Thursday, April 13, 2006

TTC-69 is impossible to justify


Rein in Perry's vast I-69 vision

April 13, 2006

The Victoria Advocate
Copyright 2006

The comparatively simple and sensible idea of upgrading parts of existing U.S. Highways 59, 77 and 281 and collectively renaming the improved highways Interstate 69 makes sense.

It would enhance transportation links from Mexico across Texas and to other states. U.S. 59 ends at Laredo, U.S. 77 at Brownsville, and U.S. 281 runs south of Pharr, then turns east to Browns-ville. The first two also run through Victoria.

The Interstate 69 project is "a planned 1,600-mile national highway - connecting Mexico, the United States and Canada - involving eight states," Valley Freedom Newspapers explained.

But this simple, sensible idea has metastasized in Texas into something far different - with the potential malignancy of huge expense, costly toll roads and massive amounts or private property condemned by state use of eminent domain.

That resulted from incorporation of the proposed Interstate 69 corridor into Gov. Rick Perry's grandiose vision of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The Texas Department of Transportation is now officially requesting "proposals form the private sector to develop the I-69/Trans-Texas Corridor," The Lufkin Daily News reported last week.

"Earlier this year, to accelerate the development of I-69/TTC, the Texas Transportation Commission authorized staff to initiate a competitive, two-step selection process for a private sector partner that may finance, design, construct, operate and maintain the project," The Daily News continued.

"The route under consideration includes broad swaths along major Texas roadways from Texar-kana through Houston, past Interstate 37, and splitting off to Laredo, McAllen and Brownsville," Valley Freedom Newspapers noted.

"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 Brownsville Herald added.

"I-69 would eventually include separate lanes for cars and trucks, several rail lines and a utility corridor," The Lufkin Daily News reported.

The Rio Grande Valley is a rapidly growing part of Texas. Although U.S. 59, 77 and 281 are reasonably good highways, they are only now becoming more limited-access, and the Valley is not directly connected to the interstate highway system.

So Interstate 69 is vital to strengthen the economy of an ever-more-important part of the state. The upgraded highway corridor also is vital to facilitate the overland movement of goods to and from Mexico.

But, like most of Perry's grandiose vision for the Trans-Texas Corridor, what the state apparently has in mind for the I-69 corridor is too much. And the governor's grandiosity is drawing increasing concern, particularly if the Transportation Department decides to build a completely new and - impossible to justify - toll road west of U.S. 281.

State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, warns that communities along U.S. 281 between San Antonio and the Valley could be hurt by building a new superhighway to the west of the existing four-lane 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 told The Brownsville Herald. "You've got to think about the people, the schools, the towns."

"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 possible," Hidalgo County landowner Felo Guerra told the Brownsville newspaper. "You'd think that the infrastructure on 77 or 281 would be of use."

The King-Kleberg dynasty took defensive action generally not available to people who do not own hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchland when Congress last year passed a rider to a transportation bill limiting the state's ability to condemn land on the historic King Ranch, according to The Herald.

With the descendants of Capt. Richard King owning more than 800,000 acres across South Texas, both U.S. 77 and 281 run by their holdings. Building a new highway west of U.S. 281 would skirt that limitation - at the expense of other property owners, as well as the communities along the existing highway.

The King Ranch is getting special treatment that wealth and holdings do not justify if the public interest truly is at stake. But legitimate public interest is at stake much more modestly than Perry's grandiose I-69 vision suggests.

Congress should modify the King Ranch's protection to allow the state to acquire minimal, truly necessary amounts of land from the King-Kleberg dynasty for upgrading existing highways. This family should not be exempt when other property owners are not.

Congress also needs to restore funding for I-69.

"We all realize the federal funding genie is dead. By the time Washington funds I-69, we'll be driving around in hover cars or whatever," Perry last December told the I-69 Alliance, a group of officials representing cities and counties in the areas that would be served.

Unfortunately, he is using that as an excuse to turn the I-69 corridor into a gargantuan monster the state does not need and cannot afford. The Texas Legislature should rein in the governor and return to the comparatively simple and sensible idea this project began as.

© 2006 The Victoria Advocate: