Monday, February 18, 2008

"I haven't found anybody in Trinity County that was for it. Not one soul."

Toll Road Debate Widens Divide in East Texas


KLBJ News Radio (590 AM)
Copyright 2008

Disagreements over one route proposal for the I-69 leg of the Trans-Texas Corridor are causing a widening rift between local leaders in east Texas and elected officials at the State Capitol. A new series of hearings are taking place up and down what is now U.S. 59 from Texarkana to Laredo and Brownsville, as required by federal law before the highway project moves forward.

Last week, a hearing was held in Nacogdoches where farmers and ranchers got to ask questions of the state transportation department.

"I've attended three of the meetings, at least the meetings in my district, in my four-county area and I have yet to hear anyone testify in support of the Trans-Texas Corridor at this point," says State Representative Jim McReynolds (D-Lufkin).

Taxpaying citizens of east Texas apparently are not the only people who see the quarter-mile stretch of separate car and truck lanes, electric lines and pipelines as a detriment to their way of life.

"I don't like nothing about it. First of all, it would hurt us bad. The county and the city, it wouldn't help us at all and the way I understood it, there wouldn't be no on and off ramps. The nearest one would be in Walker County where it would cross 45," says Lyle Stubbs, Mayor of Trinity, Texas. "It would take up too much of our properties, approximately 5,800 acres."

Stubbs says Trinity County has always depended on timber as its main resource and cattle second for the county. "By taking all that land and stuff, it would just kill us. I haven't found anybody in Trinity County that was for it. Not one soul," Stubbs says.

In an apparent minority is Houston County Judge Lonnie Hunt, who insists he is taking a neutral point of view in the fight, but admits his county will be affected very little by the proposed route.

"I just think that any improvement in our transportation infrastructure is going to benefit our local economy. It's going to attract business and industry that need the transportation. There are really two issues here, I think. Is it going to be a positive, overall, to have a better transportation infrastructure, and I think the answer to that is 'yes'. And number two, what about all the folks that don't want to give up their land are going to have to, and that complicates the whole issue," Hunt tells KLBJ News.

McReynolds says the Texas Department of Transportation has changed its mind since first announcing the corridor would follow existing highways.

"After the hearings, our new Executive Director of TxDOT (Amadeo Saenz) reported to the news that what he was hearing repeatedly at all of these hearings was that the will of the people is to follow existing footprints. Now, that's not what's up for consideration right now. We get the option of no action whatsoever right now. But there will be a tier 2. I think when tier 2 comes up, you'll have somewhat of a different response than you're having right now, to TxDOT," McReynolds says.

Hunt believes there would be an economic benefit to the highway once it is built, in spite of reports that some interchanges would be as many as 30 miles apart.

"I've been to a couple of these town hall meetings and a couple of the people who have been there have said 'you know, we've just botched this whole thing up'. At one of the meetings, the specific question came up, 'can we stop this highway', and the answer was 'yes'," Hunt says. "When this all started, TTC-69 began with that was supposed to be I-69, which was basically going to be an improvement and widening of U.S. 59. I grew up on U.S. highway 59 and I remember when I was a kid, that it was a two-lane highway just south of Lufkin in Polk County. Our neighbors right across the road from us, some of them lost their homes and some of them had to have their homes moved back away from the right-of-way. That wasn't a fun thing for those folks but I hate to think now what would have happened if they hadn't made Highway 59 a divided highway back then, in the '60s."


One method of forcibly acquiring the land needed for the Trans-Texas Corridor is through Eminent Domain. The State can legally take private property for a project in the greater good of the public, and most governments generally offer what they see as fair market value for the property.

"Whenever you take a person's land by eminent domain, you're going to have problems, beyond any question of doubt," McReynolds says. "But I think that would be a lot better than just coming to a little county like Trinity County and taking 6,000 acres out. That's where we enjoy our land, we're private property ownership is at stake. This is where we deer hunt, this is where our homes are, this is where pawpaw rides grandson on a four-wheeler. This is home for us. And to build a quarter-mile corridor through the middle of a county where your wildlife cannot even migrate from one side of a rural county to another, then that's a bit much to ask of rural people."

"It would probably cause a lot of people to just completely go out of business," Stubbs says. "With fuel costs the way they are and the inconvenience. Our taxes would go up because they would have to make up for the taxes in some way or another and that would make our taxes increase. We don't have any farm land. It's all ranches around here. Most of our guys around here have cattle and horses."

"Change is never easy," says Hunt, persistent that he is not an advocate of the TTC/69 project, but a neutral observer. "But change is coming whether we like it or not. Now, we have a couple of options. We can try to manage the change to our benefit or we can just sit back and let the change manage us. I think we should plan for the future and I think we definitely need more highway infrastructure. In a perfect world, we could get more highway money back from Washington and TxDOT could have more money and we wouldn't have to worry about building toll roads. That would be my preference."


"We try to use the taxpayers' money as wisely as we possibly could. We gave TxDOT allocation this past session higher than they had ever received, and yet they make those kinds of mistakes [$1.1 (B) billion miscalculation]," McReynolds says. "Secondly, on the 23rd of January, I get e-mails where TxDOT confesses that they've hired lobbyists. Excuse me, but agencies cannot hire lobbyists. It's against the law. So, TxDOT, as far as the legislature is concerned at this moment, is a runaway horseman. We're going to have to rein that in and we're going to be darn certain when we get back to session that they hear us loud and clear."

"In our general area, I think everybody feels the same about this thing. In Walker County, their commissioners' court did a resolution against it on Monday. Our county passed a resolution Monday and supposedly they faxed a copy of it to the Governor and our representatives," Stubbs says.

"There are about 250 agencies in the state and I think part of our responsibility is to see that those agencies function the way they're supposed to function. The very first thing is that our state auditors needs to get into their books. If they can't manage their books, then by golly, we'll give them a little help," McReynolds says.


"I would sure hope so. The main one is the Governor. He sure needs to listen because I understand that he's the author of this bill," Stubbs says. Now, whether I'm right or wrong, I don't know. I understand that it was just dropped in TxDOT's lap and they're just following through with the job they've gotta do. Everybody in our county, I haven't found one person that's for it. We're beginning to grow a little bit in the city and there's no way that would help us at all. We've got people around here who has had land in their family for hundreds of years and they've lose their land. I can't see anything positive about it for us."

Representative McReynolds says his decade of service as vice-chair of the Rural Caucus has seen many days and many conversations with the executives in charge of the Texas Transportation Commission.

"We rural caucus members and organizations like the farm bureau and others have had a lot of serious concerns about [TTC/69]. Most of my part of the world is not opposed to building infrastructure. But truthfully, we have had in mind all these years something like I-69, and then all of the sudden, TxDOT mixes I-69 with the Trans-Texas Corridor.

We who have been in that alliance for I-69 for many years suddenly pull back and say 'gee whiz, why aren't we following existing footprints?'. That will be tier-2 and it will not be done by TxDOT until 2009, using existing footprints. I don't think anybody that has testified at these hearings to this point have objections to using existing footprints. U.S. 59, for example, why couldn't you add some lanes there and add tolls to those lanes, but certainly don't toll anything that exists today. We in the legislature could give authority to travel 80 miles per hour on that, and that could be a perfect for using that toll so I think everybody would be relatively pleased with that."

"It would probably cause a lot of people to just completely go out of business," Stubbs says. "With fuel costs the way they are and the inconvenience. Our taxes would go up because they would have to make up for the taxes in some way or another and that would make our taxes increase. We don't have any farm land. It's all ranches around here. Most of our guys around here have cattle and horses."

"Of course, they kept stressing to all of the people who were there that TxDOT is going to listen to what they have to say. I guess it remains to be seen how much they're going to listen to what the people have to say. Because honestly the people in the path of the road seem to be almost unanimously against it," Hunt adds.

TxDOT's schedule of public hearings on the I-69 leg of TTC continues.

See that schedule here.

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