Thursday, March 06, 2008

“Our children and young adults are the ones that will pay the price for our mistakes today."

TxDOT accused of breaking federal law


The Navasota Examiner
Copyright 2008

Texas spirit was alive and well at the Navasota DEIS public hearing on Feb. 28. Opposition groups, such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, came from as far as Washington, D.C. to give recorded testimony, and get a first hand look at TxDOT process procedures.

Assistant Director of Communications, Leigh Strope, who attended the meeting on behalf of the 34,000 Texas Teamsters Union members, says, “Teamsters want to stop the dangerous trend of selling our roads and bridges to foreign investors so they can slap tolls on the driving public. We are also concerned because the Trans-Texas Corridor would form a key link in a NAFTA superhighway, siphoning work from U.S. ports and factories. It would mean lower wages, benefits and standards for those workers who still have jobs in the United States.”

During recorded testimony, Representative Lois Kolkhorst said, “I led the fight to pass the moratorium against comprehensive development agreements, which prohibits TxDOT from entering into a financial agreement with a third party to privately build or operate the I-69 TTC. Last year, the Texas Legislature asked TxDOT to stop, step back, and reconsider the proposal and alignment of I-69 TTC. There are still many unanswered questions about how much influence a private third party would have over the planning, building and operation of these planned corridors.”

Kolkhorst said she chose Grimes County as the place she wanted her testimony recorded since the county was not included in the recently completed line up of Town Hall meetings regarding the corridor.

TxDOT Environmental Manager, Doug Booher told The Examiner, “We're looking for funding tools, but if the legislature comes up with other funding tools, we're open to that.”

Navasota resident Floyd Nowak went to the public hearing to support his friends whose land is in the path of the proposed corridor, and help save the local economy. “I don't agree with them taking property, and if they do, they'll put our farmers out of business,” Nowak told The Examiner.

Whatever the reasoning behind their opposition, TxDOT heard them loud and clear, as 60 of the 582 attendees signed up to give recorded testimony; all in favor of the “No build - No action alternative”.

Some speakers were bolder than others, as Rosemary Gambino, a Waller County resident and a director in Citizens for a Better Waller County, wore a gas mask as she gave her timed 3-minute speech. Gambino said she is preparing herself for what she would have to wear when an elevated amount of pollution overtakes the area, if the I-69 corridor is built.

Some made the argument that the corridor plans break NEPA laws. According to a NEPA website, “It is the continuing responsibility of the federal government to use all practicable means, to improve and coordinate federal plans, functions, programs, and resources to the end that the Nation may fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations; assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings; attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences; preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage, and maintain, wherever possible, an environment which supports diversity, and variety of individual choice; achieve a balance between population and resource use which will permit high standards of living and a wide sharing of life's amenities; and enhance the quality of renewable resources and approach the maximum attainable recycling of depletable resources.

The Act is a federal law that requires all proposed federal actions to consider and formally conduct an inventory and assessment of potential impacts on the quality of the human and natural environments.

Opposition speakers gave recorded testimony concerning the adverse effects the construction of the corridor would have on many of these aspects. This includes everything from air and water quality, to social and economic conditions, historic architectural and archeological resources, effects to threatened and endangered species and their habitats, wetlands, impacts on agricultural lands and farmlands, energy use, and irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources.

Even after an introductory TxDOT film explained that additional transportation systems are needed to support the increasing influx of people, speakers insisted that expansion of existing highways provides the best economical and safest ecological solution.

Camp Allen President George Dehan argued that many of the over 6,000 children, who visit the facility each year for outdoor education and ecological studies, have not previously been afforded the opportunity to witness animals in their natural, wildlife habitat, or watch the stars at night.

“This isn't a city versus country issue. No one goes to Houston to study anything!” declared Dehan, who added that after posting a petition in favor of the “No action alternative” online, the camp received 2,319 signatures from people who live in and out of the city, in a matter of days.

Grimes County Judge Betty Shiflett asked TxDOT representatives the nagging question that seemed to be on everyone's minds, “What part of no don't you understand?”

According to Booher, TxDOT is hearing the concerns of citizens, but the DEIS hearings are a part of legislative policy that must be followed through. Now that the public hearings are over, TxDOT is waiting for the March 19th deadline for receiving comments; after which they will study the comments and formulate a final draft of the environmental impact study, if the project moves forward. The final EIS should be completed by this summer. It will be open for public review for 30 days prior to federal approval.

According to Citizens for a Better Waller County Vice President, Trey Duhon, the group plans to start planning for the next legislative session and will begin a number of outreach programs to educate the public on the issues surrounding the TTC. “Our children and young adults are the ones that will pay the price for our mistakes today, so we feel it's important that they also be heard, especially since these decisions will impact future generations,” Duhon told The Examiner.

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