Thursday, January 17, 2008

"A tough sales job."

Tough road ahead for Trans-Texas

Jan. 17, 2008

The Associated Press
Copyright 2008

CARTHAGE, Texas — State transportation officials may have a tough sales job ahead as they try to pave the way for new highways — mostly toll roads — to deal with the booming Texas population.

Department of Transportation executives were in Carthage Wednesday night in far East Texas for the second stop in a month long series of public town hall meetings to discuss the Trans Texas Corridor, a proposed network of superhighway toll roads, and other transportation issues.

About 100 people attended the session at the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame where a panel of officials — like they did at the initial session the previous night in Texarkana — fielded questions about toll roads versus free roads, timetables for construction, property acquisition and the absence of traditional money sources to pay for new roads.

"I'm kind of scared where we are now," Center Mayor John Windham said, referring to the availability of money to build new roads. "If we get highways built in Texas, I don't see any way except if it's going to be a toll road."

Much of the discussion was about Interstate 69, a long-sought north-south superhighway through East Texas and into South Texas that would follow the route of U.S. 59. The scheduled series of meetings is in areas where the road likely is to go.

"Let me say, the best chance of building I-69 is as a toll road," said Phil Russell, an assistant executive director of the transportation agency.

He assured people, however, that existing roads, like U.S. 59, would not be tolled. Transportation department officials also said maintenance on existing roads wouldn't suffer if new roads were added.

"We're going to do the very best job we can do to keep those in tip-top shape," Russell said.

The unprecedented meetings are intended to answer questions and improve communication between the agency and people who use the roads as plans move forward for the proposed Interstate 69 project, which also could be a leg of the gigantic TTC.

"There's some folks out there that have their minds made up about things and we just want to provide the information we have," said Steve Simmons, deputy executive director of the transportation department.

While some have embraced the project as long overdue, others contend it is unneeded and improper.

"I'm one of the few here that don't believe we need this highway," said James Mason, of Carthage. He owns property on either side of U.S. 59 and worried he'd have a six-mile trip to get from one side of the road to his property on the other side if the new road is a limited access highway.

"That's not going to work," he said.

Agency officials said they would work with landowners and build grade separations or other methods to alleviate such problems. The same concerns were voiced during construction of interstate highways in the 1960s, Simmons said.

"I like the format and I'm glad they're doing this," said Hank Gilbert, of Tyler. "But they still have some facts wrong and they're still not telling the whole story. They're not being 100 percent truthful. It's kind of fishy. There's a hidden agenda they're not talking about."

Agency officials deny any secret plans.

Gov. Rick Perry first proposed the TTC six years ago. If completed as much as 50 years from now, it 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, and at 4,000 miles or so it would be the biggest construction project ever in Texas.

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

The initial meeting Tuesday night at a Texarkana high school extended well beyond three hours as several dozen people talked about land acquisition, toll roads versus free roads, construction timetables and environmental impact.

Other questions focused on the involvement of foreign interests and notions that the project was a conspiracy to move forward a North American Union that would unite Canada, the United States and Mexico into a single government.

"I read it on the Internet," one man insisted to the transportation panel, whose members remained polite and thanked him for his thoughts.

Phil Russell, an assistant executive director of the agency, said while some segments of existing U.S. Highway 59 could be incorporated into the new highway, those lanes would remain free.

"We don't ever expect to toll existing lanes," Simmons said.

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

Linda Ballard, of Atlanta, said some of her relatives had to sell property for construction of Interstate 30 but lauded transportation officials for paying fair market value.

"You'll probably get my house," she said.

She worried, however, that her relatives' experience was years ago.

"How can you guarantee me fair market value?" she asked.

"I think we can," Simmons said. "We have to follow the law."

Some feared if appeals that are part of the acquisition procedure failed, the state would just take the land it wanted.

"I wouldn't get too focused on [that]," Russell said. "We've never used it and I don't think we ever will."

No exact route for the new highways has been determined yet, and it could take up to five years before it's even a "line on a map," according to Russell. He also said it could be 10 years before drivers get to ride on just a piece of the road.

Officials said toll roads are needed because gasoline tax revenues and federal highway money, long the staples of highway construction, will be able only to pay for maintenance costs but not new construction.

Much discussion focused on a Spain-based firm that was part of a consortium to win a planning contract for the first phase of the Trans-Texas Corridor, which is to parallel I-35. But transportation department officials insisted the land and roads would continue to be owned by the state and denied the bid process was designed to exclude American firms, few of which even chose to bid on the project.

European firms appeared to be more willing than American companies to wait years before receiving financial returns on their investment, Simmons said.

The town hall meetings are intended to compliment public hearings scheduled to begin next month on environmental impact studies related to the I-69 project. Those sessions, by rule, are more formal and don't allow for the give-and-take between people and the agency officials.

The Carthage session ended after about 90 minutes, considerably shorter than the nearly four hours officials were peppered with questions from several dozen people Tuesday night at a Texarkana high school.

© 2008 The Associated Press:

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