Sunday, November 05, 2006

"I always thought a hearse would haul me off this land. Not Rick Perry."

To corridor foes, it's city vs. farm


Roy Bragg
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

CORSICANA — Raindrops rolled off Jesse Mills' Resistol hat as he sat on the tailgate of his silver Ford pickup — parked on the Navarro County Courthouse square — armed with a battery of fliers, yard signs and campaign posters.

As voters made their way to the courthouse to cast early ballots, Mills politely made his case for a cobbled-together slate of candidates.

It's an unusual mix of parties. It's a bizarre mix of politics. And it's driven by one thing in common: a dislike for the Trans-Texas Corridor project.

Mills, 64, hasn't been politically active since he was a college student 40 years ago, but Gov. Rick Perry's plan for a statewide network of toll roads has turned the retired vocational school teacher into a political activist and a fixture on the town square.

He's not alone in his concern. Thousands of rural Texans have taken up rhetorical arms against the project. They see it as government betrayal and another example of a state turning its back on its agrarian tradition.

Under the current proposal, TTC-35 would split off from Interstate 35 just south of San Antonio. It would wrap around the southern edge of the city and then run parallel to the road as both make their way north to the Oklahoma state line.

A Texas Department of Transportation study released last week projected that in eight years, nearly 18 percent of the total traffic on I-35 between San Antonio and Austin could be diverted to TTC-35 and by 2030, this number could reach 24 percent.

Between Austin and Waco, TTC-35 would siphon off 15 percent of traffic by 2014 and 23 percent by 2030.

Between Waco and Dallas, those numbers would be 9 percent and 20 percent by 2014 and 2030, respectively.

Truck traffic, the bane of an I-35 driver's existence, would drop even more dramatically, according to TxDOT. By 2030, truck traffic diverted to TTC-35 could be as high as 36 percent, 25 percent and 26 percent for the San Antonio-to-Austin, Austin-to-Waco and Waco-to-Dallas segments, respectively.

Business and government leaders, while acknowledging the sacrifice of rural landowners in the path, tout the TTC as a plan to keep the state out of perpetual gridlock and keep the state's economy moving.

"The world is changing, and Texas is right in the middle of it," Temple Mayor Bill Jones III said. A lot of goods "will be moving through Texas, and a lot of it is going to stop here, too. We've got to be ready for it."

But for opponents such as Mills, the plan to pave thousands of acres of farmland has turned a normally quiet and conservative niche of Texans into a well-oiled activist machine.

In public, they meet, they rally, they network and they campaign. In the ether of the Internet, they exchange reports, maps and rumors.

And when they're alone, they cry and fret over their future.

In the two weeks before Tuesday's gubernatorial election, Mills has been fighting the controversial plan by campaigning for Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who opposes the plan, and against Perry, who has staked his political future on it.

Gubernatorial politics aside, the real goal is to stop the first leg of the Trans-Texas Corridor — a privately operated toll road called TTC-35 — before it leaves the drawing board.

If it's completed according to plans, the TTC will consist of a 4,000-mile network of new and existing highways and rail corridors, tied together and linking the state in the most efficient manner, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

The preliminary price tag for the whole project — which would take a half-century to complete — is between $145 billion and $183 billion.

First up is TTC-35, a privately funded, 600-mile road intended to relieve congestion on Interstate 35, the state's most heavily traveled highway, which stretches from Laredo to the Oklahoma border.

Under the current proposal, TTC-35 would split off from I-35 just south of San Antonio. It would wrap around the southern edge of the city and then run parallel to the road as both make their way north to the Oklahoma border.

The road would be bankrolled, built and leased to a consortium led by Cintra of Spain and Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio as part of a 50-year deal. The state would acquire land via purchase and condemnation and own the whole project.

Plans for TTC-35 call for an $8.8 billion construction effort that would, when maxed out, rival any road project anywhere: six car lanes, four truck lanes, freight and high-speed passenger rail, and utility rights of way stretched across a quarter-mile swath.

A wide divide

Some fear that the highway, with limited access to facilitate high speeds, will split the state in two, with little or no access for locals.

A lot of the specifics of the plan, however, remain undecided, state highway officials say, including the toll schedule, the location of exit and entry ramps, the highway's speed limit, and the location of underpasses and overpasses.

It's the audacity of the plan — as well as fear of the unknown — that has stirred up most of the anger. Not since the failed plans for the Superconducting Super-Collider and the Texas High Speed Rail Project of the early 1990s has there been this level of grass-roots rebellion in rural Texas.

To most rural residents in the way of TTC-35, the issue is about more than a highway. It's about a lack of respect for Texas' rural roots. It's city vs. farm.

And, more insidious, it's about bureaucrats putting the tantalizing taste of global economic returns ahead of working Americans.

"Why should I take a step backward to help NAFTA?" asked Melvin Krahn, 69, a farmer near La Vernia, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement. "Let's bring jobs back to Texas. Don't take my land to help NAFTA."

Residents see a dim future for them in a world with TTC-35.

"The life we've taken for granted for years is going to change," said Ralph Snyder, owner of a salvage yard in the Central Texas town of Holland, about 10 miles south of Temple and near the projected route.

"That's progress. Rural people aren't against progress. They realize there's a need for transportation.

"But is this the right thing to do?" Snyder asked. "We haven't had the necessary studies. The first handful of dirt hasn't been turned and won't be turned for years, and there are already angry people."

"They're going to just take land that's been in families — for five generations, in some cases — and give it to a foreign company with a 50-year lease," he said. "They're thinking with their billfold. They're not thinking like Texans."

Ronnie White, mayor of nearby Little River-Academy, agrees. The town sits at the headwaters of the Little River. Its 1,600 residents live minutes away from river bottom land where cattle graze and families have spent countless hours camping and fishing.

"We love it like it is," White said. "It doesn't matter if it's a big economic boost to the state. It doesn't matter if you get rich or not. It's all about the type of life that you lead. "

While the planned route for the corridor cuts a wide swath through farmland, it goes right through the middle of White's tiny town. The most recent maps show an underpass on FM 436, but White isn't sold on the notion that it will be built.

"I don't know what to believe anymore."

There are similar concerns in St. Hedwig, which sits on the Bexar-Wilson county line, due east of San Antonio.

A bedroom community of 1,800, St. Hedwig has fought hard to keep its rustic feel. Local ordinance requires large tracts of land for each home, said Mayor Mary Jo Dylla, and dissuades smaller subdivision lots.

"We're consciously making an effort," she said, "to keep this as a rural community. We live in the country. We like it here. I've got to drive 20-25 miles to go to anything. That's a price I'm willing to pay."

And now, along comes TTC-35. According to the latest maps, the toll road runs through the middle of town.

"You've got this side of my city," said Dylla, pointing at a map of the town on the wall of City Council chambers, "and you've got this side of my town."

City Hall and the city's access to ambulance service are on one side of town. The Volunteer Fire Department is on the other side of town. There is to be an underpass or overpass allowing a single road to connect the two halves of the town.

There won't be an exit or access ramp for St. Hedwig, meaning the city can expect noise and exhaust fumes around the clock, she said, but no chance for local merchants and service providers to cash in.

"We're not going to have any economic opportunity," she said. "Our little restaurant that struggles to stay open isn't going to benefit from it.

"They just come in," the mayor said, "and tell you, 'Sorry, we need your land for a road that's not going to benefit you or your community, but we're going to do it anyway.'

"There's no upside to it."

Snyder, the Holland salvage owner, said the impact on existing infrastructure could cause economic devastation.

Hundreds of county roads used by emergency vehicles and school buses across the state will dead end at the toll road, which won't have an accompanying access road.

Power lines crossing the highway will need to be re-routed and raised to allow clearance for the double-decked trucks that will be daily fixtures. Water lines will have to go deeper to create separation from oil and gas lines running in TTC-35's utility corridor.

New traffic problems

Existing roads, critics say, also will be devastated.

Traffic will be forced onto a smaller pool of roads that cross over or under the toll road, farmer Robert Fleming said. The few roads allowed to cross TTC-35 will be crowded and heavily traveled.

"The traffic on our roads, while we're trying to get our kids to school, or people are trying to get to work, or trying to move farm equipment, will be more than these roads can handle," said Fleming, whose agricultural operation stretches across 20 farms that he owns or leases near Troy, between Waco and Temple.

His farm equipment — some of which is 50 to 100 feet wide — doesn't travel well and won't hold up to repeated trips to work on farmland that's been split in two by TTC-35.

The highway also threatens to disrupt the Blackland Prairie ecosystem of Central Texas, Fleming said.

The land is rare — it doesn't require irrigation and rarely requires fertilizer. But TTC-35 will remove thousands of acres from cultivation.

Adjacent land will be rendered useless because of noise and runoff. And without freeway access, it cannot be salvaged for commercial development.

Beyond the ecosystem, the toll road also threatens the fragile farm economy, Fleming said.

TTC-35 will split some farms and swallow others. Parcels of land that are cut off from the bulk of a farm, Fleming argued, will immediately decrease in value.

Farmers operating adjacent to the orphaned land will be able to buy it for pennies on the dollar, while the original owner takes a financial beating.

"To maintain our income," he said, "we need to maintain our acreage. We need a better price for our product, or we need to produce and sell more of it. We get that with more acreage."

There's a danger of cultural damage, too. The stress of land acquisition will be too much for some people.

"What's the family going to do when easement people come by the house?" he asked. "What's going to be going on with mom and dad and the kids?"

Farmland is more than an investment, rural residents say. In many cases, it goes hand-in-hand with a family's history.

"You can point to something," Fleming said, "and say, 'Daddy built that' or 'Granddaddy built that.'"

Sometimes, the looming threat of TTC-35 is too much for residents who fear their lives will be destroyed by it.

"I'm a third-generation German American," La Vernia's Krahn said, unable to hold back tears. "My wife is the fourth generation of her family to live on this land. I'm a veteran. I served my country. And they're going do this to me?"

Even residents who claim to have an open mind about the project are wary of what it will do to their way of life.

"In the long run, it'll probably be for the best," said Dutch Strzelczyk, a bar owner in St. Hedwig. "But it's going to dilute this community."

While fear of change remains Topic A along the path of TTC-35, hatred of Gov. Perry runs a close second in the rolling hills and black prairies along the planned corridor.

"How can they say this is benefiting this community?" Krahn said. "I don't know how Rick Perry sleeps at night."

"Rick Perry used to own this place," said Snyder, of Holland. "Not anymore."

"I voted for him before," said Dylla, St. Hedwig's mayor. "Not this time. He's let us down."

Open up bottlenecks

Proponents of the route, while sympathetic to landowners' concerns, say the Texas leaders and residents have to make tough decisions to ensure the Lone Star State's quality of life.
"We're going to add another 6 million Texans in the next decade," said Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business & Chambers of Commerce. "We need the infrastructure here."

Global trade depends on the project.

"The chokepoint between Mexico and Canada is the Colorado River," he said, referring to the around-the-clock bottleneck as I-35 passes through Austin. "We need this to keep this state moving."

"I understand that this is uniquely hard for rural communities through which it will pass," said Joe Krier, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and chairman of Texans for Safe Reliable Transportation, a business group created to tout the benefits of the plan.

"But we know for a fact that, in this state, a rising tide lifts all boats," Krier said. "Sure, the state's total economy is disproportionately driven by the urban areas, but when the big cities are doing great, the smaller cities are doing well, too."

As Texas competes in the global economy, Krier said, transportation will be vital.

"If we're going to compete, not just as a state, but globally, we've got to continue to provide job opportunities," he said. "We've got to provide ways for businesses to get their products to and from customers as fast as possible and at a competitive speed."

Critics say TTC-35 is not the panacea for gridlock in the state's urban areas, nor will it relieve the traffic problems projected when the state's population doubles by 2050.

Krier agreed that TTC-35, by itself, isn't the answer.

"TTC-35 is part of a much bigger picture," he said. "Regional mobility authorities are proposing their own network of highways, and in many cases, their own tollways.

"The Trans-Texas Corridor is primarily designed to move traffic across the state in an efficient, safe and competitive way. These two sets of roads are separate but, in many ways, interdependent."

Critics say the state hasn't exhausted all of the possibilities for making I-35 work. But expanding that highway isn't feasible, said Jones, the Temple mayor.

"There's no more expansion of I-35," he said, "without going into major expenditures of capital to buy land and businesses, and that's not practical."

That freeway model calls for access roads, which allow local use of the highway and create commercial real estate. Critics of TTC-35 complain that it won't generate the same opportunities.

But the goal of TTC-35 is different, Jones said. Instead of causing spikes in local economies, its purpose is to eliminate bottlenecks.

"It's a different model," Jones said, "than the interstate highway system we have in Texas."

Like Krier, Jones understands the anger of farmers.

"I don't have an answer for them," he said. The new highway, however, is inevitable. "It's going to happen to someone, somewhere along the line, regardless of what is done. It's either going to be commercial land or farmland. It's cheaper and easier to build this way."

Jones thinks the rancor will ultimately subside.

"We appear to pick sides and fight over this," he said, "but in the end, it'll be the best system we can get. We're all Texans, and we've got to figure out how to make this work."

That optimism means little to Krahn, the Wilson County farmer.

"I always thought a hearse would haul me off this land. Not Rick Perry."

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: