Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Fear and Loathing in Bellville, Texas

Trans-Texas Corridor plan met with more loathing

Austin County meeting packs in more than 1,000, few of them supporters

Jan. 28, 2008

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2008

BELLVILLE — In what is becoming a regular occurrence in Southeast Texas, more than 1,000 Austin County residents and interested outsiders jammed a county fairgrounds exhibit hall Monday night to let a panel of state transportation officials know that the Trans-Texas Corridor was not welcome here.

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, opened the public remarks to thunderous applause when she told the panel, "You all thought I was crazy in Austin when I said my people don't want it and I don't want it."

The panel, which included Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Amadeo Saenz and Deputy Executive Director Steve Simmons, have been hearing that a lot lately. The officials are in the midst of a town hall tour of Southeast Texas where the planned I-69/Trans-Texas Corridor is slated to run from Texarkana to Corpus Christi and on to Brownsville and Laredo.

Officials have said they have been hearing from residents in all of the town hall meetings that the I-69/TTC corridor should stay close to U.S. 59.

Maps at Monday's meeting, which was intended to explain the project and gather public comment, show the controversial corridor cutting through the far southeast corner of Austin County, southeast of Bellville.

TxDOT has said it wants to keep the corridor as close as possible to towns and businesses, but says it is difficult and costly to acquire right of way to expand highways in built-up areas.

Similar meetings last week in Hempstead, Rosenberg and Huntsville were packed with residents and local officials who questioned the need for the project and the motives of its supporters.

Supporters envision the Trans-Texas Corridor as a network of broad corridors linking major cities, with toll roads for cars and trucks, rail tracks for freight and passenger trains, and space for pipelines and power lines.

Such supporters were in short supply Monday night.

"Have you found anyone in this part of the county who is in favor of the corridor?" Sealy Mayor Koym Russell asked the panel.

Simmons got a laugh when he replied that he did not know of anyone who would stand up there and say so.

Opponents include farmers and ranchers who do not want their land divided, merchants who fear loss of business to new routes, and others who oppose trucks from Mexico doing business in the United States, or the long-term leases of U.S. highways to foreign companies.

Each of those perspectives was voiced Monday.

County Judge Carolyn Bilski got a laugh when she said one resident asked her, "If it comes through my land, will I have to pay a toll to feed my cows?"

Many of the residents' questions centered on the potential loss of farm and ranch lands, some of which have been in families for more than 100 years.

"Does the fair market value or what they call 'just compensation' cover that?" resident Joan Gentry asked.

"I'll be honest with you," Simmons replied. "There is no way we can compensate for that."

When another local asked why it was necessary to cut through farms and ranches to build the road, Saenz said it was not the first choice. When planning a route, engineers would first look at building it along existing roadways. If necessary, he said, they would try to place it between property lines. Going through ranches and farms would be a last resort.

"We're still trying to identify, does this corridor need to be built, and, if so, where," Saenz said.

The town hall meetings will continue this month and be followed by two months of formal public hearings.


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