Thursday, August 10, 2006

"The Trans Texas Corridor is not for the people of Texas."

Corridor leg draws fire


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

There's something about putting lines on a map that grabs attention, revs up talk and riles regular folks, especially when those lines target possible locations for a supercorridor unlike any other highway.

When officials of the Texas Department of Transportation asked for public input two years ago on where to put a quarter-mile-wide swath of toll lanes, rail lines and utility lines to relieve traffic on Interstate 35, just two dozen people showed up at a meeting in San Antonio.

But now that a draft environmental report has been released for what would be the first leg of the Trans Texas Corridor, interest here and elsewhere has shot up like a thermometer dropped in boiling water.

At least 900 people showed up Tuesday for a public hearing at East Central High School, and officials turned away 300 of them because the cafeteria was full. Before the doors closed, another hearing was hastily set for 6:30 p.m. today at the same place.

All but five of the 32 speakers were firmly against the corridor coming down or near Interstate 10 and Loop 1604 from Seguin to I-35, which is part of a preferred 512-mile-long study area.

Many were angry at what they see as an asphalt tentacle destroying or squeezing the life from farms, ranches, wildlife and communities so businesses can move international goods to markets faster.

"The Trans Texas Corridor is not for the people of Texas," Molly Roemer told a cheering crowd. "It is for a small group of people who look at it as benefiting business. I think Enron would fit in with that same description."

Some people seemed overwhelmed by a mountain of unanswered questions.

"Hello, my name's Donald Speer Jr. I'm just a landowner and a truck driver here," one said. "We need more rigorous review and comments, and open questions-and-answer sessions, or something like this."

But the 55 public hearings from Denton to Laredo, which started last month and are slated to wrap up this week, are the chance for people to speak up, TxDOT says. Comments will be considered as part of the environmental report, which officials hope to finish by next summer.

The report will narrow the study area to 4 to 18 miles. Separate studies will be done to nail down exact alignments for specific projects.

The corridor is the first of a planned 4,000-mile network that Gov. Rick Perry wants to see developed across the state in the coming decades to deal with growing traffic congestion. The vision calls for private companies to put up much or all of the financing in return for collecting user fees for up to 50 years.

Some speakers, including gubernatorial candidate and state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, appearing at her 11th corridor hearing, said that to kill the project they need to vote Perry out of office Nov. 7.

The four people who spoke in favor of the project — another was ambivalent — are connected to San Antonio's business community.

Steve Seidel, chairman of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, got a mixture of applause and boos.

"The chamber believes plans for a corridor through Texas from Oklahoma to Mexico is visionary," Seidel said. "It is critical to accommodate the increasing automobile and truck traffic related to the regional growth of international trade.

"That growth will not go away," he said. "It is here, it is part of our community."

Growing opposition to the Trans Texas Corridor doesn't seem to be going away, either.

TxDOT counted 12,481 people at 49 hearings as of Tuesday for the segment that will parallel I-35. Nearly 1,000 spoke, and most weren't happy.

A hearing in Temple drew 1,563 people, and another in Waco had 979. In Floresville, southeast of San Antonio, 791 showed up.

A surge in concerns seems to be fed by skyrocketing gas prices and fears of communities, farms and natural areas being split or wiped out by a corridor that threatens to have a bigger impact than interstates, said Char Miller, director of urban studies at Trinity University.

Suspicions that big contractors and private toll operators stand to gain the most and perceptions that government is ignoring complaints also don't help, he said.

"It's an arrogance of power that people are objecting to," he said. "This doesn't play well in Floresville, and it doesn't play well in Flower Mound."

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: