"The crowd applauded as speaker after speaker blasted the Trans-Texas Corridor."
July 25, 2006
By J.B. Smith
A proposal to build a huge transportation corridor parallel to Interstate 35 faced a tough crowd of more than 1,000 people Monday at a Texas Department of Transportation public hearing at the Waco Convention Center.
The crowd applauded as speaker after speaker blasted the Trans-Texas Corridor — its displacement of farmland, its funding as a toll road and the choice of a Spanish company to develop it. State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn used the occasion as a stump speech in her gubernatorial campaign against Gov. Rick Perry, denouncing the corridor and pledging to “blast it off the bureaucratic books.”
But the hearing also exposed a rift among local leaders about whether an alternative to I-35 is needed at all.
McLennan County commissioners and state Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, condemned the corridor as a threat to rural Central Texas, while city of Waco officials offered conditional acceptance of it.
Waco City Manager Larry Groth told transportation officials they should concentrate first on expanding I-35 “to its utmost capacity.”
“At that point, and that point only, should you consider alternative routes,” he said.
If the corridor is built, he said, it should come as close to Waco as possible and include access at all major crossroads. The priority should be removing trucks from I-35, he said.
Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce president Jim Vaughan echoed those concerns. State transportation officials noted that by law all U.S., state and interstate highways that cross the corridor would have to connect to it.
In contrast to Groth and Vaughan, McLennan County Commissioner Lester Gibson suggested that, if the transportation corridor is built, it should skirt McLennan County entirely.
“What you’re proposing is going to harm Waco and McLennan County,” Gibson said. McLennan County commissioners have expressed their opposition to the corridor in a resolution.
Dunnam said he would do everything he could to kill the corridor plan, which Perry has proposed as a quarter-mile-wide conduit for highways, rail and utilities over the next 50 years. Dunnam said Texas taxpayers should not have to bear the financial brunt of highway expansion needed for increased international truck traffic.
“If the federal government wants a NAFTA highway, let them come build it,” he said.
State transportation officials said the corridor would help meet Texas’ growing traffic loads. By some estimates, I-35 would need to be expanded to 12 to 16 lanes in coming years unless an alternative is built.
The Trans-Texas Corridor improvements would be financed and developed by a Spanish company, Cintra Zachry, which would collect tolls, but the system would belong to the state of Texas.
The transportation department this summer is holding a series of 54 public hearings in counties affected by the Trans-Texas Corridor to gather public comment on the alignment of a 10-mile-wide “study area” for the corridor. The exact route has not been proposed.
Monday’s meeting in Waco had the largest turnout of any Trans-Texas Corridor meeting in the state so far, transportation department spokesman Ken Roberts said.
Strayhorn found a receptive audience for her fiery populist speech denouncing Perry’s plan as “the largest land grab in Texas history” and accusing him of “trying to cram toll roads down our throats.”
She denounced the state’s arrangement to allow the Spanish company to collect tolls. “Texans want the Texas Department of Transportation, not the European Department of Transportation,” she said to wild applause.
In an interview, Strayhorn said she supported expanding I-35, but she was short on details on how to meet Texas’ future north-south traffic load.
“You could double-decker it,” she said of I-35. “There’s many different things you could do.”
Others who signed up to speak included eastern McLennan County farmers who opposed the taking of prime farmland, and environmentalists who drew a link between the Trans-Texas Corridor and plans for new coal-fired power plants.
Roberts said the spoken and written comments gathered at the meeting will make a difference in the state’s decisions on the corridor.
“We had a great turnout,” he said. “Whether they’re pro or con, we’re happy to have them out here.”
© 2006 Waco Tribune-Herald: