Friday, March 02, 2007

"My land was part of the original Spanish land grant. I would love not to have to give it back to Spain."

TTC protest today

March 2, 2007

Waxahachie Daily Light
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN - A rally against the Trans-Texas Corridor is set for this afternoon, with protestors planning a march up Congress Avenue before staging on the south steps of the state Capitol.

The rally comes in the wake of a Senate hearing relating to Gov. Rick Perry’s much favored massive transportation plan - a plan that has come under increasing fire in recent weeks.

It was an overflow crowd that greeted members of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security on Thursday - and almost all of the testimony given by members of the public during the almost eight-hour hearing was decidedly anti-Trans-Texas Corridor. Also testifying were members of the State Auditor’s Office and the state’s Transportation Commission, including chairman Ric Williamson, a Perry appointee and close friend.

Those testifying came from across the state and represented a diverse cross-section of Texans.

“My land was part of the original Spanish land grant,” one woman testified near the end of the hearing. “I would love not to have to give it back to Spain.”

“We’ve been waiting for you all day long,” said committee chairman Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, drawing applause from the large crowd still on hand.

“The whole state is going to be one massive public parking lot and highway if we don’t find (another way),” another woman said. “I want you to know I’m fighting for liberty and democracy (and) where is our democracy here in this country?”

Complaints ranged from loss of farm and ranch land that has been in families for generations to loss of livelihood, as well as economic devastation for rural Texas, which many feared will be bypassed and or cut off by the transportation project that could - if built out completely - encompass 8,000 miles of roadway criss-crossing the state.

Perry’s plan would encompass not only lanes for passenger vehicles, but would also bundle lanes for large rigs, freight rail, passenger rail and other utility easements into a bundle that would be 1,200 feet wide. Opponents to the project say thousands of acres would be taken from property owners in eminent domain proceedings.

“We’re ranchers. Our business is dependent on our land,” said Rosemary Gambino of Waller County, president of the Texas CattleWomen, earlier in the hearing. “I plead with you that you not concrete over my ranch.”

“The people in Texas have had it,” another speaker said. “It’s abundantly clear that TxDOT will not listen to the citizens.”

The agency is violating its fiduciary responsibility to the public and lawmakers no longer recognize the legislation they wrote that has resulted in the Trans-Texas Corridor, the man said of the legislation’s public private partnership component. “This isn’t about money, it’s about greed. Profit is one thing but obscene profit amounts to thievery.”

David Stall of Corridor Watch testified as to his concerns with the project.

“Enormous financial decisions are being made as we rush toward private public agreements. The immediate benefits are attractive, but the long-term risks are unknown,” said Stall, whose organization has members in 199 of the state’s counties.

Stall cautioned that private developers of toll companies could pick the most attractive routes, set their tolls at the highest possible levels, use the state to collect their tolls and be compensated for any revenue losses.

“I hope we don’t have to wait until 2058 to fix this,” he said of the public private partnerships that are being set up as 50-year leases.

“The political process was circumvented and the people of Texas were the losers,” said Corridor Watch co-founder Linda Stall, who criticized the state agency for a limited public hearing process on the Trans-Texas Corridor.

“For a project of this scope and scale that will affect Texas for 50 years, that is unacceptable,” she said, saying the agency scheduled 254 meetings in 28 days with limited public notice.

“If you want to slow down TxDOT, you need to give them very specific legislative guidelines,” she said. “Otherwise, they will do the very minimum.”

Most of those testifying acknowledged the need for additional transportation-related infrastructure, but said they disagreed with allowing private companies to operate toll roads for profit. Several said they would agree to an increase in the gasoline tax to provide TxDOT with money to handle the projects itself as opposed to seeking funding in the private sector.
“We need transportation planning, but it needs to come from the ground up,” Stall said. “It needs to come from committees that understand their community’s unique needs.”

TxDOT’s actions since the passage of the enabling legislation for the Trans-Texas Corridor have not gone unnoticed by members of the Legislature, which has seen a number of bills filed this session ranging from reining in the agency to repealing the Trans-Texas Corridor.

“TxDOT is failing to adequately respond to the concerns of the Legislature,” state Sen. Kip Averitt, R-McGregor, told constituents from Ellis County on Wednesday.

“I’m looking forward to watching Sen. Carona’s hearing,” said state Rep. Jim Pitts, whose district includes Ellis and Hill counties - both of which would be impacted by the TTC-35 portion of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

“It’s refreshing to see so many members asking tough questions of TxDOT,” the Waxahachie Republican said on Wednesday. “I’ve been pressing TxDOT for answers to some of these questions for more than a year, and it’s time they gave members of the public a straight answer on how the corridor will affect them and how these toll roads will be managed.”

Among the several hundred people speaking or providing written testimony Thursday was McLennan County Farm Bureau president Marc Scott.

“We believe the impact of the TTC will be devastating to the agriculture industry and to rural communities. As a personal note, the 1,700 acres that I produce on are all within the footprint of the proposed TTC,” said Scott, a cattle and hay producer. “So this issue is very near and dear to my heart. My livelihood depends on the outcome of the TTC.”

Scott said Texas Farm Bureau is urging lawmakers to use existing rights-of-way whenever new road or highway construction is under consideration, provide access points for landowners divided by roadways and ensure farm-to-market roads would not be spliced by highways.

A Texas Farm Bureau press release indicates the state’s largest family farm organization is also pressing state reforms on eminent domain law, urging lawmakers to consider relocation costs for families affected by something as large as the corridor, as well as good faith offers on the land’s best and highest use whenever condemnation proceedings take place.

“The delegate body of the Texas Farm Bureau has voted overwhelming to continue to oppose the TTC,” Scott said. “Our county leaders have spent four years studying this project and attending public meetings held in counties throughout the state. While we readily admit that many changes have occurred to lessen the sting of the corridor, there are still more issues which need to be resolved.”

During Thursday’s hearing, Williamson told the senators that the dense population along the interstate and lack of public money were reasons to opt for the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Carona noted that Williamson and Perry are close, and Williamson acknowledged that, while offering praise for the governor’s decision to tackle the state’s transportation problems.

“I do think a great deal of him because I think he stuck his neck way out before an election,” the commissioner said. “And I will say, I find him to be remarkably evenhanded about solving problems.”

Carona wondered about the cost and feasibility of widening I-35, possibly with loops around heavily congested the metropolitan areas.

Williamson said 83 percent of the state’s population lives in a crescent covering the urban areas of Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio and Houston.

Carona, a Dallas Republican, said many Texans have been skeptical of the toll road project because of the aura of secrecy surrounding it.

“When information isn’t shared, when open records are ignored or are challenged in court, people are always led - it’s human nature - people are led to believe that there’s some other agenda,” Carona said.

Some sections of the state’s contract with the Spanish-American consortium Cintra-Zachry to develop the Trans-Texas Corridor were kept secret for 18 months and were the subject of a court case brought by the company and the Texas Department of Transportation. That lawsuit was filed after the attorney general ruled the contract was a public record.

The secret sections of the contract were finally made public in September.

Williamson assured the senators that TxDOT intended to utilize the audit report’s recommendations.

On the House side, Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, issued the following statement prior to the hearing: “I am very glad to see the audit concerning the Texas Department of Transportation. I appreciate its clarification of the policies and procedures the agency is following.

“Many members have concerns over such issues as the Trans Texas Corridor, and I welcome any suggestions for improvement,” Craddick said, noting that House Transportation Committee chairman Mike Krusee, R-Austin, and House Appropriations Committee chairman Wayne Chisum, R-Pampa, will study the audit.

“I look forward to their feedback,” Craddick said.

Cintra-Zachry, a Spanish-American consortium, plans to build the Trans-Texas Corridor, a state-owned toll road. The consortium, made up of Spain-based Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction, would get to operate the road and collect tolls.

Today’s rally is expected to last several hours.

“Not only will the TTC be a new tax for Texans to pay, but thousands of acres of land will be condemned, taking valuable property away from Texas land owners,” said Gina Parker Ford of the National Eagle Forum, who will be among the speakers.

“Some will come on horses, some on tractors, and many more on motorcycles - all united together against wasteful spending, questionable tactics by Gov. Perry, and a virtual double-tax on our roadways through toll fares,” Ford said.

The Australian, a newspaper based in Sydney, described Texas as “the toll road El Dorado” in a recent online article that also referenced “vast toll road riches up for grabs in Texas.”

A Spanish term, El Dorado means “the golden one” and refers to a fabled land of gold and riches. More recently, the term has been used metaphorically to reference any place where wealth could be rapidly acquired, according to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia.

Companies from Australia and Spain have been among the foreign bidders on U.S. toll roads.

Senate Finance Committee chairman Steve Ogden, who pushed the 2003 bill that helped set up the toll road initiative, said he was “asleep or not smart enough” to recognize potential problems.

“We are giving away a public asset and don’t have much say about it for 50 years,” said Ogden, R-Bryan.

Cintra-Zachry, a Spanish-American consortium, plans to build the Trans-Texas Corridor. The consortium, made up of Spain-based Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction, would get to operate the road and collect tolls.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Daily Light