"Proposed corridor includes converting portions of non-toll roads."
November 16, 2007
By Robbie Byrd, News Editor
The Huntsville Item
The much touted — and disputed — Trans-Texas Corridor may be one step away from a pipe dream and one step closer to a reality.
The group this week released its Tier 1 Environmental Impact study, a look at how building the highway, dubbed I-69, running from Texarkana to Laredo, would affect the 50 or so counties it would run through.
Bryan Wood, district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation in Bryan, said the first study only looks at how the many initially proposed component of the highway would impact the surrounding areas.
“We’re still a long ways away from putting anything on the ground,” Wood said.
The impact study looks for already identified impact sites — such as churches, cemeteries, homes and businesses — that would either have to be diverted around or moved along the proposed route.
“We really are just taking a look at the location information of these areas and other environmental issues (and) we’re trying to do that from existing data,” Wood said.
The data has been collected over the years by federal agencies using GIS data, or geographical information systems, that pinpoint locations along the proposed route.
The problem is, Wood said, some of the data they are using is already outdated, as new buildings spring up along the route.
After it irons out plans for the corridor, TxDOT will spend several years revising that data and surveying the proposed route on their own.
“We’ll begin an approximately four year process of more detailed environmental impact,” Wood said. “(Environmental sites) are obviously something we want to avoid or mitigate for. Those type things are a significant concern.”
As well, TxDOT will hold public hearings throughout the entire Tier 2 design process, seeking public input about the many proposed features of the corridor.
Currently, the plan outlines high-speed passenger rail lines, urban commuter rails, freight rails, 18-wheeler only lanes and infrastructure transmission lines, all packed between an expanded interstate highway.
But those are just options, Wood said, and it will be up to Texas residents to decide what services they’d like to see along the “highway of the future.”
“Does it have to be all these things?” Wood said. “It actually doesn’t. That’s part of what we’ve been saying to the public. We need the input to see what they need, and to see if they want train tracks running through the road or if they want to see those rails along existing facilities.”
The current proposal does not specify where the rail lines would stop, nor where exactly the new interstate road will run. Only a vague, orange line on the latest proposed map offers indications about where the road will run: just north of Huntsville, passing over into Grimes county, while a split in the road near Trinity takes the highway straight into Houston.
But Wood said the project would cut down congestion along busy Interstate 45 through Walker County, which sees anywhere from 23,000 to 36,000 vehicles per day pass through the area.
How? By providing commercial trucks dedicated lanes that would help pay for the toll highway.
“The idea that we could do an Interstate with truck-only toll lanes has become very popular,” Wood said. “There have been segments of Texas already that have said they would like to see ... only toll lanes for trucks around their community. I think that speaks volumes for what the public wants and we’re listening.”
Wood said that the only way to pay for the new highway system would be tolls. But the group is not limiting their options just to tolls on commercial drivers.
“Our grandfathers and parents put a larger portion of their income towards transportation because it was important to them,” Wood said, saying the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System was paid for exclusively with gas taxes.
“If you look at the percentage of the state budget that was gas taxes in the ’60s it was 20 or 30 percent of the state budget for transportation. It’s at about 6 percent right now,” he said.
Though the proposed corridor includes converting portions of non-toll roads U.S. Highway 59, US 281 and US 77 as part of the new highway, the free portions of those roads would continue to be free.
“The only way to pay for it unless something different happens is polls,” Wood said. “We’ll see what options we have available when we get closer to building it.”
Wood said some people have expressed concern over the route the highway will take in Walker County and that TxDOT is listening, providing alternate plans that could bypass Walker County altogether.
“That question has been asked: can that be changed now or in tier 2 studies,” Wood said. “And the answer is yes. If anyone wants to make suggestions about where that corridor goes they can.”
Wood said the corridor is a necessity, as the population of east and southeast Texas continues to boom.
“We’re seeing somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 new people in Texas each day,” Wood said. “That’s a city the size of Austin added to the map every 2 years. And it’s not stopping.”
For more information on the project, visit TxDOT’s special projects Web site at http://www.keeptexasmoving.com/ or the Trans-Texas Corridor Web site at http://ttc.keeptexasmoving.com/.
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