" 'Selfish Austin politicians' and 'greedy foreign investors' are pushing the TTC on unwilling taxpayers."
February 15, 2008
By MATTHEW STOFF
The Nachodoches Daily Sentinel
The rows of extra chairs brought into the The Fredonia's biggest meeting room Thursday night were not enough to accommodate more than 750 people who attended an open house and public hearing on the proposed TTC-69 highway.
Texas Department of Transportation officials heard hours of public testimony that continued late into the night overwhelmingly opposed to the construction of new roadways through East Texas. Applause throughout the hours-long meeting never swelled as loudly as it did when the first speaker of the night, state Rep. Wayne Christian, told TxDOT representatives emphatically that "our answer is 'no' on the Trans Texas Corridor."
By 5 p.m., hundreds had already piled into the convention space at the hotel to pore over copies of the inches-thick Tier One Draft Environment Impact Statement, the official document that defines proposed routes of the superhighway and identifies the preferred corridor alternative route, which swings several miles east of Nacogdoches before splitting off to meet the national Interstate 69 highway near Shreveport, La. Enlargements of maps and charts explaining the intricate planning process sat on easels throughout the room for the crowd to scrutinize.
Dozens of staffers were also on hand to answer questions about the project and de-mystify some of the confusing concepts, like the difference between the TTC and a federal interstate, or the selection of businesses to be placed along the route. Many asked the representatives hard questions about project oversight and how their private land would be affected by the highway.
"They answer to the best of their knowledge," said Annie Hoya, of Nacogdoches, who supports enlarging the footprint of U.S. Hwy 59 as an alternative to building the TTC. "That doesn't mean they're answering to our satisfaction," she said.
Jack Heiss, a project manager for the TTC-69 was one of the many experts on hand to address some of the public's concerns.
Expanding Hwy. 59, for instance, is a priority for TxDOT, he said, though he explained that it would be much harder to do than building an entirely new road.
"Enlarging an existing footprint is not a painless exercise by any means," he said.
Though many shared their formal testimony with state officials through written forms, court reporters and brief speeches at the hearing, most attendees were not shy about expressing their thoughts on the corridor beforehand. Many sported anti-TTC buttons and stickers on their clothes; others lined up to collect literature from anti-corridor groups who had set up small rallies at their tables along one side of the room.
Objections to the TTC project were plentiful Thursday night. Perhaps the most adamant were those whose private land would be bisected or erased completely by thick corridors TxDOT officials say need to be developed to modernize the state's transportation system. Landowners say no amount of money offered through the acquisition process is enough compensation for their homes, which they note, are not for sale.
The cost of the project was another major concern. Heiss said each mile of corridor, if developed with all the planned facilities, would cost $33 million. At that price, the entire 650 mile project would cost over $21 billion, an amount many said the state cannot afford.
Others at the meeting questioned the necessity of a quarter-mile wide path for utilities, six rail lines and 10 automobile lanes in rural East Texas. Concerns about tolling, terrorism and foreign investment in the development of the project accompanied other less intelligible arguments as well. One man decried the "selfish Austin politicians" and "greedy foreign investors" he said were pushing the highway on unwilling taxpayers.
There was at least one attendee, however, who testified in support of the project. Tommy Ellison, CEO of Commercial Bank of Texas, said he was sympathetic to landowners, but said the area would benefit from improved transportation provided by the corridor.
"I'm supportive of a project that would bring better transportation out of Houston up through rural East Texas," he said. Ellison said improved rail infrastructure in particular would benefit the area.
TxDOT officials promised that all "substantive" comments submitted at the meetings, by mail and online will be considered and addressed in future impact statements. Substantive comments, an informational video said, are those that provide new and useful information about the project.
And the public has provided new and useful information. Heiss said his agency had not previously considered concerns about the risk of terrorist attacks on the corridor.
"With the number of comments we got, we're definitely looking into that," he said. "We'll have to make a risk assessment about how realistic a concern it is."
Beyond the specific and controversial issues of the day, Thursday's meeting illustrated a powerful communal connection spanning a wide swath of East Texas. Brought together to share information, and unified by fear and anger, many who arrived at the meeting ready to fight the project seemed familiar with each other and the complicated ideas involved. Some had already shared their ideas at community meetings about TTC-69 held earlier this month in Martinsville and Libby.
For more information about the TTC project and related local news, visit dailysentinel.com/ttc.
The official Web site of the TTC is www.keeptexasmoving.com.
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