Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"A lot of carnage."

Public meetings starting on giant Texas highway project


Associated Press
Copyright 2008

TEXARKANA, Texas -- State transportation officials tried Tuesday night to ease fears of people in the projected path of a likely toll road through East Texas that could be part of a gigantic superhighway project criss-crossing much of the state.

"It's a tough process," Phil Russell, an assistant executive director for the Texas Department of Transportation, told more than 150 people in Texarkana at the first of a series of town hall meetings regarding the Trans Texas Corridor. "I know it's difficult."

On Wednesday, the forum was moving to Carthage, then Thursday to Lufkin. All are communities that would be affected by a major leg of the so-called TTC along the Interstate 69 route long sought by East Texas officials.

Officials said they hoped the unprecedented town hall sessions over the next month would answer questions and improve communication between their agency and citizens.

Gov. Rick Perry first proposed the TTC six years ago. While embraced by many, it's being fought by some who describe it as unneeded and improper.

If completed as much as 50 years from now, the TTC would roughly parallel interstate highways with up to a quarter-mile-wide stretch of toll roads, rail lines, pipelines and utility lines. Cost of the project has been estimated at approaching $200 billion.

TTC also could require the state to acquire nearly 600,000 acres of private land, much from farmers and ranchers.

A procession of more than two dozen people who approached a microphone set up at a Texarkana high school cafeteria worried about land acquisition, toll roads versus free roads, constructon timetables and environmental impact. They also suggested that improvements in existing highways be made to alleviate the need for toll roads.

Russell said existing highway lanes never would be tolled.

"If we have to build additional lanes, they will be tolled," Russell said.

Agency officials said toll roads were the alternative because existing gasoline tax revenues and federal highway money soon only will take care of maintenance and not new construction in a state where the population is expected to double and traffic is growing exponentially.

"The traffic, the freight, is coming," said Steve Simmons, the department's deputy executive director. "We've got to start moving this thing forward. We've got to be ready for it. Regardless, it's coming."

New Boston resident John Talbot told a panel of department officials he worried about displacement of 1 million people from the TTC.

"That's a lot of carnage," he said.

Simmons disputed the number, saying it was difficult to come up with one but characterized Talbot's figure as "pretty high."

"We don't even know where the road is going to go yet," he said. "I'm not going to say it's not going to affect anybody."

Linden resident Richard Arnold said he lived near existing U.S. Highway 59, which could roughly parallel the proposed Interstate 69.

"What are you going to put out there?" he asked. "Does anybody know?"

Simmons said no alignment has been made for that highway or for the TTC, which could incorporate or parallel the new road.

"We don't know," he said. "We have no idea what the transportation system is going to look like."

Arnold also raised questions about foreign investment because a Spain-based firm was part of a consortium to win a planning contract for the first phase of the TTC, which is to parallel I-35.

That phase was planned by the Cintra Zachry consortium, composed of Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA of Spain, one of the world's largest developers of toll roads, and Zachry Construction Co. of San Antonio.

Amid accusations the state was giving land to a foreign entity, officials insist the property would continue to be owned by Texas like any other state road, with any foreign interests recouping their investments from toll revenues.

Ed Serna, an assistant executive director for support operations in the department, said the bidding process was open to all but there were few American companies willing to bid.

"It was not just a Spanish company with Texas companies cut out," he said.

Simmons said it was "flabbergasting" to state transportation agency officials but it appeared foreign companies in the process were more patient than American firms to wait on returns on their investments.

"That's the difference," he said. "That's what we're seeing."

Besides I-69 and 35, the Trans-Texas Corridor as proposed also could include new superhighways that parallel existing Interstates 37 and 10.

At least one opposition group has taken the transportation department to court with a lawsuit accusing agency officials of improperly using their authority for political purposes.

The sessions move next week to outside Houston, then to South Texas, before winding up Feb. 6 in Robstown, outside Corpus Christi.

© 2007 The Associated Press: www.ap.org

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