Friday, February 10, 2006

Perry appointees keep pushing snake oil for congestion relief

I-69, corridor promoted

February 10, 2006

By Stephen Palkot
Fort Bend Herald and Texas Coaster
Copyright 2006

Texans are literally "congesting themselves into a corner," and a privately funded Trans Texas Corridor will be the solution, said a Texas Department of Transportation commissioner on Thursday.

John Johnson, a member of the Texas Transportation Commission, was one of several speakers at a meeting of the I-69 Alliance, which was held Thursday in the Rosenberg Civic and Convention Center.

Top TxDOT officials and area government leaders attended the meeting to hear an update on the project, which has drawn controversy and has become a hot-button issue in the 2006 election.

The rhetoric of TTC opponents was acknowledged by the speakers, who sought to convince the gathering the project does not violate long-held standards of eminent domain and will be conducted with public input.

"We have a big project educating people on what this project is about and how we're moving forward," said Ed Behrens, TxDOT's executive director.

The TTC and I-69 are two different projects that may be linked together. I-69 has been proposed as a highway to run from the southern border of Texas to the Port Huron, Mich., where it will connect with Canada.

The TTC is a proposed transportation corridor with car lanes and exclusive trucking lanes running side-by-side with rail lines and possibly utilities. TxDOT has been pursuing the idea of having I-69 be a component of the TTC.

Behrens noted the 50-year anniversary of the interstate highway system is approaching, and he described the TTC as the "next step" in transportation infrastructure.

The interstate corridors cannot be widened much more due to a lack of right-of-way along those highways, said Behrens.

Johnson said the project is being pursued in a relatively fast manner given traffic projections, to facilitate trade with Mexico and to create business opportunities along the TTC.

The environmental studies are under way, and TxDOT has been heavily involved in the process, said Johnson.

"I believe the rumors and innuendo that this will be a huge change from the way TxDOT normally operates - from an environmental, right-of-way standpoint - could not be further from the truth," he said.

The project will be funded in large part by private sector investors, who would seek to recoup their investment through tolls.

Johnson said that does not mean TxDOT will be ceding eminent domain to a private partner.

Ed Pensack, of the Texas Turnpike Division, said the TTC could be a huge investment and risk for investors, but that it could pay off.

"We're trying to make sure the industry understands that potential and its place in the world marketplace," he said.

He said TxDOT and the National Highway Administration will "always" be making decisions on plans for the road.

With the Panama Canal and a major port in Los Angeles nearing capacity, the TTC could handle overflow of cargo in the years to come. Cargo could be carried from ports on the western shore of Mexico and into Texas through highways, connecting at the TTC, said Johnson.

"Each one of those opportunities could really put that traffic though Texas," said Johnson.

County Judge Bob Hebert asked speakers about studies into the project, saying drivers might prefer to drive on existing, free roads instead of a toll road.

"We are making those analyses right now," said Pensack. "They will be made available as they get ready for completion."

Critics of the TTC say the project will require a massive land grab throughout Texas, and have questioned the idea of having private companies operate the road.

© 2006 Fort Bend Herald