Thursday, March 01, 2007

"We're ranchers. Our business is dependent on our land. I plead with you that you not concrete over my ranch."

Senators question transportation officials over toll road project

March 1, 2007

The Associated Press
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Before a crowd of people angry over the Trans-Texas Corridor, state senators grilled transportation commissioners Thursday about the huge toll road project and why Interstate 35 couldn't be widened instead.

The commissioners gave some financial estimates of expanding the interstate and said they would provide more.

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, a superhighway expected to be built by a private firm.

In all, the project is envisioned as a $184 billion 4,000-mile network of toll roads, rail lines and utilities.

Its first segment would run a few miles east of and parallel to Interstate 35 down the center of the state. 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.

© 2007 The Associated Press:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE