Sunday, June 15, 2008

"After the November elections the original plans may resume, pending exactly who gets put into office."

'A victory for the little people'

TxDOT's revised plans for Trans-Texas Corridor/I-69 remain a concern for many East Texas landowners

June 15, 2008

The Lufkin Daily News
Copyright 2008

For years, government officials, Texas Department of Transportation spokesmen and rural landowners have gone toe-to-toe over where the Trans-Texas Corridor/I-69 would be placed and over whose land it would run through. Highway opponents have said some of the proposed routes would have threatened farms, family cemeteries and natural lands.

Concerns seemed to be quelled however, when TxDOT officials stated at a Wednesday press conference that the old format had been abandoned and the new route would encompass the already laid track of U.S. 59, one of the main thoroughfares through Angelina County.
Joel Andrews/The Lufkin Daily News

But with the new plan comes an old issue, the "S" idea, in which the superhighway would snake around Diboll and Lufkin, resulting in rural lands yet again being placed in I-69's path.

While some local land owners are once again up in arms over the decision, some politicians, like state Rep. Jim McReynolds (D-Lufkin), said they were pleased with Wednesday's announcement.

"I think this is a victory for the little people, people like me," McReynolds said Wednesday. "You know, 18 percent of us live on 80 percent of the Texas land mass. They need to listen to us and they have. Today is a first step."

McReynolds said the original plans would have greatly impacted the region.

"Both the small and large land owner that the TTC would have crossed would have suffered. Many people would have lost their livelihood. Timber is a 30-year crop, with many generations planted," McReynolds said. "No longer would we get to enjoy hunting, fishing and camping. Some people's ancestors are buried where the road would have gone, and there's no way to put in the corridor without cutting off county roads that people have used for decades."

The state representative believes the announcement will quell landowner's concerns and that TxDOT will be further scrutinized to make sure that they stay on track.

"Approximately 25,000 people testified against this. We're telling TxDOT: 'We'll help you plan this stuff, fund you, do what we need to do, but you're through telling us where to build highways,'" McReynolds said. "The folks in East Texas can have satisfaction now, and take down their signs. I know I'm saving mine to bring back out and look at 20 years from now."

But not everyone is ecstatic about the announcement.

Hank Gilbert, a board member for the watchdog group Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, said he has been talking to local landowners and that the resounding reaction is not a happy one.

"TxDOT made a revelation that they are abandoning the corridor idea," Gilbert said. "Now they'll revisit the plan they came up with several years ago, a loop running from the north of Nacogdoches to the south of Diboll, which will be a tremendous amount of land taken out through the counties. Nobody seemed to be taken aghast about it, but if I lived in that area I would be concerned."

Gilbert is worried that TxDOT is saying one thing and doing another, playing a "shell game," and that after the November elections the original plans may resume, pending exactly who gets put into office.

"What's scary about TxDOT's language about using existing roadways is that they're telling people that existing lanes are gonna be free, only new lanes will be tolled. What they're gonna do is make existing lanes into frontage roads," Gilbert said. "According to the announcements yesterday, that's back on the planning board. We're going to make recommendations that rather than building the 'S' loop they can make modifications to the existing loop, which will be very minute in land acquisition. The people in Diboll and Angelina County have another monkey on their back and, either way, they're gonna have to look at some outer loop to get away from those red lights."

The Sunset Committee, an oversight group designed to monitor state agencies, is convening again this fall and the TTC will fall under scrutiny, according to McReynolds, but Gilbert said he and TURF aren't so sure the project will get the attention it deserves.

"We want to make sure that TxDOT does what they're supposed to do and is less intrusive to property owners," Gilbert said. "TxDOT's under the gun by the Sunset Committee, but every legislator on the committee voted for these bills, so I don't think they'll get anything done. There's a lot of money on the table, and people need to be aware of who their representatives are taking it from. Here in East Texas, the people's rights have not been represented."

James Glover's land, near Angelina County airport on U.S. 59, falls directly in the path of the proposed "S" route, but he doesn't seem to think the TTC will have too much of an impact on his home.

"I know it's gonna be a mess when they build that freeway," he said. "I sit out on my front porch and, Lord have mercy, there's so much traffic up and down 59 right now. I know it's gonna hurt business in Diboll if they pass it up, but I don't think it would bother me if they built the thing close to my property."

Glover said TxDOT originally planned to buy his land, which sits on the east side of the freeway, but later they decided to build on the opposite side instead.

"I think it'd be a good thing if they build it," he said, "but I don't know if I'll ever live long enough to see it happen. They've been talking about building it for years."

© 2008, The Lufkin Daily News

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