Monday, October 08, 2007

TTC-69: "Meeting will be closed to the public and media."

Trans-Texas Corridor talks include Fort Bend officials

Committee formed by state Transportation Commission

Oct. 8, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

A controversial plan to create an interstate highway from the Texas-Mexico border to Texarkana is gaining momentum in Fort Bend County as local leaders are set to begin meeting in two weeks to brainstorm on how the project should be carried out in this area.

Ted Houghton, Texas Transportation commissioner, who was in Rosenberg Wednesday to promote the project, will be in Sugar Land Oct. 26 to discuss the Trans-Texas Corridor-69 proposal with the 24-member group formed by the commission.

'Transportation crossroad'
Houghton said the project, which would turn Fort Bend and its vicinity into a "transportation crossroad," would enable fast cargo deliveries to various ports with rails or truck lanes and increase mobility for passengers with high-speed toll lanes generally along U.S. 59.

"We need to bring in the money to create economic opportunities," Houghton said at the annual Fort Bend Regional Infrastructure Conference sponsored by the Rosenberg-Richmond Area Chamber of Commerce.
However, the project has drawn opposition from environmentalists, property-rights proponents and those who see the corridor as part of a proposal to create a North America Free Trade Agreement highway to connect Mexico to Canada through the U.S. heartland.

Meeting closed to public

The group to meet on Oct. 26 at Sugar Land City Hall comprises county judges, mayors of cities along the proposed route, leaders of area chambers of commerce and various ports including those of Houston, Freeport and Victoria, and representatives of metropolitan planning organizations. Members are mostly from the Fort Bend, Wharton and Victoria areas.

Houghton told the Chronicle Wednesday that the meeting will be closed to the public and media.

He said the group, one of six formed in the project area from Brownsville to Texarkana, will have the opportunity to help tailor the project to "local needs."

"It's a positive thing. We are letting these regions plan it out," Houghton said. "We hope by mid-next year, the group will come up with some recommendations to tell us what they would like to see built."

The Interstate 69 project is part of the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor network at least seven years in planning by the Texas Department of Transportation and supported by Gov. Rick Perry.

1,200-foot wide corridors?

The network is conceived as 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. One revenue option to support the network would be toll fees.

I-69 would generally follow the U.S. 59 footprint with a section along U.S. 77 from Texarkana to three possible terminals along the Texas-Mexico border: Brownsville, McAllen and Laredo.

Another major component of the network, Trans-Texas Corridor-35, would run along Interstate 35 from Denison to the Rio Grande Valley. Two other possible routes would run along Interstate 45 from Dallas to Houston and Interstate 10 from El Paso to Orange.

According to Gaby Garcia, a spokeswoman for the state transportation agency, 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.

Houghton said that critics' assertion that the corridors would be 1,200 feet in width is not true. However, he said the exact width couldn't be determined until a definitive plan is shaped with sufficient local input.

County judge's endorsement

Houghton said he and Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert "had a great conversation" about the project during a private meeting.

While asking Houghton to present a "fine print" of the plan, Hebert said he supports the project.

"I'm excited about it. We need the road," Hebert said Wednesday.

However, some local community leaders deplore what they perceive to be a lack of awareness among Fort Bend residents about the Trans-Texas Corridor concept.

The county's Democratic Party on Sept. 29 brought Hank Gilbert, a Tyler rancher who lost his race for Texas commissioner of agriculture last year, to Sugar Land to rally support for his crusade against the project. Event organizer Jenny Hurley said about 50 people attended the meeting.

Grand Parkway not a part?

Some opponents of a state plan to extend the Grand Parkway as a toll road from U.S. 59 south and then east to link Texas 288 are concerned that the expansion project could be part of the I-69 project. But, Houghton dismissed that notion.

However, former Texas Transportation Commissioner John W. "Johnny" Johnson in 2000 told the Chronicle that I-69 was being proposed to pass north and west of Houston, merging with segments of the Grand Parkway, including the stretch between the Katy Freeway and U.S. 59. Johnson also said the proposed Grand Parkway segment south of U.S. 59 could be used as a continued truck route from I-69 to reach the Port of Houston via Texas 288 and Beltway 8.

"A Beautiful asset"

Calling U.S. 59 "a beautiful asset," Houghton said tracing I-69 along U.S. 59 would mean less additional land needed for the project, thus having less impact on the community along the route.

"We have already the asset. Now we're trying to enhance the asset," he said.

With the project, U.S. 59 at all its intersections would be turned into overpasses, he said.

Houghton said project planners have been examining a variety of ways to fund the project. However, funding remains a difficult task, he said.

"We have looked at everything possible," he said.

The state's goal is to begin construction on the project in two to three years and have it completed within five to 10 years, Houghton said.

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