Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bill would narrow options for TTC-69

Highway bill says interstate to Valley must be built on existing road

Senate Bill 792 passed the House 143-2; All Rio Grande Valley representatives voted for the bill

May 17, 2007

Elizabeth Hernandez
The Monitor
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — If an interstate runs to the Rio Grande Valley it would have to do so along U.S. Highway 281 or U.S. Highway 77 rather than cut through untouched ranchland, according to a bill that passed the Texas House on Thursday.

Senate Bill 792 puts a two-year moratorium on most privately funded toll-road projects not already under way. It reflects a compromise made in recent days with Gov. Rick Perry, who threatened to veto another moratorium bill and send lawmakers back to work in a special legislative session this summer.

All eight Rio Grande Valley representatives voted for the bill.

The area south of the San Antonio River is exempt from the moratorium, giving the Texas Department of Transportation authority to move forward with studies to determine whether and where to build Interstate 69 to the Valley as part of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

All or parts of the proposed I-69 Trans-Texas Corridor to the Valley could become a toll road someday, but no such plans are in place now. TxDOT is still years away from choosing a route for the road, said Gaby Garcia, spokeswoman for TxDOT, in an e-mail response to questions.

TxDOT is studying possible routes for the highway, including upgrading U.S. Highway 77, upgrading U.S. Highway 281 or building a new road west of U.S. Highway 281.

The Corpus Christi district of TxDOT is also studying a possible trucking route connecting the Valley, Corpus Christi and Laredo, Garcia said.

They are trying to narrow the possible study areas by late summer. After a route is chosen, TxDOT officials will have another round of public hearings, she said.

“We are several years away from that decision,” she said of deciding on a route.

But if an amendment by state Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, sticks, TxDOT will have fewer options for an I-69 Trans-Texas Corridor route.

Ranchers in Hidalgo County and others along U.S. Highway 281 have complained that a new highway would unnecessarily impact ranchers and wildlife and would cost more than expanding an existing highway.

“We’re very proud of our large and historic ranches and we want to keep those intact,” Peña said.

Plans to build the Trans-Texas Corridor along Interstate 35 have drawn sharp criticism in Central Texas. Lawmakers have tried to pass the moratorium in response to anger over TxDOT’s transportation plan that encourages the state to enlist private companies to operate toll roads.

If Peña's amendment is to become law, the Senate must agree to the changes made in the House before the bill is sent to Perry for approval.

The legislative session ends May 28.

Elizabeth Hernandez covers the state capital for Valley Freedom Newspapers. She is based in Austin and can be reached at (512) 323-0622.

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