"It all boils down to a matter of credibility and whether our governor and his Commissioner of Transportation, Ric Williamson, can be trusted. "
November 7th, 2007
By: Don Garrett & Trey Duhon
Citizens for a Better Waller County
On Friday, October 19th, the Alliance for I-69 Texas and Texas Transportation Commission hosted a meeting of regional community leaders in Huntsville.
In attendance were TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz, Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton, Gary K. Trietsch (Houston District Engineer for TxDOT) and representatives, county judges and commissioners from Walker, Houston, Trinity, Madison, Grimes, Brazos, Washington, Austin, and Waller counties, including Grimes County Judge Betty Shiflett and Austin County Judge Carolyn Bilski, in addition to numerous TxDot officials. Trey Duhon, a director with the Waller County Toll Road Authority and Citizens for a Better Waller County was present, and I attended as a representative of the Waller County Economic Development Partnership.
There were many familiar faces recognized as both proponents and opponents of TTC-69 that day. After brief introductions of all in attendance, Commissioner Houghton stated that TXDOT had made a major public relations blunder from the onset and that with the passage of HB 792, they were going to take a more open and receptive approach to the transportation needs of Texas and the Trans Texas Corridor, utilizing local input to develop these projects and their eventual routes.
Commissioner Houghton mentioned that he had conveyed this message on a personal level to Waller county officials, having met previously with Waller County Judge Ralston and Commissioner Beckendorff about partnering with Waller County in joining the TTC and the proposed Prairie Parkway (which was rejected by both Ralston and Beckendorff).
Mr. Saenz stated that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for TTC-69 was currently being reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration, and that he felt very good that the DEIS would be released by the end of 2007. Upon the release of the DEIS, dozens of public hearings will be held to gather public input on the proposed route of TTC-69. TxDOT is planning on also holding a series of town hall meetings, in which participants can ask and answer questions and have conversations and exchange ideas and dialogue about the project.
There was considerable discussion at the meeting about the fact that Bryan/College Station and the Brazos Valley have been vocal that they would like for the I-69 route to come to the Bryan/College Station area. The Brazos Valley COG has proposed an alternative route for the I-69 project that would bring it to the Brazos Valley, then southward along Highway 6.
Houghton cautioned us that the DEIS would be out soon and as it currently stood, that we will probably not be happy with the proposed route. He added, however, that the final route was not yet final, and that routing I-69 towards Bryan/College Station was a “realistic option”, and that with Highway 6 already there and substantial right of way along portions of Highway 6, there is a chance that Highway 6 “could become 69”. Duhon asked Houghton what would be the non-toll alternative to Highway 6, since Highway 6 is the primary state highway that runs north out of Waller County. Houghton responded that Highway 6 would continue to be a non-tolled highway for passenger cars, but that elements of the TTC or I-69 could be added adjacent to it.
This began a spirited discussion as Austin County Judge Carolyn Bilski expressed her concerns that Grimes, Austin, and Waller counties could bear the brunt of I-69 simply because Bryan/College Station, Texas A&M University, and the Brazos Valley have enough political clout to bring I-69 to their area.
Judge Bilski also asked pointed questions about what kind of substantive changes have been made by TxDOT as a result of the passage of SB 792 (the toll road moratorium bill). She commented that she was with Rep. Lois Kohlkorst at her office when the bill was passed and that it did not seem that the spirit of the law was being complied with. Commissioner Houghton replied that he felt that Rep. Kohlkorst was incorrect in her interpretation of 792.
Commissioner Houghton emphasized that the original concept of the TTC was not realistic and that in some areas the TTC would be scaled down, or only have some elements (such as rail or truck lanes), but not others.. He also stated that there would be plans for access to 69 at every major county artery as not to disrupt major traffic patterns.
Houghton also spoke about new rules which TxDOT proposed in September which will establish a TTC-69 Corridor Advisory Committees and local segment committees. These committees will assist TxDOT in transportation planning and development for I-69/TTC-69. The committees will seek support and consensus from affected communities, governmental entities, and other interested parties, then the committees will provide advice and recommendations to TxDOT in regards to the project and the public, business, and private concerns in that regards.
Members of each Segment Committee will be appointed by local and regional entities from areas included in some portion of the proposed segment. County judges from each county in the proposed segment will appoint a member, as well as metropolitan planning organizations (MPO’s) in the affected area.
Additional members may be appointed by other entities designated by the commission, such as cities, ports, chambers of commerce, and economic development entities. A segment committee will provide input and recommendations regarding route designations, whether to construct a proposed segment, and other planning, development, and financing matters requested by TxDOT.
According to materials provided at the meeting, the Transportation Commission will consider and “weigh heavily” the recommendations of the Corridor Segment Committee before it designates or decides to construct the route of a proposed segment of the TTC. However, TxDOT “may require committee members to sign confidentiality agreements and to not disclose confidential information provided to the committee.”
Comments on these proposed rules are now being accepted until 5 p.m., November 12. For more information about the rules, go to http://www.keeptexasmoving.com/index.php/news/Rules_for_Corridor_Advisory_Committees. The Commission may consider final adoption of these rules during its January 2008 meeting.
The Brazos Valley “segment”, which includes the counties which were invited to the meeting, will constitute a Segment Committee. As such, Waller County Judge Owen Ralston will have the ability to designate at least one member to the Brazos Valley segment committee.
Judge Bilski explained to Commissioner Houghton and the other TxDOT officials that because of such actions in the recent past and the current actions of other government officials that it was going to be very difficult for her constituents to believe anything that TXDOT or other government officials had to say in regard to the TTC. Commissioner Houghton and TxDOT officials expressed a willingness to meet with local officials and their constituents in order to reduce the level of tension and distrust at commissioners and/or town hall meetings.
It all boils down to a matter of credibility and whether our governor and his Commissioner of Transportation, Ric Williamson, can be trusted.
The picture looks bleak until things change at the top as it is difficult to ascertain true intentions when each side is looking at SB 792 from different perspectives and we are a long way from détente with such attitudes.
It is imperative that our legislators close the gap during the next legislative session. Each side continues to march in its own direction thus leaving the elected local and county officials to face the brunt of the reaction from their constituents.
Additionally impacted will be the relationships of local TxDOT officials with local and county officials. It seems that this is yet another instance of high level government officials dictating policy and leaving the lower level subordinates and the people to work things out. This is not right, and this is not what Texans expect from their elected officials.
Is this a new kindler, gentler TxDOT? Is TxDOT serious when they say they will work with local authorities and communities in regards to the scope and route of this project? Or is this all smoke and mirrors so that TxDOT can get through the remainder of the moratorium, so that they can go back to business as usual in 14 months? Or more realistically, is this just a component of TxDOT’s $9 million public relations campaign to convince us the TTC is a good thing? Time will tell.
Waller County needs to proceed with its own plans for meeting its mobility needs in the future and not wait nor anticipate friendly cooperation under the current atmosphere, lest we allow our determination and plans to be undermined by a breach of good faith by those who we choose to believe. Caution and prudence should be our resolve and we need the assistance of our legislators to insure that we stay the course. And if not, our future transportation needs will suffer greatly with or without the Trans Texas Corridor.
© 2007 Citizens for a Better Waller County:
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