Tuesday, May 17, 2005

"Hypocritical for the state to be attempting to dispel these myths when it's representatives are unable to produce a cohesive plan for the Corridor."

Officials should clarify plans for corridor

Letter to the editor
Tayor Daiy Press, Copyright 2005

I would like to begin my letter by asking the reader to spend a few moments in contemplation of the State of Texas. Consider the things that come to mind when I say the word "Texas." Perhaps you imagine the deep forests of the Big Thicket, the majestic peaks of Big Bend and the seemingly endless plains of the Panhandle. Perhaps you envision the Fort Worth Stock Show, the San Antonio River Walk or the sparkling beaches of South Padre Island. It's a beautiful place, with wide-open spaces, cosmopolitan cities and a diverse population.

Now imagine a road. More and more, when individuals on the national political stage think of Texas, that's exactly what they think of.

I write this letter in response to a series of press releases sent out by the Texas Department of Transportation and the Office of the Governor, attempting to assuage our concerns in reference to the continued association of Texas with roads, most notably the Trans-Texas Corridor System.

The most recent of these releases, "Common myths about the Trans Texas Corridor," (May 10) presents a series of seemingly hyperbolic statements. It strikes me as hypocritical for the state to be attempting to dispel these myths when it's representatives are unable to produce a cohesive plan for the structure of the corridor.

Several weeks ago, my parents, Mahon and Susan Garry, and several other representatives of the Coupland community were able to visit with state Rep. Mike Krusee, who informed them that the corridor, at least through this area, would be much less sweeping in scope than (the) image presented by the press release. In the past year, we have been told that the corridor through Williamson County will consist entirely of SH 130, that our farm is the proverbial bullseye in the middle of the study area, and everything in between, with little or no clarification on the finitude of the situation.

The diversity of the 'official' statements involving the corridor do not seem to reflect the unified position of a governing body that is prepared to enact legislation, so much as they resemble conflicting reports from the aftermath of a natural disaster. From his position, whether it be as governor of the state, a TxDOT engineer, or chairman of the House Transportation Committee, each person involved in the planning of the highway insists that his is the clearest of viewpoints, only to be contradicted by someone who claims to be closer to the epicenter of the activity. Even if I did not feel that my family's farm and heritage were at stake in this conflict, I would be skeptical of such an ill-conceived plan that seems to be hurtling at such stratospheric speeds towards fruition.

Therefore, I ask the following of our elected leaders and the staff at TxDOT:

1. Coordinate among yourselves to devise a unified picture of what this corridor will actually look like at different stages in the future.

2. Treat your constituents as the intelligent people that we are. We deserve full and accurate disclosure of the machinations of our government.

3. Consider Texas as the rest of us do, as a beautiful and historic land of wide-open spaces, cowboys and a unique and vibrant culture. Remember for a few moments that it is more than a space between Oklahoma and Mexico that must be paved. If you still cannot see it as any more than this, I suggest you move somewhere else.


Margaret Garry

Coupland, Texas

Taylor Daily Press: www.taylordailypress.net


It's enough to make a taxpayer squeal like a pig.

Alaska thanks you


By Nick Jans
USA Today
Copyright 2005

As you stand at the gas pump this summer, think of Alaska. No, not as a fantasy to escape the heat or the price of your latest fill-up. Instead, consider that each spin of the pump's meter means money slurping north, straight from your wallet.

If you live in Texas, Georgia, Florida or New Jersey, that steady siphon is a certainty — your gas tax dollars are funding a procession of lavish road and bridge projects thousands of miles away, including a pile of boondoggles that we Alaskans don't need, and that many of us don't want.

It's a fact: For every dollar we Alaskans pay in at-the-pump gas taxes, we get $6.60 back, thanks to you generous, unwitting donors.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan watchdog group in Washington, that breaks down to $1,150 for every Alaskan in "earmark" funding for in-state projects alone, 25 times what the average American garners for his or her home state.

How could this be? Alaska is so rich that residents not only pay no state income tax, but we get individual yearly checks as our share of the oil wealth. Why should your gas taxes, which are supposed to fill potholes in your local interstate or repair your decaying bridges, end up so far from home?

Bringing it home

Simple. We have Don Young. You don't.

As chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, our lone congressman has incredible clout in determining where federal funding (provided by your tax dollars) ends up. The six-year, $295 billion behemoth of a transportation bill was approved in the House of Representatives and easily passed in the Senate on Tuesday. Young has bragged that the bill is "stuffed like a turkey" with high-dollar projects earmarked for his home state, totaling $721 million. In fact, Young is so fond of the bill that he named it TEA-LU, after his wife, Lu.

Here's a sampling of projects for Alaska funded by the Transportation Equity Act:

• $223 million to build a bridge nearly as long as the Golden Gate and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge, to connect the town of Ketchikan (population 8,900) to the city airport on Gravina Island (population 50). Currently, the link is provided by a 10-minute ferry ride that has worked for years. This proposed project won Young a "Golden Fleece Award" from Taxpayers for Common Sense — an award he has told supporters he cherishes.

• $200 million for another "bridge to nowhere," which would lead from Anchorage, the state's largest city, to a rural port that has one tenant and a handful of homes. Total cost for the project has been estimated at upwards of $1.5 billion. Not even the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce wants it.

• $15 million to begin work on a 68-mile, $284 million access road to Juneau, the state capital, even though a majority of area residents have said they would prefer improving service in the existing ferry system instead. The proposed road would compromise so many ecologically sensitive areas that the Environmental Protection Agency, in an extremely unusual move, has stated its opposition to the project.

Of course, the ultimate beneficiaries are a handful of corporate interests (such as Couer Alaska, which is developing a large mine on the path of the proposed Juneau road), private individuals, timber companies and Young himself. By proving once again that he's Alaska's sugar daddy, the congressman cements his position for another term in office.

Meanwhile, transportation infrastructure across the nation suffers from neglect: More than 150,000 bridges, 7,500 miles of interstate highway and more than 28,000 miles of other roads are in immediate need of repair.

When both the arch-conservative Cato Institute and the ultra-green Sierra Club preach the same message — fix what's here before we build more — you know there's a problem.

Young is unfazed by any opposition, the essential unfairness of his actions, or the fact that he's squandering federal taxes at a time of record deficits.

"We make no apologies," he says. "If I hadn't done fairly well for our state, I'd be ashamed of myself."

His solution to budgetary shortfalls in TEA-LU? Rather than cut back, he actually proposed raising federal gas taxes further, though the notion failed for lack of support.

While Young may be the poster child for this new wave of tax-and-spend Republicans, he has plenty of company on both sides of the aisle. For example, Democratic Sens. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Robert Byrd of West Virginia share a legendary ability to bring home the bacon. And according to the watchdog organization Citizens Against Government Waste, Young's fellow Alaskan in the Senate, Republican Ted Stevens, consistently has led the entire congressional delegation in his ability to pack on the pork.

'Oinkers' in Congress

Paying homage to the senior Stevens' success, Young once told an Alaska audience, "I want to be a little oinker, myself."

The fact is, most legislators want to be oinkers. Their constituents expect them to use every shred of influence and power to direct every possible dollar of funding home, as if their political lives depend on it — which they do. Don Young isn't any different or worse; he's just better positioned.

Finally, the problem far transcends the boundaries of TEA-LU, the excesses of which are mere symptoms of a deeply flawed funding process in dire need of reform. Even funding for the war on terrorism, with national security at stake, is tainted by abuse and waste, as are armed services appropriations; congressmen fight with the same tooth-and-nail ardor over useless weapons systems, bases and facilities as they do over funding for bridges and bus stops.

The antiquated system of earmarking pork barrel projects based on seniority or clout is, in itself, a costly bridge to nowhere — one we can no longer afford. A fair formula for distributing federal funds is certainly within reach; all that would have been required to drastically cut and reform TEA-LU was a simple amendment to cull all earmarks. Despite a few modest rumblings, nothing was done. Unless action is taken in the final conference stage, it'll be up to the president to carry through his threat of a veto of this monument to waste and excess, sending it back to the House, back into Young's lap.

Focus down, and think about it next time you're standing at the gas pump, all you donors. That steady gurgle is the sound of your money draining away.


The wide gap in the distribution of gas-tax money should be enough to make some taxpayers see red. Alaska, for instance, receives $6.60 for every dollar paid in federal gas taxes; Texas gets 86 cents on the dollar.

1 Alaska $6.60
2 District of Columbia $3.53
3 South Dakota $2.28
4 Hawaii $2.23
5 Montana $2.22
6 North Dakota $2.17
7 Rhode Island $2.17
8 Vermont $1.83
9 West Virginia $1.69
10 Delaware $1.60
11 Idaho $1.46
12 Connecticut $1.41
13 Wyoming $1.40
14 New York $1.21
15 Pennsylvania $1.17
16 New Mexico $1.12
17 Nevada $1.08
18 New Hampshire $1.08
19 Minnesota $1.07
20 Utah $1.07
21 Wisconsin $1.05
22 Iowa $1.03
23 Alabama $1.02
24 Arkansas $1.02
25 Kansas $1.01
26 Oregon $1.01
27 Maine $1.00
28 Washington $0.99
29 Mississippi $0.98
30 Nebraska $0.97
31 Illinois $0.96
32 Maryland $0.95
33 Massachusetts $0.95
34 Virginia $0.95
35 Colorado $0.93
36 Missouri $0.92
37 California $0.91
38 Kentucky $0.91
39 North Carolina $0.90
40 Tennessee $0.90
41 Indiana $0.89
42 Louisiana $0.89
43 Ohio $0.89
44 Arizona $0.88
45 Michigan $0.88
46 Oklahoma $0.88
47 South Carolina $0.88
48 New Jersey $0.87
49 Florida $0.86
50 Georgia $0.86
51 Texas $0.86

Source: Federal Highway Administration. Data based on a five-year average from 1998-2002. It includes discretionary funds.

Alaskan writer Nick Jans is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors. He also is author of the forthcoming book The Grizzly Maze, to be published in July.

© 2005 USA TODAY www.usatoday.com


Monday, May 16, 2005

Rural areas wary of Trans-Texas Corridor

Rural areas wary of Trans-Texas plan

May 16, 2005
Roger Croteau, Staff Writer

The Trans -Texas Corridor , an ambitious plan to crisscross the state with new highways and rail and utility lines, is generating increasing opposition from rural counties.
So far this year, commissioners courts in 25 rural counties have passed resolutions opposing the plan, complaining that the 1,200-foot-wide corridors would divide farms and communities while giving rural areas little but headaches in return.

''It's just too much,'' said Guadalupe County Judge Donald Schraub last week, when his county went on record as opposing the plan. ''It's a good concept, maybe, but it's not well thought out at this point.''

Texas Department of Transportation officials said much of the rising opposition is based on misinformation. The corridors would help the economies of rural counties by generating commercial activities and boosting land values, they insist.

''We need to get out accurate information on the corridor and why it's needed,'' said TxDOT spokeswoman Gabriela Garcia. ''I think some of their concerns will be addressed.''

TxDOT is conducting preliminary environmental studies for the first two legs of the plan, the Interstate 35 corridor and the planned Interstate 69 corridor from the Rio Grande Valley to Northeast Texas .

''Those two are the focus now,'' Garcia said. ''Nobody can argue that they are not congested and what we've got on the ground now is going to be sufficient in the future. Does anybody else have another plan for how to address what's coming in the future?''

The Trans -Texas Corridor would feature toll highways with separate lanes for cars and trucks, freight railways, high-speed commuter railways and water, oil and gas pipelines, as well as electric and telecommunication lines, all running together on 1,200-foot-wide rights of way.

The routes have not been determined and likely would incorporate portions of existing and new highways, railways and utility rights of way.

The plan envisions completion in 50 years.

Last month, TxDOT signed a comprehensive development agreement with Cintra-Zachry, an international group of engineering, construction and financial companies, to develop TTC-35, the first element of the corridor plan, which would reduce congestion on the I-35 corridor .

Cintra-Zachry is proposing to invest $7.2 billion to help build the corridor . The first phase of the proposal calls for building a $6 billion toll road between Dallas and San Antonio by 2010.

Fayetteville residents David and Linda Stall formed a group called Corridor Watch in February 2004 after they became concerned about the plan and the speed with which it was being pushed. Many of their objections are echoed in the resolutions being passed in commissioners courts around the state.

They claim putting highway lanes, rail and utilities adjacent to each other will be a security problem by creating a ''soft'' target for terrorists. By avoiding urban areas, the corridor will create a public safety problem because rural emergency services do not have the resources and response times needed to deal with potential disasters along the route.

The group's Web site also claims the corridor would harm the environment by paving over 580,000 acres of land and would fragment communities and the habitat of many species. The group also has concerns about the effect on tourism, property rights and local property tax revenues.

Rural counties often welcome highway projects, which bring the promise of increased property values and commercial and industrial development. But not this time, David Stall said.

''What's different about this one is that it's a closed corridor ,'' he said. ''It will have very limited access.''

But that is just one of the many myths TxDOT needs to debunk, Garcia said. The department recently developed a three-page paper, ''Myth vs. Reality,'' which addresses more than a dozen of the criticisms leveled at the project.

Local officials in counties that have come out against the project often focus on the sheer size of the corridors , with the projected 1,200-foot rights of way.

''The fear factor is that it's a quarter-mile wide,'' said Kendall County Judge Eddie Vogt. ''It's taking way too much of a swath through the county. It's just the huge size of this project that has boggled everybody.''

Hill County Judge Kenneth Davis complained that the preliminary alignment would be too far from the county seat of Hillsboro and would draw business away.

''We just don't want to make ghost towns out of some of our communities,'' Davis said. ''We'd like to think (opposition from rural counties) would have an impact at the Legislature, but the reality of it is 60 percent of the representatives in the state Legislature are from urban areas. So any hope we have depends on getting some comrades from urban areas to join us.''