

Some have protested the idea of the trans-Texas corridor, fearing farmers and ranchers along the route would be forced to sell their land.

Deep South Texas leaders say it is shameful a region with more than a million people and a burgeoning post-NAFTA economy does not have nearby access to an interstate freeway. They have been incensed since Houghton's comment, made at a luncheon on Nov. 8, alerted them that the funding had dried up.

"The project is not dead and it should not be because it's important to the border," state Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville, said Tuesday.

The nearest interstates to the border city of Brownsville are I-35, which connects to the border city of Laredo some 200 miles west; and I-37, which stops at Corpus Christi some 160 miles north.

Gary Bushell, an Austin-based lobbyist for the I-69 Alliance of supporters around the state, told the group the days of the federal government footing 90 percent of interstates were over. He added that gas tax returns from Washington, another source of highway funding, were stretched too thin for a $6 billion, 1,000-mile highway through Texas.

But he said the corridor could be achieved in different ways, including stretches of toll roads to weed trucks out of commuter traffic, encouraging private sector involvement, and considering piecemeal improvements as part of the overall project.

Already, sections of U.S. 77 and U.S. 281 out of the Valley are being brought to interstate standards, he said, meaning they are of a certain width and have overpasses or other means of separating local cross traffic.

He said Perry would "kick off I-69 Texas in a very serious way" at a Dec. 8 meeting in Houston.

Currently, I-69 starts along the Canadian border at Port Huron, Mich. and runs south to Indianapolis.

Planners proposed extending it from Indianapolis to Evansville, Ind., through Kentucky to Memphis, Tenn., then along the Arkansas-Mississippi line to Shreveport, La. From there it would go on to Houston and South Texas to the Mexican border.

© 2005 The Associated Press: www.ap.org