"I’ve been trying to build a country in Iraq...only to find I’ve got a governor whose trying to take land away from my best friend and home county."
By GREG PEAK
TRINITY -- An angry crowd of 800 to 900 people gathered last week to “draw a line in the sand” in opposition to the state’s proposed Interstate 69/Trans-Texas Corridor (I-69/TTC) project.
During a public hearing hosted by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), a standing-room-only crowd packed into the Trinity High School gym and spent hours voicing opposition to a plan to bring the TTC through Trinity County.
Prior to the meeting, area farmers, ranchers and other opponents gathered at the Trinity Community Center and staged a “tractor protest” to help attract public attention to the issue.
A long line of tractors, front end loaders, other farm equipment, fire engines, a horse-drawn wagon and more than a dozen horseback riders paraded through Trinity to the THS campus.
Anti-TTC signs as well as Texas and U.S. flags adorned the equipment.
Upon their arrival at the campus, the farm equipment was prominently displayed as hundreds of area residents marched in to ask questions and make comments.
Those voicing comments during the hearing asked TxDOT to adopt the “no build” option and were highly critical of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the chief proponent of the TTC plan.
A total of 54 people signed up prior to the Feb. 7 hearing to speak -- including students from Trinity High School and Trinity Middle School. Each speaker was given three minutes to list their objections.
Although TxDOT officials were on hand to answer questions during an informal “open house” prior to the hearing, once public comments began, speakers were not allowed to question the highway officials.
Instead, their comments were recorded by a court reporter and will be included in the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The complaints and concerns expressed during the hearing will be answered in writing in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).
The loss of up to 5,800 acres of privately owned land and the resulting loss of tax income was a leading complaint.
Other major objections voiced during the hearing included the potential damage to prehistoric oyster beds located along White Rock Creek northwest of Trinity, the disruption of wildlife habitat and movement, the increase in air pollution from the additional car and truck traffic and the potential for noise pollution.
A number of speakers also were concerned that the TTC would “cut the county in half,” severing county roads and leaving large tracts of property “land-locked” and inaccessible to ranchers and timber harvesters.
TxDOT District Engineer Dennis Cooley noted that public comments can be submitted on the project through March 19. They may be submitted through the TTC website www.keeptexasmoving.com/comments_questions/comments_i69.aspx. They also can be mailed to I69/TTC, P.O. Box 14428, Austin, Tx 78761.
Comment sheets, guide forms and postcards to be mailed to state and federal officials also are available locally at Sparky’s Liquor, Trinity Cafe, Radio Shack and Rich Scott’s State Farm Insurance in Trinity and at the Trinity County Museum in Groveton. Those picking up the comment forms may mail them to TxDOT or leave them in a collection box at the locations. Those left in the boxes will be mailed in bulk to TxDOT.
According to Jack Heiss, a member of the Austin-based TxDOT planning team, the state will need about one more year to complete the environmental impact statement. When completed, the FEIS will be reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
“That review will probably take at least an additional six months, but it could be longer,” he said.
If approved by FHWA, the project will move into the “Tier 2” study phase which will include the identification of the actual right-of-way needed for the project.
The Tier 1 study now underway only seeks to identify an overall route for the I-69/TTC highway which spans from Texarkana in the northeast to Laredo on the Mexican border.
The route through Trinity County would run east to west south of U.S 287, It is included in a segment of TxDOT’s Preferred Recommended Corridor that would bypass Houston to the west.
As now planned, the project would be funded mostly by private developers who would recover their investment through tolls collected from vehicles that use the highway.
Heiss noted a Spanish corporation, Cintra, was the winner of the contract for the I-35/TTC project through Central Texas, but bids for the I-69/TTC have not yet been award.
“Cintra is one of the bidders for this project but that are also a number of U.S. companies who are in the running,” he said.
TxDOT officials noted that local governments would not be asked to fund any of the right-of-way or construction costs.
Although it will be built in phases, the TTC plan calls for up to 10 highway lanes, including six dedicated to passenger vehicles and four for trucks; six rail lines; and a corridor to carry utility lines.
The overall plans also calls for the developer to lease space for motels, restaurants and gasoline stations within the corridor itself.
The right-of-way needed for the corridor would be 1,200 feet wide -- three or four times the width of a standard interstate highway.
Heiss said last week he doubted the state would need the entire 1,200-foot right-of-way through Trinity County.
“We would need that much land if the entire project (with all the highway and rail lanes) is built. However, this far from the Houston area, I doubt that we will need that many lanes,” he said.
Heiss speculated that the state might only need between 500 and 600 feet of right-of-way in this area of the TTC.
“Those are the kind of decisions that will be made in the Tier 2 study,” he explained.
Heiss added that contrary to a number of rumors that have been circulating, on and off ramps will be located within Trinity County.
“We are required to have ramps whenever it crosses a state or federally numbered highway,” he said, adding that overpasses and ramps would be built at the State Highway 19 and State Highway 94 crossings northeast and northwest of Trinity.
An overpass and ramps also will be placed for US Highway 287 but that would probably be located in Polk County just east of the Trinity County line.
Heiss added that while there is no guarantee that an overpass would be built for Farm to Market Highway 355, he said that it was “highly probable” that not only will an FM 355 overpass be built, but that on and off ramps would be located at the crossing.
He indicated the distance between the SH 94 and US 287 ramps was great enough to warrant ramps at FM 355.
The TxDOT official noted access to the TTC by law enforcement, fire and ambulance vehicles will be required and ramps at FM 355 probably would be needed for that purpose alone.
In addition, because the TTC would cut through the Groveton Independent School District, an FM 355 overpass probably would be required to provide school bus access to the Chita, Sebastopol and Carlisle area in southeastern Trinity County.
“Again, these are the types of issues that will be closely examined in the Tier 2 study,” Heiss said.
Prior to the start of the public comments, Trinity County’s state representative, Jim McReynolds (D-Lufkin) spoke and also voiced concern with the proposed TTC project.
McReynolds noted that the TTC project, which envisions a number of routes across the state, was never approved by the Texas Legislature.
The “authorization” to move forward with the project is based on a 2001 constitutional amendment approved by voters that created the Texas Mobility Fund and allocated money to pay interest and principal on bonds.
McReynolds said in 2002, Perry “dreamed up” the TTC plan which would build 4,000 miles of toll roads through Texas at a cost of about $228 billion.
He said in the 80th Legislature last year legislation was introduced to put a two year moratorium on the project, but a threat of a Perry veto prompted changes in the act. Instead the bill called for no construction by private contractors and called for Perry as well as the lieutenant governor and speaker of the house to appoint a select committee to study and review the plan.
“No such committee has been appointed,” McReynolds said.
The state representative added that both houses also voted to approve a comprehensive eminent domain bill that would have limited the state’s ability to seize private property.
“The governor vetoed the bill,” he added.
McReyolds praised the large turnout for the hearing and said he would be listening to local concerns and indicated that when the legislature meets again in 2009, the issue of the TTC would again be addressed.
The first speaker to appear during the hearing was Trinity Mayor Lyle Stubbs who read a resolution approved Feb. 5 by the city council.
The measure formally voiced the city’s opposition to the TTC noting that the highway would have “a negative impact” on rural Texas as a whole as well as on the farming and ranching industries.
“Other sources of transportation and technologies should be used in existing right-of-ways,” Stubbs said. “We don’t understand the necessity of such a project.”
Trinity County Judge Mark Evans also voiced his opposition to the highway, noting that the loss of taxable land would place too heavy a burden on a poor county.
“Trinity County is a very small county. We already have 67,000 acres in the U.S. National Forest, land that cannot be developed or taxed.
“To remove an additional 5,800 acres would be an unnecessary burden on this county,” Evans said. “It would be a harsh punishment for a county that can’t afford to lose any additional land.”
Evans said the TTC’s “Preferred Recommended Corridor” through Trinity County was “bad policy.”
“The people of Trinity County do not recommend nor do they prefer it,” he added.
“As you can see from this crowd, and I’m sure you can feel it as well, there is a great deal of opposition to this project. In fact, I only know of one person who has publicly supported it and he’s not here tonight,” Evans added, to the laughter of the audience.
Additional opposition was voiced by District Attorney Joe Ned Dean, who said he was concerned the project could do nothing but hurt Trinity County.
Dean noted that wild turkeys also have been reintroduced into Trinity County and feared that the TTC route through the county would destroy that project.
Another official to speak against the TTC was Trinity City Manager Phil Patchett and voiced concern about the possible damage to wildlife habitat, especially that used by migratory birds.
He also expressed concern about the massive use of eminent domain proceedings to force landowners to give up their property for use by the TTC,
“I have a son who just got back from Iraq,” Patchett said. “When we were discussing the TTC plan, he told me, ‘Dad, I’ve been over their trying to build a country in Iraq and come back only to find I’ve got a governor whose trying to take land away from my best friend and from my home county,” Patchett said.
Also speaking was Hank Gilbert of Troup, one of the founders of the Texas TURF (Texas Uniting for Reform and Freedom) Party.
Gilbert said TURF was a bipartisan effort to fight toll roads and the TTC statewide.
“The TxDOT personnel here tonight are not the bad guys,” Gilbert said. “The problem is with the people above them such as the hand-picked (highway) commissioner appointed by Governor 39%.”
Gilbert was referring to the fact that Perry was re-elected to office in November 2006 with only 39 percent of the vote.
Speaking to McReynolds, Gilbert also said one way to end the threat of toll roads across the state would be for the legislature to stop siphoning off income from the state’s gasoline tax.
The gas tax was initially intended to fund highway improvements and maintenance but Gilbert said that the legislature is now taking 35 percent of the money to fund education and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Gilbert noted that TURF officials believe TxDOT has not been following federal environmental rules in its current environmental impact study and said his group would be filing court challenges in hopes of forcing the highway department start over.
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