"A 20th-century plan in the 21st century."
Written by Sonny Williams
Quarter Horse News
Each day, I make the dreaded drive down Interstate 35 to go to work in Fort Worth. Each day, I slug through the snarl and sludge of ceaseless traffic, which intensifies my growing desire to commit hari-kari, or at least incites a vehement curse of the highway gods. Certainly, we in Texas need more lanes, more roads, more rails, more something to deal with the ever-expanding urban population and growing international commerce. Yet how do we solve our transportation needs without carving up the countryside like some congratulatory cake? Or should the construction of a superhighway-rail-utility corridor even concern us?
All along I-35, one can enjoy the pastoral views of horse and cattle ranches, longhorns and buffaloes lazily relaxing in pipe-fenced pastures, and, occasionally, llamas, alpacas and even camels wandering amongst the flowering bitterweed, all apparently content. I wondered if the caustic criticisms of the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) were warranted. Was I being enticed by some bucolic dream, lost in some idyllic nostalgia? Perhaps the laying of more cement, albeit a massive amount of cement, would have little ill effects and may actually benefit the public interest of Texas. I also wondered about those folks who own those horses and cattle, ranch owners and farmers, specifically those with land that existed in the path of the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor plan, since the state will enforce eminent domain to acquire property for its construction. What was their take on the plan? Were all the marches on the Texas Capitol, the emotion-choked speeches at town meetings and on the Internet, the hoopla and ballyhoo over the TTC to be taken seriously? Or was it the proverbial sound and fury signifying nothing?
I wished to avoid paranoid politics, and searched for evidence devoid of scare tactics, propaganda and deception by quotes and information taken out of context. Many opponents’ arguments against the plan, such as former state comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn’s, are tainted with xenophobic, isolationist rhetoric. Such arguments disseminate the fear of a land grab by foreign companies, our modern-day conquistadors, thereby turning TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) into EuroDOT, and that a North American Union, complete with a common currency called the “amero,” is in the works.
As entertaining as conspiracy theories may be, they better serve hobbyists and duplicitous politicians than assist one in making reasonable political choices. Foreign investment does not erode American sovereignty. Toll roads are often essential to meet the state’s transportation needs. However, legitimate concerns arise over the TTC project, such as the privatization of public infrastructure, converting freeways built with tax dollars into toll roads, using public funds for private profit and the condemnation of private land. Many also view the plan as a security threat, opening fast, unsupervised pathways for terrorism, illegal immigration and drug trafficking – all vital concerns.
Yucatan to Yukon
Texas Gov. Rick Perry launched the TTC project in 2002. According to TxDOT, the purpose of the project is “to improve the international, interstate and intrastate movement of goods and people; address anticipated south and east Texas transportation needs for the next 20 to 50 years; and sustain and enhance the economic vitality of Texas.” After the plan was developed, a series of state laws were put into place, the most significant of which is House Bill 3588. Speaking on behalf of the Texas Department of Transportation at a TTC meeting in 2003, Phillip Russell, director of the Texas Turnpike Authority Division, said, “It [HB-3588] gives us all the authority and all of the power we need on a state level to move forward on the Trans-Texas Corridor, plus some.” TxDOT officials claim that the bill is “the most revolutionary transportation legislation that’s come out of anywhere in the last 40 or 50 years.”
According to the Trans-Texas Corridor Executive Summary produced by TxDOT, the Trans-Texas Corridor is an all-Texas transportation network of corridors up to 1,200 feet wide. The 4,000-mile corridor will include separate highway lanes for passenger vehicles and trucks, high-speed passenger rail, and commuter and freight rail. The corridor also will have a dedicated utility zone. Four corridors have been identified as priority segments of the Trans-Texas Corridor. These corridors parallel I-35, I-37 and I-69 from Denison to the Rio Grande Valley, I-69 from Texarkana to Houston to Laredo, I-45 from Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston and I-10 from El Paso to Orange.
Ultimately, the highway plan is to be national and international in scope, with a spider web of roads extending from Mexico’s Yucatan to Canada’s Yukon.
The total anticipated right-of-way for 4,000 miles of priority corridor is 584,000 acres. The estimated total cost for the TTC network ranges from $145.2 billion to $183.5 billion, though these numbers continue to fluctuate. TxDOT has indicated that the entire TTC will be a toll road, and the price will be decided on “what the market will bear.” On December 16, 2004, the Texas Transportation Commission selected a consortium led by Spanish-based Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte, S.A., an international engineering and construction firm, and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction Corp. to develop the Oklahoma to Mexico/Gulf Coast element of the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC-35). Cintra-Zachry paid $1.2 billion (the present value of future toll revenue) to TxDOT for the right to build and operate the initial segment as a toll facility and collect tolls for the next 50 years.
In 2004, late Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson unequivocally stated, “It’s either toll roads, slow roads or no roads.” While some applaud Williamson’s candor, others question his draconian ultimatum. However, according to Chris Lippincott, media-relations officer for TxDOT, Williamson’s statement is met with unanimity within the transportation department.
“There’s not money to build it [the TTC] otherwise,” Lippincott said. “The gas tax hasn’t been raised since the early 1990s. In the last five years, we’ve experienced 60 percent inflation in our construction costs. And very soon, we will barely have enough money to pay for maintenance, much less the addition of new lanes to existing roads or the construction of entirely new corridors. The development of toll roads is not anything anyone celebrates, but it will increasingly be a reality for drivers in metropolitan areas and as we develop these new corridors as well.”
Your land is their land
One of the more pressing concerns for horse owners and ranchers is the state’s enforcement of eminent domain, or land acquisition, to build the corridor. Many feel this is in direct violation of property owners’ rights, and that the condemnation of half a million acres of Texas land to generate revenue is a travesty and a blatant misuse of eminent domain. However, Lippincott wants to remind Texans that, other than the Camino Real (the oldest road in Texas), every road in Texas used to be private land. Lippincott said the law regarding the condemnation of land for transportation would continue to be enforced.
“We use eminent domain all the time for transportation projects,” he said. “The condemnation process is the thing that we hate the most about our jobs and our department. But it is a necessary evil. It is a process that is clearly spelled out in law, and we will follow that law. As we go forward with the Trans-Texas Corridor or any other project, you will see us attempt to minimize the disruption that comes with the purchase of right-of-way.
“The acquisition of right-of-way, in addition to being a difficult issue for people from a legal prospective and from a perspective of sentiment, is also an expensive process,” he continued. “The department is dealing with cash flow issues. We’re sensitive to people’s concerns. We always have been. But it [land acquisition] is a factor in any transportation project development. Right-of-way has to be acquired, but we are required by law to pay fair market value for that property. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get around that [land acquisition]. But we are doing everything we can to minimize the negative impacts that transportation development has on our state’s property owners.”
Lippincott stated that though the acquisition of private land is unpleasant, the building of an extensive road-and-rail corridor is essential and will benefit Texans, especially those living in metropolitan areas. Forty-five percent of the state’s population lives within 50 miles of I-35, and the population of Texas is growing by 1,000 citizens a day, he said. These people are going to buy “stuff.” He emphasized that trade from Mexico, China and elsewhere is going to come here regardless of whether the TTC is built or not.
“The Panama Canal is being widened and deepened, and trade from China is going to come through the Panama Canal, and the first ports that they are going to get to in the United States are Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Houston and Beaumont,” he said.
The construction of the TTC will have a profound impact on the state’s cities, as well as on the rural areas, Lippincott continued. He encouraged horse and ranch owners to stay aware and to stay engaged. Public awareness and public participation are essential to meeting the state’s transportation challenges, and TxDOT has provided numerous opportunities for citizens to voice their opinions.
“As far as specific impacts on horse and ranch owners, we are doing everything we can to involve them in the process,” he said. “We have had over 14,000 public comments on Interstate 69 Trans-Texas Corridor; we have held over 500 meetings on the Trans-Texas Corridor; we’ve had meetings in all 254 counties in the state; we’ve held 171 environmental meetings and hearings on I-35; we’ve held 95 on I-69; we have an extensive Web site. We’ve done everything to engage the public.”
Horse and ranch owners in Texas share the state’s commitment to cleaner air, safer roads and a growing economy, he said. According to Lippincott, those goals will be much harder to meet without any improvements to the transportation infrastructure. He noted that Texas air is getting dirtier, roads are getting more crowded, and residents risk losing out on jobs and economic opportunities if an infrastructure is not developed to handle these issues.
“The way to ensure that our state’s horsemen and horsewomen are represented is for them to stay involved and to participate in the public awareness and public hearings process, to speak with their local TxDOT representatives and keep an eye on us online at www.keeptexasmoving.com.”
On the map, the plan in toto looks ominous, like a tentacled leviathan that has crawled from the Gulf of Mexico. From Gainesville to Laredo, large groups of people have voiced their opinions on the corridor plan, and it’s difficult to find anyone who strongly supports it. The public has expressed overwhelming discontent over the plan, as visits to town meetings and marches on YouTube attest, as well as reports on NBC Nightly News and CNN. CNN conducted a poll and asked the question: “Should foreign companies be allowed to control vital transportation infrastructure in this country?” Ninety-nine percent of those responding answered, “No.”
Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has not joined Gov. Perry on his TTC quest, and he spoke on the subject with typical sang-froid. “One of my top priorities is to make sure Texas has the roads we need to keep our state moving.”
Dewhurst won the Senior Amateur cutting at the 2007 National Cutting Horse Association Futurity, and owns the 1,800-acre Snaffle Bit Ranch, headquarters for Falcon Seaboard Ranches, in Fredericksburg, Texas.
“But,” he continued, “I share many of the reservations of my fellow ranchers and farmers about the need for the Trans-Texas Corridor and the impact it could have on agriculture by dividing land and requiring the taking of private property for right-of-way, and that’s why I’m pushing TxDOT to justify their plans and to minimize damage to our citizens.”
Jim Babcock owns Babcock Ranch in Valley View, Texas, which is about five miles off of Interstate 35. With the construction of TTC-35, his ranch would rest in the resulting triangle. Babcock measured his words deliberately and thoughtfully, with a keen eye on real estate prices.
“I would think the only thing it would do is change the property prices,” he said. “I think the property prices would go up. You would think bringing traffic and making traffic easy to get to should make real estate worth more money.”
Even though one major highway runs near his property, Babcock isn’t too concerned about the TTC. He believes he lives far enough away from the recommended route that it won’t bother him.
“I think that we’re far enough away from it. It’s not one of those issues that I don’t want to talk about because it doesn’t affect me, but I don’t know how it’s going to affect me at this point. Highway 35 being five miles away doesn’t affect us, and I can’t imagine being five miles away from this other one is going to affect us very much. I’ve tried to ask a few questions and find out, but it’s been so vague.”
Jo Ellard, owner of EE Ranches, has a Stallion Station in Whitesboro, Texas, and a cutting horse operation in Pilot Point, Texas. Not to be lassoed by propaganda, Ellard expressed some practical opinions, questioning if the corridor will ever actually come to fruition.
“It [the TTC] is not going to affect me directly. If it were to materialize as it’s planned or what you can see on the Internet, it would come south of my place, and I guess that ultimately would benefit. However, I don’t think that it will happen anytime in our lifetime. Maybe my grandchildren’s lifetime it might happen.”
She bases this time frame on her experience observing the slow building of other roadways and tollways, some taking 30 years to create and some of which are still incomplete.
“By the time that they complete this thing [the TTC], transportation as we know it is going to be so obsolete that it will be antiquated itself. It’s a great concept on paper, and sounds like it’s going to connect the borders and make transportation across the country easier, but, in actuality, I’d be shocked to ever see a mile of it completed.”
Even so, Ellard said certain aspects of the plan, such as eminent domain, are unfair, and that since the project isn’t just a four-lane highway, an exorbitant amount of land will be required for its construction. Yet Ellard proffered a conjecture. With a project this extensive in scope, Ellard said she thinks that Gov. Perry may be looking for a monument to himself that will remain in memoriam and in perpetuity. “This sounds like a politician’s idea for a legacy,” she said.
“It doesn’t pay for itself, it over-taxes the citizens, it takes away the citizens’ land,” she said. “I travel down these highways that are just boggled with traffic. The I-35 corridor all the way to Austin and I-45 to Houston are just treacherous. Why can’t they just improve the roadways that we have instead of jumping off on some brand-new project that is not going to reach completion in the foreseeable future?”
Ernest Cannon, 64, a successful lawyer from Houston, has owned a number of outstanding cutting horses, most notably Jae Bar Fletch. In 1991, he and the horse easily won the NCHA Non-Pro World Championship. Cannon expressed the attitude, and frustration, of many horse owners, who are simply too busy wrestling with day-to-day problems to spend valuable time on something that doesn’t directly affect them.
“I’ve got so much on my plate now, I haven’t given that [the TTC] the vaguest thought,” he said. “I’m trying to get my clones registered. I’m trying to get my burn ban lifted so I can burn. I’m trying to get people legalized.”
However, Cannon, as his name implies, fired off a few explosive rounds toward government entities in general.
“I’ll tell you the truth, the way I feel about it is government’s more intrusive now than it’s ever been in my lifetime. I have to spend all my time dealing with the commissioner’s court about where I can put a cattle guard. I’ve gotta deal with the TCEQ [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] about water rights. That [the TTC] doesn’t concern me until it comes through my place. Your issue may or may not be important, but my list of things that the government’s aggravating me with is so long.”
Cannon said the urban areas garner all the votes and that politicians are not remotely interested in what affects those in rural communities who are trying to make a living raising horses and cattle. He reflects the frustration of many people who have contended with government and big business and said he feels fighting city hall is futile, since politicians manipulate the public and have their hands in deep special-interest pockets.
“That corridor is to do business with Mexico, which is not good for us anyway,” he said. “All this is about is about votes. The politicians have decided where the votes are and studied demographics, and the merits of the issue just don’t have any bearing on anything anymore. Rick Perry threw in with those homebuilders and construction people to get elected. I mean, he’s not going to detour. Hell, if they want him to, he’ll pave Texas, and we’re not going to do any good fighting this.”
A large number of TxDOT hearings and town meetings have been conducted to allow concerned citizens to voice their opinions. The public hearings on the Tier One Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) are now closed, though interested residents can make comments at the TxDOT Web site and through the mail. TxDOT states that no property acquisition or construction will occur as a result of the Tier One DEIS, and after federal approval, it will move into Tier Two environmental studies.
At a public hearing in Humble, Texas, on Feb. 28, 2008, TxDOT public information officer Norm Wigington said, “If the FWHA [Federal Highway Administration] sees that there is no support from the citizens of Texas, the TTC will not be built.”
According to Lippincott, though, this isn’t true.
“We [TxDOT] don’t speak for Federal Highway. In any event, that’s not the case,” he said.
Such contradictions are the reason many state representatives, ranch and cattle owners, and citizens are wary of statements made by the government body. Many believe that they are receiving conflicting information and view the deals between Gov. Perry and Cintra-Zachry as a covert circumvention of legislative and public approval.
At the TxDOT TTC-69 Public Hearing at Waller High School on Feb. 27, 2008, state Rep. John Zerwas, (R) Katy, strongly urged a “No action alternative on the TxDOT project, no questions asked.” Zerwas stated numerous objections to the project: “We will not tolerate the secretive and clandestine manner in which this legislation passed in 2003. We will not subject future generations of Texans to the financial ambitions and will of foreign companies when it comes to our transportation system.”
Eldon White is the executive vice president and CEO of Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, whose mission is “protecting the stewards of land and livestock in the Southwest.”
“We are very concerned about the amount of land it [the TTC] would take up and the exercising of eminent domain to be able to receive that land or get that for the use of the corridor,” he said. “We’re encouraging the governor to use existing roads where possible, roads and rights-of-way where possible, to minimize that impact on ranch lands throughout the state.
“There’s a couple of issues that we are very concerned about and continue to be concerned about as we monitor the hearings, the town hall meetings, being held around the state,” White said. He is particularly concerned that dividing land would hinder the rancher’s ability to work his property, and there seem to be no provisions that take into account the rights of the landowner.
“We have some urgency with it, we feel there are some key issues, like the land owner’s rights and access to property, that have to be resolved now,” he said.
Though the TSCRA does not have an existing policy on the use of toll roads, White said, “One model that I saw that made more sense to me was to take the existing rights-of-way of the freeways and expand the number of lanes, causing some of the lanes to be toll lanes and others not.”
Rosemary Gambino, past president (as of Jan. 1, 2008) of Texas CattleWomen, was loquacious and passionate on the subject and encouraged people to get active because she is “hugely concerned.”
“This is a huge loss of agricultural land,” she said. “Ninety-two percent of our farms and ranches in Texas are owned by private landowners. Once we take this away, with something of the magnitude of the Trans-Texas Corridor, it can never be recovered. This is irreversible.”
Not only will the devastation of the land be felt by the actual highway system, she said, but the surrounding areas will be affected as well. The ramifications of the plan include drainage problems, and noise and light pollution, which can negatively impact livestock and wildlife. Gambino estimates that 9,600 trucks leave Laredo each day. With the construction of the TTC, Gambino estimates that this will increase to 28,800 each day when the TTC opens.
“Texans are going to bear the burden of giving up our agricultural resources so that cargo can be transported to Canada,” she said. “I feel it [the TTC issue] is extremely urgent. TxDOT spent $9 million of our taxpayers’ money to promote the corridor. … It’s our money that they’ve used to promote this.”
Gambino said that the statistics on the loss of private farms and ranches are devastating, and the TTC is going to change Texans’ way of life. According to Gambino, it will impact every citizen in the United States. Gambino said she realizes the need to relieve traffic congestion, providing better access for trucks because of population growth; however, she believes that hauling cargo by truck is becoming obsolete and that the plan is far from being revolutionary.
“We need to use existing rails and roads. This [the TTC] is a 20th-century plan in the 21st century,” she said. “We really need to investigate cleaner transportation, which includes rail.”
Sal Costello started the Web site AustinTollParty.com in 2004 when he discovered that TxDOT planned to toll a bridge in his neighborhood that had already been paid for. In 2005, he created www.texastollparty.com, and then salcostello.blogspot.com. A vigorous opponent of the TTC, one of Costello’s missions is to “increase public awareness and understanding of the dramatic negative effects Freeway Tolls and the Trans-Texas Corridor will have on Texans.”
Costello’s Web site consists of satirical videos, a petition against the corridor and numerous articles, news releases, links and quotes. According to one of the site’s claims, Gov. Rick Perry and TxDOT have in effect declared a legal land war on much of rural Texas, and plan to confiscate 584,000 acres of private land. The claims continue to assert that once the state legally takes away people’s land using eminent domain statutes, land and natural resources will be turned over to private corporations to make profits.
Costello is concerned that too few people are aware of the plan and fears most will join the fight against it too late. For Costello, the consequences of people in the horse and cattle industries not responding to this issue are that “their [horse and cattle owners’] heritage, the land that their families had – for how many decades – their business can all just disappear.”
Costello said the TTC is going “to cripple their [the horse industry’s] microeconomy, how they get somewhere, how others get to them.”
“This is all about moving cheap goods from Mexico into the United States; it’s not for us. This is for special interests, and special-interest politicians,” he said.
Costello suggests that horse owners get involved, show up at public hearings and educate themselves by going to www.texastollparty.com, where visitors can send a message to Gov. Perry and more than 200 state representatives and senators.
David Stall and his wife, Linda, created Corridor Watch (www.corridorwatch.org) “to increase public awareness and understanding of the Trans-Texas Corridor.” His Web site is replete with position statements from political parties, research documents and exhaustive quotes, all “Challenging the Wisdom of the Trans-Texas Corridor.” David Stall’s primary concerns center around “transparency and accountability.”
“Our goal is to have an open dialogue,” Stall said. “First of all, nobody’s decided that we absolutely have to have these roads. There is no support for the Trans-Texas Corridor. There is no community that has demanded it, there’s no industry that has demanded it, there’s no political will for it whatsoever. It’s exclusively being promoted by the governor’s office.”
According to Lippincott, the current revenue, which includes a 20-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline, is not enough to meet the state’s needs to build and maintain roads, and toll roads are essential to provide the necessary revenue for road maintenance. Though Stall said he’s not anti-toll road, he said, “Toll roads should be voter-approved,” rather than forced upon its citizens with no recourse.
“The direction the governor gave was make it policy, not politics, which means we’re not going to run this through the legislature, we’re not taking this before any other decision-makers, we’re just going to make it policy.” Besides, Stall said, “A toll road is the most expensive way to create revenue.”
Though not against foreign investment, Stall said, “A foreign company does not respond to public pressure like a domestic corporation does.” Cintra-Zachry is traded on the Spanish stock market in Madrid, he said. There’s no pressure that Texans could bring as a community to cause “social responsibility,” or a change in company policy based on public discontent. With a domestic company, if consumers didn’t like what it was doing, they could protest, they could go to the company’s headquarters, they could put pressure on its stockholders, and affect a change. However, according to Stall, the Texas governor is involved in clandestine deals in smoky back rooms that elude the public conscience.
“The whole advantage of the private partner is they’re not subject to political pressure, and they can keep the tolls at the highest rate the market will bear, which is not a market rate because it is a monopoly,” Stall said.
One of TxDOT’s claims is that U.S.-Mexico trade has doubled since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which, it argues, makes the building of the TTC essential. Stall responded to this with a laugh and said, “TxDOT always goes back to 1995 and before because the only NAFTA growth occurred between 1995 and the year 2000. Since then, it’s been absolutely flat.”
Even so, Lippincott warned that 80 percent of all NAFTA truck traffic crosses the Texas-Mexico border. By 2030, NAFTA tonnage on Texas highways and railroads will increase nearly 207 percent. “The denial of the impact of this coming swelling trade is an issue,” he said.
For Stall, whether the company is foreign or domestic, “Public infrastructure should not be used for private profit,” he said. In fact, Stall said he believes the federal government is in the TTC deal lock, stock and barrel, and is a powerful advocate for the corridor plan because it’s pushing privatization so it can get out of funding highways in the future.
“It’s [TTC] a very serious threat to private property rights in the state. It’s a conversion of privately held land into state-owned property that is franchised out for a profit. The Trans-Texas Corridor is an egregious taking of land. It will create a barrier. … there will be no free access, and it will particularly affect rural mobility in a tremendous way. It will also impact rural economic development.”
As insular as the horse industry, particularly the performance horse industry, may seem, it is still like an ecosystem, a symbiotic system in which all things affect one another – horses, cattle, feed and hay prices, fuel prices and roads, all are interrelated. However, so much about the TTC is vague and indeterminate: No final route alignment has been determined; routes are subject to change; no dates of acquisition have been provided – it will be determined by the particular needs in a given area; no date of construction has been given; and many of the facts regarding the planning, construction and ownership of the TTC are under debate. It can be difficult to ascertain just how such a complex project may affect Texans.
For horse and cattle owners, the land is essential for their livelihood. For others, the open landscape and countryside, the animals and wildlife, is a harborage, a refuge from the steel-and-concrete invasion of urban development. Most will acknowledge that transportation in Texas requires immediate attention, yet many believe that an inordinate amount of Texas land is being transmogrified in the name of “economic vitality,” and at an alarming rate.
Predicting the future is hazardous, but one thing’s certain; once the project’s done, it’s done.
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