Tuesday, July 25, 2006

An election issue 'as big as Texas.'

A Trans-Texas Horror

July 25, 2006

By Karl-Thomas Musselman
The Daily Texan
Copyright 2006

There is an issue in Texas quietly building steam in what could be a major campaign theme in this fall's elections for governor and the state agricultural commissioner.

It's an issue that has folks in rural Texas feeling the pain of Native Americans centuries prior. It's an issue that has farmers and ranchers readying their pitchforks. And it's an issue that has some of the most conservative counties in the state upset with Republicans they used to consider defenders of free men on the range.

The issue is the Trans-Texas Corridor, a 4,000-mile, $183-billion plan proposed by Republicans and promoted by Gov. Rick Perry as the 50-year solution to Texas' traffic needs. The routes span the state, snaking across central and eastern Texas, connecting Laredo to Oklahoma and Arkansas. Future routes could bring in an East-West line from El Paso or others up through the Panhandle.

Each corridor could contain up to four trucker lanes, six vehicle lanes, six rail lines and a 200-foot utility path. At its maximum size, each TTC could be 1,200 feet wide, consuming up to 9,000 square miles of land, more than exists in all of New Jersey.

These massive property and investment requirements give rise to much of the objection from rural landowners. Cutting through countless farms and ranches and looping around suburbia will be a path wider than the distance between Austin's Congress and First Street bridges. One could set the entire state Capitol inside of the right of way.

An unsettling vision, landowners will be faced with inaccessibility to land split on opposite sides of this monstrosity. The state would ideally pay fair market value for the 5.7 million acres wanted for construction, but as with any municipality, the "lowest" fair market value will likely be found.

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, any acreage desired from particularly cantankerous landowners can also be taken via eminent domain. The Texas Legislature did pass a bill granting protections to Texans from excessive abuses of eminent domain in the wake of that ruling, but it made a convenient exception specifically for the TTC.

For localities, any land consumed by the TTC disappears from the tax rolls, hitting small rural communities the hardest. Proponents claim that new business growth around interchanges and the corridor will offset that.

Unfortunately, primary TTC users will be transporting goods, not buying them. The frequency of off-ramps will likely be less than that for traditional highways, allowing for fewer business opportunities. The few ramps that will exit the TTC will be surrounded by land owned by the management company, Cintra Zachry.

Any commercial value that land will have will belong to Cintra Zachry, not the rural communities torn apart by the TTC. They won't see a string of gas stations and IHOPs as doing much to replace the revenue, character or community lost to this multi-billion-dollar boondoggle.

There are other facets of the project that are unsettling as well. While the Texas Department of Transportation has worked around historic lands or sensitive properties before, there is no law to guarantee that old community cemeteries won't be paved over or that historic buildings won't meet the bulldozer.

Add to that the fact that the presumptive private construction partner Cintra Zachry is an overseas firm based in Spain. Just as security-oriented citizens were unsettled by Dubai running American ports, many are cautious about having a foreign firm build a transportation network connected to Mexico. It only amplifies conservative concerns about border issues and immigration, though in truth, the TTC does not create any new border crossings.

The most unsettling thing about the project is that the terms are sealed, unreadable by the public. Texans have no way of knowing who will ultimately pay for the inevitable cost overruns, nor do they know what will happen when the actual revenues from the TTC are lower than the estimates used to secure the financing. Who will pay for that: the private management company or Texas taxpayers?

Already, 186 of Texas' 254 counties have made their disagreements with the plan public record. Both the Texas Democratic and Republican Party platforms officially state their opposition to the TTC. Every candidate for governor is in opposition to Perry on the issue. The TTC has even shaped up to be the prime topic in the otherwise quiet race for agricultural commissioner between state Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, who co-sponsored the TTC legislation, and Democratic candidate and farmer Hank Gilbert, who opposes it in any form.

Headed to November and through the next decade, the Trans-Texas Corridor will likely become an issue that is, pardon the pun, as big as Texas.

Musselman is a government senior.

© 2006 The Daily Texan : www.dailytexanonline.com