Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"This is not a partisan issue. It is a Texan issue."

Proposed Trans-Texas Corridor draws criticism

Tyler rancher, Hank Gilbert, to talk about project Saturday

Sept. 26, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Hank Gilbert, a Tyler rancher who lost his race for Texas commissioner of agriculture last year, will be in Sugar Land Saturday to gather support for his crusade against a controversial state Trans-Texas Corridor plan and associated proposal to create toll roads.

The Fort Bend County Democratic Party is sponsoring the meeting set for 9:45-11:30 a.m. at First Colony Library, 2121 Austin Parkway.

'Texan issue'

"This is not a partisan issue. It is a Texan issue," said Jenny Hurley, a party officer who invited Gilbert, who ran as a Democrat. "Hank has support from both Democrats and Republicans. This is an issue concerning everybody. So this event is absolutely a nonpartisan event."

The Trans-Texas Corridor project, planned by the Texas Department of Transportation and trumpeted by Gov. Rick Perry, would create a cross-state road system of new and existing highways, railroads and utility rights of way. It would have separate lanes for passenger and truck traffic, freight and high-speed commuter rails, as well as infrastructure for utilities including water, oil and gas pipelines, electricity and telecommunications services. Toll fees are being mulled as an option to support the network.

Major corridors under consideration include one, dubbed TTC-35, along Interstate 35 from Denison to the Rio Grande Valley. Another, known as TTC-69, would extend Interstate 69 from Texarkana through Houston to either Laredo.Two other possible routes would run along Interstate 45 from Dallas to Houston and Interstate 10 from El Paso to Orange.

Opposition to the project was Gilbert's main platform when he ran against Republican Todd Staples for commissioner of agriculture.

Critics describe the project as a 4,000-mile network, estimated to cost between $145.2 billion and $183.5 billion to be completed in 50 years and would take up to 584,000 acres. Gilbert said about 100,000 acres of prime farmland would be lost to the TTC-35 plan. He and other critics said the undertaking would force many farmers out of business, ruin communities and have a detrimental effect on the environment. Gilbert also said with land taken off the tax roll, the state's taxpayers would have to shoulder a heftier tax burden.

Gaby Garcia, a spokeswoman for the state transportation agency, said each of the two proposed major corridors would stretch about 600 miles and cost $12 billion only for the road portion, excluding rails and utility infrastructure. She said there is no determination on the exact routes of the network, but one principle would be to minimize land to be acquired by using existing roadways.

Environmental study

"We're in the middle of an environmental study that began in 2004 and it's a long process. We don't have an answer to where the road is gonna go. That's a frustration for property owners," Garcia said. " But we have to go through the environmental study to be able to tell accurately. It's hard for anybody to tell the amount of land we need. The land is not gonna be taken. It will be purchased. We will make sure that property owners are paid at a fair market price"

She said the construction of the network would be based on needs. The project addresses mobility needs based on the projection of population growth and the corresponding transportation demands, she said.

Hurley said critics and skeptics of the official version of the story are seeking facts. Bringing Gilbert to Fort Bend aims to arouse local awareness on the issue, she said.

Issue awareness

"People in Fort Bend need to know what's going on. If you ask 100 people what this corridor is, 99 of them don't know," she said. "But when they wake up, they'll find all our roads will have become toll roads although they have already been paid for by our tax dollars."

Fort Bend would be affected by the Trans-Texas Corridor project, according to local critics, including the Sierra Club.

During a recent public hearing held by the state transportation agency and the Grand Parkway Association, opponents said the state's idea to extend Grand Parkway as a toll road from U.S. 59 south through the county and east to Texas 288 would pave the way for the construction of I-69.

I-69 is a proposed North American Free Trade Agreement Highway, which would link Mexico to the Northeast and Canada. The proposed Grand Parkway toll road has been considered by the state as part of the route.

"There will be foreign trucks coming this way to take jobs away from Americans. I hope the politicians know what they are doing," Hurley said. "We don't want to lose our standard of living. But all this is going to ruin the lives of a lot of people, especially the people of tomorrow."

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