Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Citizens should be prepared for the long haul because 'Gov. Rick Perry is sold on this idea.' "

Austin County residents give an earful to TxDOT

January 29, 2008

Brenham Banner-Press
Copyright 2008

A panel of administrators from the Texas Department of Transportation got an earful from angry Austin County residents and others who packed the exhibit hall at the Austin County fairgrounds to voice their opposition to the proposed Trans Texas Corridor.

The corridor is a favored project of Gov. Rick Perry, and is envisioned to consist of parallel highways and rail lines up to a quarter-mile in width transporting goods across the state.

According to published reports, the state would be required to purchase 600,000 acres of private land for this project.

Currently, there are two proposed corridors in the works. The “I-35 corridor”, which would parallel the current interstate of that name, and the “I-69 corridor,” which some plans have running through eastern Austin County, but an exact location has not been set yet.

Speaking before to audience at the beginning of the meeting, Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) got a huge round of applause when she said, “You all thought I was crazy when I said in Austin my people don’t want it and I don’t want it.”

She asked the crowd “to do me a favor ... tonight I want you to focus your anger and angst away from the employees up here, they are civil servants who are paid to listen. They don’t make policy.”

Texas does has a problem with traffic though and something needs to be done to fix it, she said, as long as roads aren’t leased longterm to private companies and as long as officials are talking about the corridor being a “1200-foot (wide) swath” across Texas.

The “my people” comment was apparently not an exaggeration on her part as not one person who asked a question or made a comment about the proposed corridor was in favor of it, or its proposed method of funding, which currently involves a private company funding the project in exchange for toll revenues.

Many people did say that as an alternative to the corridor, they would be in favor of building extra lanes on U.S. Highway 59, or some other major road to accommodate increased traffic, or putting in more rail lines to transport goods that enter the U.S. through Mexico.

TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz had few specifics for the crowd, telling them that the project was still in the planning stages, and that the part of the purpose of these informal town hall meetings was to decide if the project is needed at all, and if so, what form would it take.

Other TxDOT employees though, said the project wasn’t so much about the here and now, it was about what would happen decades down the road.

Throughout the meeting, Deputy Executive Director Steven Simmons said several times that his department has “got to start planning now. (The proposed corridor) is about addressing future needs, not today’s needs.”

Tom Knodt drove from Brenham to attend the meeting, and said that while he wouldn’t be affected personally by the proposed corridor, he resented the seeming inevitability of it because it was still moving forward despite so much public opposition.

He said the whole process has made him feel that state officials don’t care about “people like us,” adding “at some point there has to be a breaking point.”

Along with those who resented what they felt to be the government using a heavy hand to push the project, other groups opposed to the corridor could clearly be discerned.

Some felt that instead of more highways, mass transit should be considered instead, others were concerned about the effect of removing 600,000 acres from the tax rolls, some were opposed based on the environmental impact creating such a massive road and rail project would have and some resented what they saw as urban Texans pushing an unfair amount of the burden of the project on rural Texans.

The ones who seemed to garner the most sympathy from the crowd, though, were the people who stood to possibly lose some or all of a family farm or ranch to eminent domain.

Many of these people were quite emotional, with one asking if the “fair market value” that the state would pay property owners for the corridor would cover the cost of losing a family farm.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Saenz, “there’s no way we can compensate you for that land.”

A series of 46 formal public hearing are scheduled to begin next month, and Saenz advised critics to be prepared to not just state their opposition, but to be able to cite a specific reason for the opposition as well.

At the end of the meeting, Kolkhorst said she thought that TxDOT employees would take back to Austin the message that people are against the corridor, but that citizens should be prepared for the long haul because “Gov. Rick Perry is sold on this idea.”

An unofficial moratorium on the corridor will remain in place until the 2009 legislative session when the issue will surely come up again, and she’s expecting that “it’s going to be a tough fight.”

© 2008 Brenham Banner-Press: www.brenhambanner.com

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