Friday, March 02, 2007

Senate Hearing: “The room was full, and overflow rooms were opened up.”

Locals speak out against toll roads

March 02, 2007

Gainesville Daily Register
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — At least four Cooke County residents traveled to Austin Thursday to give the Texas Senate and a state transportation committee a small piece of their minds on a project which plans to take a rather large piece of Cooke County real estate.

Amy Klein, a local obstetrician and an activist in the movement to oppose the Trans-Texas Corridor, said she and Norman Miner, Rose Miner and Precinct 1 County Commissioner Gary Hollowell attended a hearing at the Texas Capitol hosted by Sen. John Carona.

“The room was full, and overflow rooms were opened up,” Klein said of the crowd in an interview this morning.

She said the committee seemed appreciative of the comments.

“Sen. Carona said that they appreciated all of the citizens taking time out of their busy days to make our statements, and wanted to take time off work to come,” she said.

Hollowell said each speaker had three minutes, and all he could squeeze in was reciting Cooke County’s resolution against the Trans-Texas Corridor — a proposed network of limited-access, high-speed toll roads to be operated by a private company. The project is envisioned as a $184 billion 4,000-mile network of toll roads, rail lines and utilities.

“I think it went well. There were probably 250 people in the auditorium,” Hollowell said this morning. “The committee was very genuine in their concerns and they were very receptive. They wanted to review the financing and discuss whether public-private partnership is the best way to proceed.”

Hollowell said the senators “asked some really tough questions and created debate between TxDOT experts and third-party witnesses who studied other toll roads.”

He said many of the witnesses called said privately operated state highways do not save money.

“What they said was private-public isn’t the way to go,” he said “Tolls would be more expensive to offset upfront money. You’re not going to see any intial savings ...”

According to Associated Press reports, before the public comments began, senators grilled transportation commissioners about the toll road project and why Interstate 35 couldn’t be widened instead.

The transportation commissioners present gave some financial estimates of expanding the interstate and said they would provide more at a later date.

But commission chairman Ric Williamson said the dense population along the interstate and lack of public money were reasons to opt for the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Its first segment would run a few miles east of and parallel to Interstate 35 down the center of Texas. That plan has infuriated rural land owners in its path who stand to lose farms and ranches and longtime family property.

Their complaints figured heavily into the Texas governor’s race last year — the Trans-Texas Corridor is a pet project of Gov. Rick Perry — and they highlighted Thursday’s daylong public hearing of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.

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

When Williamson, a Perry appointee, and other transportation commissioners appeared before the Senate panel, Sen. John Carona, the committee chairman, asked questions he said were on the minds of many in the room.

Carona noted that Williamson and Perry were 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 showed detailed maps about the population and congestion along I-35. He 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, also 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.

State auditors testifying before the Senate committee Thursday mentioned that open records dispute and cited findings from a report they released last week on the Trans-Texas Corridor. They noted that some invoices at the transportation department were coded incorrectly and listed under engineering when they were really for public relations.

“Oooohhhh,” many in the audience said in unison, in disapproving fashion.

Kelley Shannon reported for the Associated Press. Register reporter Andy Hogue may be contacted at

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