TTC: "A foolish and costly endeavor now that oil seems to be getting scarcer and prices are shooting up."
Anton Caputo and Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Depending on whom you talk to, the Trans Texas Corridor is a daring futuristic plan, the state's most ambitious ever, or it's a money machine and a destructive land grab.
But for now, most of all, it's an enigma.
There are no construction contracts for any of the 4,000 miles of car and truck lanes, freight and passenger rail lines and utility lines that are supposed to crisscross Texas by midcentury, just a $3.5 million deal with a private consortium to develop plans for the leg paralleling Interstate 35.
And nobody knows just where the routes would go, though any day now federal officials are expected to release a draft study to narrow options near I-35 to a 10-mile-wide swath.
"That's the $64,000 question," said Mark Maxwell, city manager of Sulphur Springs, east of Dallas. "Where's it going to be? And I don't think anybody has any idea."
It's a question that worries leaders of cities who don't want to lose lucrative traffic flows, and haunts farmers and environmentalists who don't want to see massive tracts of valuable land sliced and swallowed up.
"A huge market would be missed if it didn't come close to San Antonio," said Vic Boyer, director of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition, a public-private advocacy group.
Boyer and others want Texas 130 from Georgetown to Seguin finished first, picked up as part of the Trans-Texas Corridor and then extended along Interstate 10 and Loop 1604 around Southeast San Antonio to open up traffic for the Toyota plant and KellyUSA.
Leaders in Dallas and Fort Worth, who want the corridor's toll lanes to go through the Metroplex instead of around it, are ready to tangle.
"I hope that they've been listening," Dallas City Councilman Bill Blaydes said. "If not, then we've got a war."
Laredo officials aren't worried the corridor could bypass their city — the nation's largest inland gateway for trade traffic — but they are concerned the project could siphon off money for work on I-35, such as adding truck-only lanes.
"The best route has always been I-35 and connecting streets," Mayor Betty Flores said. "We need to improve those routes all along the way."
Also waiting to cast a critical eye on the 4,000-page draft report are farmers, ranchers and environmental activists.
The 1,200-foot-wide corridor, stretching 600 miles from Mexico to Oklahoma, would gobble up 75,000 acres of land and split up farms, ranches and wildlife areas. Many landowners fret about not having access.
"It wouldn't make this a very pleasant place to live," said Chris Hammel, who owns a 430-acre spread with corn and cattle near Holland in Central Texas.
There also are a plethora of environmental concerns, from the stretch of asphalt's potential impact on migrating wildlife to the effect of changing traffic patterns on air quality.
"The road will be a huge barrier, which means wildlife won't be able to follow their natural route, and it will cross dozens of waterways and wetlands," said Dick Kallerman of the Sierra Club's Austin chapter.
San Antonio resident Bill Barker, a transportation consultant who assists Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, wonders whether the state will consider impacts of paving over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone or address how the corridor could affect urban sprawl.
"We really need to get a hold of the way we're developing and consuming land in Texas," he said.
Nearly all in the environmental community, though, are at least as curious and distressed about how passenger rail might be treated. For now, high-speed rail from San Antonio to Dallas has been put on the back burner, possibly for decades.
Tom Smith of Public Citizen says more vehicle lanes could be a foolish and costly endeavor now that oil seems to be getting scarcer and prices are shooting up. He's keenly interested in getting the focus back on rail.
"Do we want to be stuck in traffic or do we want to be speeding past it on rapid rail?" he said.
The draft study will cull 180 options through 77 counties to recommend a 10-mile-wide study area. More than 50 public hearings could be held this summer and a final document issued next year.
After that, an environmental evaluation will be done for each construction project in the corridor.
The draft was first due by the end of last year and then in January. Now Texas Department of Transportation officials are afraid to guess when the Federal Highway Administration will release the report.
"I would say in the next two to four weeks," TxDOT Environmental Manager Doug Booher said after prodding. "I just don't have a good idea."
© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: