Tuesday, March 07, 2006

I-35's evil twin casts a shadow over the Blackland Prairie

Path of I-35 twin a mystery

Rural Texas on edge as state prepares to reveal general route of TTC-35

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

MALONE — On this particular morning, fog has Texas 171 socked in for the whole 15 miles east from Hillsboro to this tiny German farm town. While you can tell that the winter-bare black loam is mostly flat moving toward the invisible horizon, you can only guess what might lie beyond.

Barger Geltmeier and Benny Mynar and their fellow Hill County farmers have a pretty good idea, however, what might be forming out in the fog near Austin and heading their way, and they don't much like it: the Trans-Texas Corridor.

"Ninety percent of the comments you hear about it are negative," says Geltmeier, who lives here and farms about 48 acres a few miles to the east. The rumor mill in Hill County has it that the Texas Department of Transportation, which has a broad canvas on which to paint the future path of the toll road alternative to Interstate 35, is looking at running what will be called TTC-35 right over FM 308 and on past Malone. The agency in a few weeks will announce the tentative 10-mile-wide swath that eventually, after a couple of years of more detailed study, will yield a specific route.

What makes TTC-35 unique is the tremendous freedom that the state has in deciding where it goes. Unlike virtually every major highway built by the state Transportation Department in its almost 90-year history, this one has no definite point A and point B at each end. Just "somewhere in Oklahoma near I-35" to "somewhere along the Rio Grande." It could go east of I-35, perhaps near Malone, or west of I-35 where the road might skirt, for instance, President Bush's ranch near Crawford. The road could hug I-35 — probably so, according to the state's top transportation official — or stray out 10 to 20 miles into the frontier.

The state, after stirring myriad environmental, sociological, economic, engineering and political factors into a pot and tossing in a heaping helping of public comment, will decide.

The most likely path of the road, however, is east of I-35 from near San Antonio to east of Dallas, which just happens to contain some of the most fertile farmland in the state, according to the American Farmland Trust, an advocacy group that works for the preservation of farmland against development pressures. And that has cafes buzzing from Bartlett to Malone.

Geltmeier serves on the City Council of Malone, home to 278 people, the Frogbranch Saloon and the Wild West Steakhouse Saloon II, where Geltmeier, Mynar and some friends usually have their morning coffee. The toll road, its sponsors say, will de-congest I-35, helping everyone who drives the state's main vein and boosting the Texas economy by easing the movement of goods. But in Malone, all they see is a stretch of state-owned right of way up to 1,200 feet wide eating up rich cotton and sorghum land, dead-ending county roads they use every day and bifurcating acreage.

So, if nine out of 10 of Geltmeier's neighbors hate the proposed road, brainchild of GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who are the other 10 percent who like it?

"Those that are voting Republican," Geltmeier says.

After the fog lifts later in the morning and after some research, it is obvious why this part of Hill County would be a road builder's dream: gently rolling country, with few creeks, utilities or other obstructions, and, compared with subdivided rural tracts found near Texas cities, relatively few landowners to haggle with over right of way. And land costs are low, at least according to the Hill County Appraisal District; the market value is less than $1,000 an acre.

Contrast that with the money set aside for buying right of way along Texas 130, the toll road rising east of Austin: More than $100,000 an acre. Given those figures, it makes sense when state transportation officials say they can build a brand-new road in the sticks cheaper than they can expand I-35.

The big question, however, is just which sticks will give way to concrete.

Factoring in obstacles

Unfurl a detailed map of Texas on a table, and it doesn't take long to figure out where an I-35 twin shouldn't go.

"There are some environmental constraints you can see from 30,000 feet," says Doug Booher, environmental manager for the turnpike division of the state Transportation Department and the guy shepherding the TTC-35 federal approval process. He has a 4,000-page report, still confidential, currently under review by the Federal Highway Administration. That "Tier I draft environmental impact statement" contains the 10-mile-wide recommended swath everyone is waiting to see.

So what does a Texas map tell you?

Stay away from towns, of course, even the tiny ones. West of I-35 between San Antonio and Austin is probably a bad idea, what with all those hills and environmental concerns about the Edwards Aquifer. You'd certainly want to miss the enormous expanse of Fort Hood west of Belton; Waco Lake west of Waco and Tradinghouse Creek Reservoir about six miles east of Waco; Whitney Lake and Aquilla Lake west of Hillsboro; and Navarro Mills Lake northeast of Malone. And, in the real world, ranchland northwest of Crawford is probably off-limits.

"I imagine Bush told Perry, 'You keep your (butt) on the east side of I-35,' " says Mynar, who farms land near West.

And then there's Texas 130, the Central Texas toll road due to open next year that almost surely will be connected to TTC-35. It's east of I-35.

But even with those arguments in favor of a path east of I-35, you still don't have an answer to the question on everyone's mind: How close do you put the road to the interstate?

"The vast majority of people in Hill County want it to follow I-35 as closely as possible," says Kenneth Davis, the Hill County judge. "We don't want ghost towns made out of places like Hillsboro," which now depends on the businesses that slowly grew up along I-35 after it bypassed the city in the early 1960s.

Making a difference

The reality, state officials say, is that TTC-35 will take no more than 15 percent of I-35's cars and trucks, given that it will cost at least 10 cents a mile to drive on TTC-35 and I-35 will remain free. And with that traffic volume growing quickly, those Hillsboro interstate service stations and hotels will not lack for business. But Davis and his neighbors have other reasons for wanting TTC-35 within three miles of the interstate, not out near Malone.

"When you get from Bynum to Malone, that is premium land," Davis said. "Why cover up more of that good production land when they don't have to?"

It's that kind of detail, well known to the people who live in the Blackland Prairie east of I-35, that Booher says he wants to hear. And despite suspicions that some small corps of people in suits is making all the decisions about where to put the road, Booher says the local folks can make a difference.

"The worst thing that can happen from my perspective is if the public doesn't comment," Booher says. "I love piles of public comment."

What people have had to say — the state has gotten about 4,000 comments and held almost 120 public meetings on TTC-35, with more to come — may or may not have made a difference. But the put-it-near-the-interstate crowd should be reassured by what Perry's best transportation buddy has to say.

Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission and the state's No. 1 salesman for the Trans-Texas Corridor, says that even he doesn't know what's in Booher's opus on TTC-35. But when he talks about where the road might be, you pay attention.

"I think it will be pretty close to I-35," Williamson says. "But not for economic reasons. There's a reason I-35 was built there. It's flat, the river flows are containable. The soils are stable. It's not underlain by shale and sand and gravel that shifts. The closer you are to the perfect spot, the better off you are."

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

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