Monday, January 28, 2008

A Tough Crowd

Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor plan is a hard sell

Officials pitch his proposed road network in packed, skeptical area meetings

Jan. 27, 2008

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2008

Gov. Rick Perry's ambitious Trans-Texas Corridor plan, and his advocacy of toll funding for future roads, hit the skids in a skeptical Legislature last spring. The road shows no signs of getting any smoother as state transportation officials try to sell the plan to Houston-area audiences.

"This will wipe me out," Dee Bond told a panel of corridor advocates at a town hall meeting in Rosenberg last week.

The panel, which included Texas Transportation Commissioner Ned Holmes of Houston and Steve Simmons, deputy executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, was there to explain and gather comment on a segment of the planned Interstate 69/TTC through Fort Bend County.

"How is this in my best interest?" Bond asked, to a hearty round of applause.

"We don't know where that roadway is going," Simmons replied, adding, "We don't know for sure if that roadway is going to be built."

Diane Coan of Louise, in Wharton County, suggested the decision to build the corridor should be put to the public.

"Why don't we just take a vote? Do we want this road or do we not want this road?" she said.

As proposed, I-69/TTC would run west of U.S. 59 from Texarkana to Corpus Christi, then split and head to the Mexico border at Brownsville and Laredo. Extensions would enter Houston from the north and west to serve the port and area industry.

As envisioned by Perry, the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor would be a network of these 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.

The most advanced of these projects, TTC-35, is projected to run from Oklahoma to Mexico east of Interstate 35, but no construction contracts have been signed for either TTC-35 or I-69/TTC.

Months of hearings to come

TxDOT has designated a consortium led by the Spanish company CINTRA as first in line for TTC-35 work. Two private developer teams are competing for I-69/TTC.

At the Rosenberg meeting, another speaker asked if existing highways such as U.S. 59 simply could be widened instead of building the massive superhighway.

Simmons said it is difficult and costly to acquire right of way to expand highways that pass through numerous built-up areas.

"We can't widen 59 without taking a good chunk of the town," he said.

Earlier in the week, similar meetings in Hempstead and Huntsville were jammed with residents and local officials who questioned the need for the project and the motives of its supporters.

The town hall meetings will continue through the month and be followed by two months of formal public hearings on its Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

In Hempstead, corridor opponents reported a crowd of 800, filling the available parking space and the building, causing some residents to be turned away.

The Huntsville meeting drew such an audience that a second meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Walker County Fairgrounds.

The Huntsville Item reported that more than 400 people attended the earlier meeting and that, for safety reasons, some 250 in an atrium could not enter.

At the Rosenberg meeting, which drew about 350 attendees, many wore anti-Trans-Texas Corridor stickers on their shirts or hats. The panel fielded questions from people who had filled out cards before the meeting.

A diverse coalition

Perry, TxDOT and the commissioners say that tolls are the only adequate way to fund most future road projects without increasing motor fuel taxes.

Others say that increasing the tax and indexing it to the cost of road building could meet the state's needs indefinitely.

Critics of the idea say that most of the state's highway network is not congested except in cities and that road segments needing relief can be addressed individually.

The first parts to TTC-35 expected to be built are bypasses around Dallas and Austin, both growing urban areas where the interstate is congested.

Besides opponents of tolling, corridor plans have raised hackles with such disparate groups as 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.

Upcoming town hall meeting s on I-69/TTC plans

Registration 5:30 p.m. Begin 6:30 p.m.

• Bellville: Today, Austin County Fairgrounds Building, Texas 159 East at South Amthor

• Victoria: Tuesday, Community Center Annex, 2905 North.

• Huntsville: Wednesday, Walker County Fairgrounds, 3925 Texas 30 West

Upcoming public hearings on the I-69/TTC draft environmental impact statement

Open house 5 p.m. Begin 6:30 p.m.

• Huntsville: Feb. 4, Walker County Fairgrounds, 3925 Texas 30 West

• Cleveland: Feb. 5, Civic Center, 210 Peach

• Livingston: Feb. 6, Livingston High School, 1 Lions.

• Houston: Feb. 12, Arabia Shrine Center, 2900 N. Braeswood

• Lake Jackson: Feb. 13, Civic Center, 333 Texas 332 East

• Texas City: Feb. 14, Doyle Convention Center, 2010 Fifth Ave.

• Magnolia: Feb. 19, Magnolia High School, 14250 FM 1488

• El Campo: Feb. 21, Civic Center, 2350 N. Mechanic

• Rosenberg: Feb. 25, Rosenberg Civic and Convention Center, 3825 Texas 36 South

• Katy: Feb. 26, Katy High School Performing Arts Center, 6331 Highway Blvd.

• Sealy: Feb. 26, Sealy High School, 2372 Championship

• Waller: Feb. 27, Waller High School, 20950 Fields Store

• Hempstead: Feb. 27, Knights of Columbus, 22892 Mack Washington

• Victoria: Feb. 27, Victoria College Fine Arts Auditorium, 2200 E. Red River

• Navasota: Feb. 28, Grimes County Expo Center, 5220 FM 3455

• Humble: Feb. 28, Civic Center, 8233 Will Clayton Parkway

• Bryan: March 3: Civic Auditorium, 800 S. Coulter

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