Monday, January 14, 2008

"These meetings will change nothing."

Meetings begin in Texas toll road plan

January 14, 2008

The Associated Press
Copyright 2008

Texarkana, Texas

The biggest construction project ever attempted in Texas comes under public debate beginning Tuesday in the first of a series of town hall meetings about a proposed 4,000-mile network of superhighway toll roads.

The Trans-Texas Corridor, or TTC, as it has become known, was initiated six years ago by Gov. Rick Perry. It has rankled opponents who characterize it as the largest government grab of private property in the state's history and an unneeded and improper expansion of toll roads.

"This state has to look outside the box and the traditional ways we've been doing things the last 50 years," Perry spokesman Robert Black said. "What the governor has put forward is the only idea that has been put forward that will answer the challenge," he said. "If someone's got a better idea, come forward."

Texas Department of Transportation officials and Perry have defended the project as necessary to address future traffic concerns in one of the nation's fastest-growing states. They also say the project is vital because of insufficient road revenues from the state gas tax and the federal government.

The TTC would crisscross the state -- for the most part roughly paralleling existing interstate highways -- with up to quarter-mile-wide ribbons of separate highways for cars and trucks, rail lines, pipelines and utility lines. The cost of the project has been estimated at approaching $200 billion, and it could take as long as 50 years to complete.

In what the agency says is an unprecedented step, department officials were heading to Texarkana on Tuesday in northeast Texas for the first of 11 meetings over the next four weeks to answer questions about the project.

"Knowing people can't always come to Austin, we're taking this show on the road and letting them visit with us on their turf and on their terms," department spokesman Gaby Garcia said. "We do expect to have a good turnout at all of these hearings. We're all interested in seeing how this will turn out."

Backers of the TTC already have been accused of backroom political dealing, mounting a propaganda campaign and caving to foreign ownership.

"We really are getting ripped off," says Terri Hall, of San Antonio, who heads TURF -- Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. The group is suing the transportation agency, alleging its promotional campaign violates a ban on state officials using their authority for political purposes.

"Once people really understand all that's going on, and what's at stake, it really does have massive, massive implications," she said.

The first phase of the TTC, envisioned as part of a superhighway stretching from Oklahoma to Mexico, was planned by the Cintra Zachry consortium. It's 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.

Its legal representative is the firm of Bracewell & Giuliani, the home firm of GOP presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who counts Perry among his supporters.

The Spain-based company would get to operate the roads and collect tolls. State officials insist the land and road would continue to be owned by the state like any Texas road. They also say they have an obligation to make the best deal possible for financing regardless of the address of the contractor.

Hall argues elected officials in the counties affected by the project have "sold out to the road lobby" and succumbed to courting.

And Sal Costello, whose Austin-based Texas Toll Party has been opposing the TTC, speculated transportation officials should expect a cool reception at the meetings, which he said he won't attend.

"These meetings will change nothing," he said.

Some 580,000 acres will be needed for the project, primarily in rural areas that will take "some of the best farmland in the state," says Texas Farm Bureau spokesman Gene Hall. "You would be hard-pressed to find a group in this state more opposed to the TTC," Hall said of the organization's more than 371,000 farmers, ranchers and rural families.

"It's going to divide farms and ranches that have been in families for generations, and compensation is very dicey. We're very much opposed to it. We'll be keeping an eye on the whole thing and the entire corridor process at every step of the way."

"The fact of the matter is, every highway in the state of Texas was once private property somewhere," Black said. He noted there was opposition in the 1950s to the vast Texas farm and ranch road system and the interstates of the 1960s.

"A thousand new people are coming to the state every day," he said. "Our population will double in roughly the next 40 years. Our current transportation infrastructure cannot meet that challenge."

The Texarkana session is the first of a scheduled series of 11 town hall sessions over the next four weeks concerning the Trans-Texas Corridor. Other meetings this week were planned in East Texas for Carthage and Lufkin, both areas in the path of the long-anticipated Interstate 69, one of the proposed legs of the TTC. It would run from the Mexico border in far South Texas, skirt the Houston area and into East Texas toward northwestern Louisiana.

Besides I-69, the Trans-Texas Corridor as proposed also would include new superhighways that parallel existing Interstates 35 and 37, major north-south routes through the center of the state, and I-10, the 800-mile main east-west artery from Orange to El Paso.

An environmental study for the I-69 project undergoes a separate scrutiny at public hearings starting next month. The series starting this week is designed to focus more on the overall TTC project.

© 2008 The Associated Pres:

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