Monday, February 11, 2008

"A one-size-fits-none plan.”

Residents unsure about corridor of change


The Cleveland Advocate
Copyright 2008

In preparation for the submission of the Trans-Texas Corridor’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the Texas Department of Transportation held a public hearing at the Cleveland Civic Center. The Cleveland hearing came on the heels of an extremely contentious one in Huntsville.

The Huntsville hearing began with local farmers driving their tractors to the Walker County Fairgrounds to protest what they saw as a government land grab and ended with dozens of residents demanding accountability from TxDOT. The anger citizens felt was not unique to Huntsville; it appears to be evident everywhere TxDOT goes for its scheduled hearings in almost 50 Texas cities.

When they came with what critics have called “TxDOT’s traveling roadshow” to Trinity, they were met with a protest march. Sources who attended the hearing estimated the crowd to be in excess of 1,000 people. The total population of Trinity is only about 2,700.

After seeing hundreds of angry farmers drive their tractors and a thousand or so people march in protest to what are normally sedate events, TxDOT wasn’t sure what to expect in Cleveland. They set out hundreds of chairs and brought half a dozen state troopers, as well as two dozen TxDOT employees, to the civic center.

Unfortunately, only 200 people showed up. The low attendance numbers mean there won’t be another hearing on the subject in the Cleveland area, a fact that upsets some TTC opponents.

“Unless the meetings are filled to capacity, TxDOT won’t come back and this is the only time for public input. That’s why it’s so important to get people out,” said Linda Stall, an escrow officer in LaGrange and the community organizer behind, a website dedicated to “challenging the wisdom of the Trans-Texas Corridor.”

Stall, like many of the people in attendance at the Cleveland hearing, feels she was shut out of the decision-making process. When one local resident wrapped up his three minutes of highly critical comments by saying that residents should be able to vote on the plan, dozens of heads nodded and scattered applause broke out.

TxDOT’s decision-making process is not the only thing that worries many people. There have been repeated criticisms levied against TxDOT for going through with a plan that many people feel will put the safety of Texas’ infrastructure in jeopardy.

The fears are based on the fact that the current plans for the proposed corridor include high speed commuter rail, freight rail and utilities running in the same right-of-way as passenger and truck traffic. The consolidation of so many methods of transporting people and vital services in one place is a radical concept for Texas and has people concerned about potential damage.

“My kid asked what TxDOT will do to make this safe from terrorists,” said Hank Gilbert, one of the founders of Texas United for Reform and Freedom (TURF). To further illustrate his point, he said “With all that infrastructure in one place, a blind drunk pilot couldn’t miss it.”

Marc Shepherd, a spokesman for the TxDOT office in Beaumont, has been hearing questions like that for months.

“The concerns are exactly the same as the ones you’d have for any underground utility next to a road,” he said.

Chris Lippincott, a spokesman for TxDOT’s headquarters in Austin, elaborated by saying that “any infrastructure is susceptible to damage and we’ll do everything we can to make sure that this facility is safe and protected.”

However Jack Heiss, the TTC project engineer, was a little more specific in his response about the rail and utilities.

“We haven’t done any formal estimates,” he said. “We don’t know what the corridor will contain.”

Another major concern is about the size of the right-of-way. TxDOT has proposed that they might need a right-of-way that is up to 1,200 feet wide in some areas. That is the same distance as three football fields, placed end to end.

This, more than anything, has frightened residents of the affected communities and led activists like Stall to demand for a reevaluation of the plan.

“We think a 1,200 wide footprint is too big,” Stall said.

Gilbert went a little further by saying that “people in East Texas don’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of, but they have land. Land that has been passed down through the generations and for TxDOT to take that land for a toll road isn’t right.”

When the question of the size of the right-of-way was raised at the Cleveland hearing, one TxDOT staffer was patiently trying to explain to a Tarkington man that the size of the right-of-way will change depending on the area chosen for construction. The man seemed unimpressed with her answer.

He furrowed his brow as he stared at the map showing the Recommended Preferred Corridor for Section N and seemed to tune her out when she tried to explain to him how much more work will be needed before the project can finally be submitted to the federal government for review. He pushed his sweat-stained red ball cap back from his forehead and said, “When’s it gonna be built?”

That’s a question TxDOT isn’t exactly ready to answer for a few reasons. The biggest reason being they just don’t know.

“This is just proposed,” said Shepherd.

The corridor has not been selected, said Heiss.

“We don’t know where the road is going to go,” said Lippincott.

The second reason TxDOT doesn’t want to say anything about construction is because they don’t want to blow the deal. Lippincott explained that “there is still a problem generating interest from the private sector for South Texas.”

When asked who the private sector is, Heiss smiled like a boy with a secret. “There are two companies interested,” he said. “One is Cintra. The other is an American firm.”

By the way, Cintra is the Spanish firm who received the TTC-35 contract a few years ago, a concept many residents of Texas found appalling. The lack of interest from the private sector for a specific area of road construction is something that concerns many people.

This is because the construction of TTC-69 is going to be market-based, or as Heiss put it “what gets built will be driven by demand. If there isn’t sufficient traffic to support those facilities, the private investors won’t build there.”

Taken to the extreme, this could mean that counties with more money will get the ad valorem tax revenue from the development and property owners will get the royalties from the utility lines that will run through their property while the poorer counties will get nothing.

None of the critics seemed all that concerned about the potential for serious inequalities in service and revenue distribution. Stall brought up that local transportation planners weren’t consulted half-a-dozen times.

Gilbert was more concerned about water rights, saying “I’ve got this sinking feeling we’re going to be sucking water out of East Texas and shipping it to Mexico.”

TxDOT said they consulted transportation planners when and where necessary. House Bill 2702 requires TxDOT to provide notice to local authorities when a proposal is made to transport groundwater out of a county. It also expressly prohibits them from extracting ground water from the right-of-way unless necessary for construction, operation, or maintenance of a facility.

Lippincott went even further than the law when he said, “We don’t acquire water or mineral rights.” He also brought up a question that has worried people all over Texas -- access.

“Of course there will be entrances and exits,” he said. “This is a toll road. We won’t be able to pay for it if people don’t drive it.”

He went on to discuss overpasses. “State law can not be clearer. If this road crosses a state highway, we will build an overpass,” he said.

The law he was referring to is House Bill 2702, which requires TxDOT to provide direct connections to and from the TTC and interstate, United States and state highways. It also requires them to consider connections to farm-to-market and ranch-to-market roads as well as major county and city “arterials.”

HB 2702 goes on to state that TxDOT has to take into account the feasibility of the on- and off-ramps, local input, traffic volume circuitry of travel for landowners and emergency vehicles. It also authorizes property owners to build alternative access between tracts of land severed by the TTC as long as the construction is approved by TxDOT.

Stall still feels that it isn’t enough. Since TxDOT didn’t consult local transportation planners, she feels the TTC is a “one-size-fits-none plan.”

The lack of community input is something that is shared by Gilbert. He thinks that the current proposal “doesn’t cover the impact on state’s agriculture.”

Lippincott acknowledges their concern and renders them moot by saying, “We’re not in a position to say when the road is going to be built.”

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