Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Decision to build close to U.S. 59 or on it is a partial victory."

Planners narrow proposed I-69 corridor

New road would largely follow the U.S. 59 footprint across the state

Nov. 15, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

State highway officials have sharply narrowed the possible route of the Interstate 69/Trans-Texas Corridor, saying they plan to keep it close to U.S. 59 and other existing roads.

The news comes after months of criticism that the planned corridor and its sister project, TTC-35 in Central Texas, could divide farms and ranches and suck motorists' dollars from nearby towns to the projects' developers.

It also comes after the Texas Legislature restricted the Texas Department of Transportation's ability to expand the use of tolls and privatization to pay for new roads.

The revised study area is shown in the federally required Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the I-69/TTC project, a hefty document made public earlier this week.

Through most of its 650 miles from Texarkana to the Mexico border, the corridor under study initially ranged from 20 to 80 miles wide. It has been reduced in the DEIS to between a quarter mile and four miles wide.

The proposed route follows U.S. 59 from Texarkana to Victoria, except through Houston, then splits off to Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley on U.S. 77, U.S. 281 and Texas 44.

A bypass — TxDOT uses the term "relief route" — would skirt west of the Houston area.

Because the corridor's role is to connect urban areas rather than go through their hearts, the identified route generally avoids areas that are built up or expected to grow rapidly.

However, spurs would extend to the Port of Houston from the north and west. Bypasses also are likely around several smaller cities.

Another spur is shown branching off from north of Nacogdoches to the Louisiana state line. Although the Trans-Texas Corridor would stop there, the envisioned Interstate 69 would continue northeast to Detroit and Canada, for a total length of 2,700 miles border to border.

An east-west connection between the Gulf port of Corpus Christi and the inland port of Laredo also is planned, said project spokeswoman Gabriela Garcia of TxDOT.

"One thing we have heard from everybody over several years is to focus on existing corridors and see how we can incorporate them into the project," Garcia said.

Room for toll lanes

Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton described U.S. 59 as a four-lane divided highway with "a beautiful nice, wide median" where toll lanes dedicated to trucks or cars could be built. In some places, he said, the footprint might need to be widened.

Garcia said the corridor would be "demand-driven" and built in pieces as needed. A TxDOT official also said toll rates and the roadway could vary between segments depending on traffic load and local preferences.

In spring 2008, Houghton said, TxDOT will set up working groups for specific segments of the route "to advise us on what they would like to have."

A separate group would represent ports and another working group for the overall project.

"Each region has its own significant issues," Houghton said.

For instance, he said, "Victoria County has said they want dedicated truck lanes and they are going out to buy right of way."

Residents of the Brazos Valley want an interstate highway to Bryan-College Station, Houghton said. The proposed route west of Houston would pass through Grimes and Walker counties nearby.

For years, towns and cities along U.S. 59 in East and South Texas have sought to have the busy highway upgraded to I-69. After 2002, when Gov. Rick Perry announced his goal of building the Trans-Texas Corridor — a statewide network of roads and rails, pipelines and power lines — the I-69 idea was folded into corridor plans.

But there were changes that troubled longtime supporters: The road would be tolled, probably built and managed privately, and may end up too far from towns for local businesses to attract motorists.

David Stall of Corridor Watch, a citizens group opposed to the corridor concept, said the decision to build close to U.S. 59 or on it is a partial victory.

"I think the state is learning very slowly," Stall said. "Those are huge shifts in direction."

Also pleased was Texans for Safe Reliable Transportation, which advocates tolls and other means of stretching tax dollars for needed highways.

"Using existing right-of-ways means highways can potentially be built faster, more cost effectively and with less impact on property owners," said spokesman Bill Noble in a statement.

Uncontrolled access

It was not clear how the broad corridors that Perry envisioned could be built alongside U.S. 59 in East Texas, where numerous small towns line the highway and there is uncontrolled access from dozens of streets, parking lots and driveways.

In those places, said TxDOT deputy executive director Steve Simmons, "We might have to rebuild the facility so that the existing lanes become more like frontage roads."

Stall said adding lanes to U.S. 59 would be easier in the less populous stretch from the Houston area to Mexico.

"We are talking about something along the model of the interstate system, and the Rio Grande Valley and Polk County have been clamoring for that for years," he said.

Work on the DEIS began in 2004, and it could take at least as long to complete the second phase of environmental studies to determine a detailed route, Garcia said.

She said the process will begin in January with 10 town hall meetings, dates and places to be announced, followed by 46 public hearings in February throughout the corridor.

The draft environmental impact statement can be accessed here
See a map of the narrowed-down route here

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