Sunday, April 09, 2006

TTC-69 draws sharp criticism from South Texas landowners and elected officials

Some irked at possibility of new road to the Valley

The Brownsville Herald
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN — The southernmost stretch of the proposed Canada-to-Mexico interstate could come to the Rio Grande Valley as a brand new toll road cutting through untouched ranchland rather than an upgrade to highways 77 or 281.

The proposal by the Texas Department of Transportation for the road known as Trans-Texas Corridor 69 is drawing sharp criticism from South Texas landowners and elected officials who say the state should instead spend its money turning one or both existing highways into interstates.

Three options are on the table for building the first interstate to the Valley: expansion of Highway 281, expansion of Highway 77, or con-struction of a new parallel road about 20 miles to the west of Highway 281, said Mario Jorge, district engineer for the Pharr District of TxDOT.

Environmental studies are in progress for all three corridors, and the state will likely decide on a route for TTC-69 by the end of the year, he said.

Existing lanes can’t be converted to toll lanes according to state law, but drivers might have to pay tolls to use newer, faster lanes on high-ways 77 or 281. If the route west of Highway 281 is chosen, the new road could be exclusively toll lanes, Jorge said.

Whether and where tolls appear leading to the Valley will be deter-mined in the coming months as the state looks for private companies to build and operate the $30 billion TTC-69, which will run from Tex-arkana to Houston, Corpus Christi, and continue to the Valley, Jorge said.

“It’s pretty premature to say that, yes, it will have to be a toll,” Jorge said. “Again, we’re investigating the possibility to pay for the road.”

The possibility of a new highway west of Highway 281 has commu-nities from Alice to McAllen worried.

Hidalgo County landowner Felo Guerra is concerned the new path would destroy grazing land and hurt the cattle business. It also would divide habitat used by Whitetail deer, mourning doves, javelina, coyo-tes and bobcats, he said.

His family owns land along a four-mile stretch of Highway 281, heading north from Highway 1017 in Hidalgo County. They own an-other tract about 20 miles to the west, just east of San Isidro, where the proposed new highway would run.

They’d rather give up their land along the existing highway, he said.

“As a conservationist and a as a taxpayer, you would like to have these dollars spent as efficiently as possible, and you’d like to have your land that’s going to be condemned used as efficiently as possi-ble,” Guerra said. “You’d think that the infrastructure on 77 or 281 would be of use.”

The third possible route, west of Highway 281, was added to discus-sions about a year ago because federal law limited state’s ability to take land from the historic King Ranch, which abuts both existing highways, Jorge said.

The law was changed in a transportation bill Congress passed last year, but the option for a third highway remains, Jorge said.

“Part of the process is public input, so it was really important to hear their concerns,” Jorge said of opposition to the new road at a March 22 meeting in Alice with TxDOT officials and community members. “They will be taken into account when the final decision is made.”

Businesses, even entire economies in Brooks, Jim Wells and Hi-dalgo counties could suffer if a new interstate is built to the west of Highway 281, said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who said he would fight any decision to build a new highway.

“They would bypass a lot of small towns like Premont, Falfurrias, Alice, and they would become dying towns by this, and I’m opposed to it,” Hinojosa said. “You’ve got to think about the people, the schools, the towns.”

Hinojosa, whose district stretches from McAllen to Corpus Christi, said he prefers Highway 281 because Highway 77 could be danger-ously close to the coast in a hurricane. Whatever road is chosen, both existing roads need upgrades, he said.

Already landowners are suffering from the state’s long process of choosing a route, said Berdon Lawrence, a Houston man who owns land near Falfurrias.

“We are now experiencing stagnant pricing in many of the cities and towns along 281 because of the uncertainty created by the study process,” he said in written testimony to TxDOT officials submitted at the hearing on March 22.

TTC-69 corridor is one of two legs of the Trans-Texas Corridor cur-rently in the planning process. The Trans-Texas Corridor is the pro-posed North American Free Trade Agreement highway system de-signed to eventually include roads, rail lines and utilities. It will be built and operated by private companies contracted with the state because state and federal road funds aren’t adequate to pay for it.

Another Trans-Texas Corridor line will run along Interstate 35, en-tering in North Texas and continuing through Dallas-Forth Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo. Cintra, a company based in Spain, has secured a contract for the I-35 portion.

All of the TTC-69 corridor will be interstate quality, but it is still un-clear whether the road will eventually be called Interstate 69, Jorge said.

This week, TxDOT will ask for proposals from private companies to design, build and operate the TTC-69 section, Jorge said. It will likely be at least five to seven years before construction begins on the first segment, he said.


© 2006 The Brownsville Herald