Saturday, March 29, 2008

Boondoggle backers ponder name change for the Trans-Texas Corridor

Officials: 'Trans-Texas Corridor' a taboo, but need real


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

FORT WORTH -- The Trans-Texas Corridor is now so controversial, merely uttering the words in most political circles is taboo.

"We're calling it a 'regional loop' because you can't say 'Trans-Texas Corridor' in the state of Texas anymore," said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

"The Trans-Texas Corridor is a lightning rod," he told visiting state representatives this week while explaining how the corridor would connect to regional highways by 2030.

Opposition to the proposed construction of a $184 billion network of toll roads during the next 50 years is so strong statewide that lawmakers now question whether it's wise for the Texas Transportation Department to continue planning the huge project in its current form.

But transportation officials say they must press on. While opposing views must be respected, the state can't afford to ignore its growing traffic problems, Texas Transportation Commissioner Ned Holmes of Houston said this week.

"Clearly the Trans-Texas Corridor name has developed some controversy in and of itself," Holmes said. "That does not diminish the need for mobility in the state."

In the past two years, the Metroplex region and the Houston region both have created more jobs than any state in the union, he said.

"Texas is unique in its growth patterns. If we don't plan for Texas' growth patterns, we won't have a chance to meet those needs," he said.

Criticisms with merit

Despite Morris' hesitation to mention the Trans-Texas Corridor by name, North Texas leaders generally back the plan. Most are desperate to fix the region's growing traffic problems, clean up the air and keep the economy going in the nation's fourth-largest metropolitan area.

Elsewhere in Texas, common criticisms are that the corridor plan would take too much property out of the hands of private landowners, impose tolls in rural areas where drivers don't want them and turn over control of Texas roads to private, often foreign-owned companies.

"To say that the term Trans-Texas Corridor is tainted is an understatement," said state Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller. "There are some positive components of the Trans-Texas Corridor, but those have been overshadowed by all the negative."

What makes good sense to her would be separating freight truck traffic from passenger traffic and routing it around major metropolitan areas, rather than congesting local streets, she said.

"The plan for marketing the Trans-Texas Corridor and properly seeking public input regarding the plan were flawed and poorly executed," she said. "Rumors about the plan were left unchecked and facts became obliterated by fiction in the minds of many."

Lawmakers may consider passing new laws during the 2009 legislative session to curb the Transportation Department's ability to advance the Trans-Texas Corridor and other privately run toll projects, according to state Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth. One option: a ban on foreign investment in Texas roads.

What's in a name?

Some people who supported building Interstate 69 from Laredo to Houston and east Texas now oppose the plan to build it as a part of the Trans-Texas toll road, Holmes said.

About 14,000 people have submitted comments on the I-69 proposal, state records show.

Thousands of others submitted comments during public meetings in summer 2006 on the first leg of the Trans-Texas Corridor -- a proposed Interstate 35 reliever route from Dallas-Fort Worth to San Antonio. Even so, that project is still under study and could be under construction by 2012, according to a master plan developed by the Spanish firm Cintra.

State officials have even considered that perhaps the name itself has become too symbolic. Without the fancy name, the argument goes, would there be widespread resistance to adding lanes along gridlocked I-35?

"The Trans-Texas Corridor designation has begun to develop a life of its own that has muddled some of that support," Holmes said. "But I believe the support is still out there. We simply need to find a mechanism to tap into that support."

Transportation Commission Chairwoman Hope Andrade of San Antonio added: "Yes, it's a viable project. We're moving forward on it. We have to just be firm and committed to do what we believe is the right thing in preparing our state for the next 25 to 50 years."

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

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