Friday, January 25, 2008

“No good argument has been made for the TTC that would allow farmers to be willing to give up their land."

No public support for corridor

January 25, 2008

By Stephen Palkot
Fort Bend Herald
Copyright 2008

Leaders with the Texas Department of Transportation sought to allay fears about the Trans-Texas Corridor Thursday night in Rosenberg with a “town hall” meeting. The meeting proceeded fairly smoothly, but hardly seemed to put a dent in the large crowd's seemingly uniform opposition to the proposal of a massive transportation corridor.

Hank Gilbert, a regular speaker at TTC events and leader of an anti-TTC non-profit group, drew cheers for suggesting TxDOT officials have failed to make the case for a large, privately owned transportation cluster.

“No good argument has been made for the TTC that would allow farmers to be willing to give up their land,” he said.

About 500 people filled the main hall of the Rosenberg Civic and Convention Center, many wearing anti-TTC stickers and buttons distributed that night. Not one member of the public expressed any support for the corridor, which has been heavily pushed by Gov. Rick Perry.

An artist's rendering of the corridor, displayed widely by TxDOT in 2005, showed dedicated car and truck lanes running side-by-side with rail tracks and utility lines, in what transportation planners said could be a 1,200-foot wide corridor. Steve Simmons, deputy executive director of TxDOT, said Thursday night that image was misleading, and said displaying it was a mistake.

Simmons said rather than the TTC being a “megahighway,” it is really a “delivery method” for resources to fund the various modes of transportation that could be implemented along the corridor's route.

The TTC proposal centers around the idea that private companies would fund and build transportation corridors at their own cost, rather than through taxpayer money. Those companies, in turn, would recoup their investment through tolls and other charges related to the corridor.

Ned Holmes, a member of TxDOT's commission, said he would prefer to see the road owned by the state through traditional funding means, but argued the state does not have the money.

Simmons said federal funding for highways is being cut drastically, TxDOT cannot take out bonds for large-scale transportation upgrades and has no ability to fund rail expansion, so the TTC is a “tool” for getting the infrastructure built.

“We can only work with the tools the Legislature gives us, and they gave us the tools to look at these public/private partnerships,” said Simmons.

Motives questioned

Speakers, some of whom were traveling the state to attend the town hall meetings, several times questioned TxDOT on the motivation behind TTC, arguing it stems purely from international trade agreements like NAFTA.

Simmons said Texas now has 24 million residents, and currently experiences the most growth of any state in the U.S.

“We're going to have to start looking at how we're going to address it,” he said.

As for freight, Simmons said 80 percent of Mexico's exported goods enter the U.S. through Texas, and an upcoming expansion of the Panama Canal along with the growth of several Texas ports creates a need for greater transportation infrastructure.

“The first port of call after the Panama Canal is Texas, and the studies are showing that the population is growing at a rate of 1,000 new people every day,” he said.

These town hall meetings are being held in response to wide-spread criticism of the TTC, conceded TxDOT officials. A round of formal public hearings is set to take place next month, with one in Rosenberg on Feb. 25, but transportation officials by law will not be allowed to answer questions or respond to comments at those meetings.

Fort Bend County is most likely to be affected by what is being called the TTC/69 route, which is a merger of the proposed I-69 route with the TTC concept. Study maps indicate that could run about 650 miles from the Mexican border to Louisiana and Arkansas, mostly replacing U.S. 59. TxDOT plans to include a path from the main route of the corridor to Houston area ports, and that could run through the southern half of Fort Bend County, according to TxDOT maps.

The public hearing on Feb. 25 will consist of an open house session from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., followed by a chance to speak about the TTC/69 proposal from 6:30 p.m. That meeting will also take place at the Rosenberg Civic and Convention Center.

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