Thursday, January 17, 2008

"There are a lot of low-income farmers and property owners here in East Texas. They're not going to be able to fight this."

Land loss big concern at corridor meeting

January 17, 2008

Longview News-Journal
Copyright 2008

CARTHAGE — James Mason doesn't want a new highway cutting him off from his property. James Boggs wants to keep American jobs here.

They were just a sample of about 140 residents who asked, commented and listened during a public forum with state transportation leaders Wednesday night in Carthage. It was the second of several forums scheduled along the Interstate 69/Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposed superhighway that likely will parallel U.S. 59 from Texarkana to the Mexican border.

"We haven't done a very good job of (communicating) in the past," said Steve Simmons, deputy executive director of Texas Department of Transportation. "That's why we're here now."

The Trans-Texas Corridor was an idea first proposed by Gov. Rick Perry about six years ago. It would be up to a quarter-mile-wide highway with toll roads, rail lines, pipelines and utility lines, state officials said. Its cost is estimated at nearly $200 billion.

The idea has caught opposition on several sides — from residents fighting a potential eminent domain land grab to taxpayers fearful of a Spanish firm's involvement in planning the corridor.

"If you put Interstate 69 down the middle of U.S. 59, I've got property on both sides of that road, and it's going to be a six-mile drive for me to get back to my property on the other side of the highway," said Mason, 45, of Panola County. "Whenever you put that road down, you're going to do this to people. You're going to divide properties."

Simmons and other TxDOT officials cautioned that a route for Interstate 69 has not been finalized, noting that construction of even one part of the corridor is at least 10 years away in a best-case scenario.

Mason's comments were in the minority here Wednesday. Several residents asked about the state's ongoing transportation funding crisis and broad corridor plans.

Highway construction costs have risen 62 percent in the past years and have doubled costs from one decade ago, Simmons said. The federal highway trust fund could be $4 billion in the hole by 2009, he said. That has led TxDOT to focus on maintaining existing lines while telling residents that future large-scale highway projects such as Interstate 69 are likely to be tolled.

"Just like there's not one silver bullet to solve all of our transportation problems, there's no silver bullet that caused all of our problems," Simmons said. "We have 80,000 miles of roadway. With the weather we've been having and those inflationary costs, we haven't been able to keep up with those needs out there."

Hank Gilbert of Whitehouse was in Texarkana on Tuesday and in Carthage on Wednesday on behalf of Texans United for Reform and Freedom, a citizens' group concerned about toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor. He said a new eminent domain statute allows the state to seize property before the owner can take the issue to court.

"You're going to cut farms in half," Gilbert said. "Also, there are a lot of low-income farmers and property owners here in East Texas. They're not going to be able to fight this."

The attorney general's office handles land acquisition, not TxDOT, said Phil Russell, executive director of innovative projects for the agency. Property can only be acquired for transportation purposes, not commercial development, and the department has never used the "quick grab" statute and probably never will, he said.

"As I understand it, it simply gives us the ability to take possession of that property a bit earlier," Russell said. "You don't limit any of your abilities to go to the special commission or the courthouse to argue the value of your property or anything else."

TxDOT will hold 45 public hearings in February in Texas to discuss Interstate 69 and allow residents to respond. A meeting will be held Feb. 6 at Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center, and hearings will be held Feb. 5 in Carthage, Marshall on Feb. 7 and Jefferson on Feb. 21.

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