Wednesday, April 12, 2006

"People don’t want their land taken for this type of project."

Trans-Texas Corridor still proves contentious for politicians

April 12, 2006

By Dan Genz
Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2006

The rural Robinson land where state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, runs his cattle is in the 10-mile zone where state and federal officials may build the first section of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

So is his home.

Close to 1 million Texans are now in the uncomfortable position of seeing their property, businesses or homesteads on a map where a huge highway may be built in less than a decade.

Although just a small portion, about one-fortieth, of that study area would be used for the road if it is built, the huge swath of potentially affected families and farms in the region is translating into pressure for local lawmakers.

Anderson was elected after the corridor was essentially approved in 2003 but is conditionally supportive of the project. His counterparts in the local delegation to Austin, however, have become much more opposed to the corridor after initially voting for it.

“If it dies a natural death, fine,” Anderson said. “If it gains legs, if it is going to happen, then we need to protect Waco and ensure it has a close proximity to Waco, because the last thing we need is a sign that says, ‘Waco — 75 miles that way.’ ”

State Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, whose Chilton residence also is in the path of the corridor, is fiercely opposed to its construction. State Sen. Kip Averitt, R-McGregor, whose home is outside of the proposed path area, said so many of his constituents are alarmed about the project that he is “pessimistic” about its prospects but wants the planning to continue.

Three years ago, Dunnam and Averitt voted for the bill that made the corridor possible, which received close to unanimous support from the Legislature.

“When it was first proposed, it was a vague concept and nobody was against it,” Averitt said. “A lot of property rights folks looked at it, the Farm Bureau looked at it, and it was just a concept and not something to oppose.”

The Legislature passed a wide-ranging law in 2003 that outlined the Trans-Texas Corridor and also included other transportation priorities for the state.

As the proposal has moved from a political talking point to the planning phase over the past three years, generating organized local opposition, some lawmakers say the vote today would be different.

The project had to develop into the planning stages before it could be critiqued, Averitt said.

Dunnam said he voted for the law for its other provisions, including a funding mechanism that can be used for all toll roads, not specifically the Trans Texas Corridor.

“I don’t have any problem with the Sam Houston Tollway (near Houston),” Dunnam said, “but I do have a problem with giving a toll road to a company from Spain and wiping out 100,000 acres of farmland.”

One point that has drawn criticism was not anticipated at the time the Legislature voted in favor of the corridor: who would build and operate the toll roads.

A Spanish-owned company, Cintra-Zachry, has entered negotiations to build the project and collect its proceeds for 50 years, although the complete plans have not been thoroughly detailed.

Dunnam compares the local response to the furor that greeted plans to close the Waco Veterans Affairs Hospital in 2003.

“The last time I had any kind of organized meeting about it in (Chilton), it was more heavily attended than really any meeting I’ve had about any issue,” Dunnam said. “People don’t want their land taken for this type of project, particularly when the details are not known and there is so much secrecy around it.”

Some corridor proponents say the plan still has sufficient support in the Legislature but that some politicians have caved to local pressure.

“People recognize the need for something to be done but don’t want it done in their back yard,” said state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Arlington, the author of the bill.

Krusee said the road is going to have the opposite impact some critics anticipate, making it easier to reach destinations instead of harder.

Waiting and seeing

Averitt agreed that the corridor’s planning is causing problems for many of his constituents but wants the preparations to continue, saying the project can be better judged when the actual outline of the road is finalized.

He said the announcement of a 10-mile window demonstrated the kind of mixed results that make the massive project difficult.

Averitt said the Legislature should have more than two regular legislative sessions to study the project and will have ample time to advise its course.

Dunnam said he hopes to put the corridor’s future to a vote on the transportation funding bill in 2007, which could give critics a chance to defeat the plan.

The map intensified fears in Hillsboro, where civic leaders worry that the local economy will be hurt if the road is located too far away. Averitt said he will push to make the road closer to Hillsboro.

McLennan County Commissioner Lester Gibson, who has two-thirds of his Precinct 2 in rural and eastern portions of the county included in the 10-mile study area, said he sees no advantage to building the corridor and offers a list of concerns.

Some rural residents and small towns could be separated from Waco due to the corridor’s limited cross-streets, existing roads may have to be re-directed and the tollway’s few exits and access points could limit its economic impact, Gibson said.

But proponents said they expect the project to proceed and be improved through local feedback.

“The governor proposed the TTC in 2002, and since then the Legislature has consistently worked with the governor to advance the initiative,” Perry spokeswoman Rachael Novier said. “This is right, and it’s moving forward and that has not changed. That (progress) shouldn’t change because there are such clear benefits of this initiative for our state.”

The initial $6 billion section is expected to be an 800-foot- to quarter-mile-wide system of toll roads, railways and utility lines running north and south from Mexico to Oklahoma. A map outlining an approximate route for the road released last week places the project just east of Interstate 35 in McLennan County. It soon will become the focus of 50 public meetings across the affected areas.

Lawmakers are split on whether there are alternatives to building the project.

Dunnam said Interstate 35 could be widened, but Anderson said that option is too expensive.

Anderson said he tells constituents who see their property in the study area to learn more about the proposal and attend upcoming public hearings.

Anderson said if the state needs to acquire his or anyone else’s land to make the road, “they need to do it the right way.”


© 2006 The Waco Tribune-Herald