Thursday, June 12, 2008

“As soon as it becomes fiscally viable, it will come back--like the monster in a horror movie."

TxDOT: Trans-Texas Corridor to only use existing highways


The Pasadena Citizen
Copyright 2008

In a move that took many by surprise, the Texas Department of Transportation announced June 11 that, in the words of TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz, “it had narrowed the study area for TTC I-69.”

In a conference call with reporters, Saenz said that as the proposal moves forward TxDOT “is going to be considering only existing highway” and “any area that is not along an existing highway will not be considered.”

This narrowing to pre-existing right-of-ways is a marked shift from TxDOT’s previous study area, which was 1,200 feet wide and was widely viewed as excessively intrusive by many Texans.

Saenz said that after 47 town hall meetings, TxDOT was listening. In fact, the TxDOT website states that “the preliminary basis for this decision centers on the review of nearly 28,000 public comments made on the Tier One DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement).”

Although the study area is now limited only to existing highway facilities and largely to existing right-of-ways, the final route is far from being set. TxDOT is currently considering two routes.

The first runs straight up U.S. 59 from Laredo to Texarkana and bypasses Corpus Christi; however, that is not a very popular idea.

“Laredo and Corpus Christi need to be linked,” Saenz said.

Because of the economic necessity of overland trade in south Texas, TxDOT is considering a proposal that utilizes U.S. 77 from Victoria through Corpus Christi to the Brownsville-McAllen area. Also under consideration is a proposal that uses U.S. 281 from Live Oak to Hidalgo as well as one that incorporates SH 44 from U.S. 59 to Corpus Christi.

Once the route passes Corpus Christi, it becomes fairly straightforward.

“We’re no longer considering anything other than 59 to connect through Houston,” said Saenz. This means that the proposed I-10 interchange in Waller County around Sealy is currently off the table, although it may resurface later.

“No one has determined where I-69 is going to go through Houston,” Saenz said. “It will be determined with planners in Houston.”

What has been decided is that the already existing lanes that are on U.S. 59 will not be retrofitted as toll lanes and communities will not lose their exits.

“If you have existing access to 59, that access will be maintained,” Saenz said. Saenz also stated that now that the Tier I phase of the study has been completed, it will take another three to five years before a Final Environmental Impact Study (FEIS) will be produced for the whole project.

After the FEIS is produced, the Segment Advisory Committee will begin considering the areas of the state that are projected to possibly need a portion of I-69 sometime in the future. Although Saenz did not provide the names of who is on or will be on the Segment Advisory Committee, he did say that the committee is made up of “elected and appointed officials” and that the committee group will determine, “based on traffic, population growth and other factors,” where segments need to be built.

Even though the announcement limiting TTC I-69 to U.S. 59 is corridor is welcome news for many in rural Texas, not everyone is ready to put it in the victory column.

“It’s a move in the right direction,” said David Stall of the anti-TTC group CorridorWatch. Stall explained that as far as CorridorWatch is concerned, TxDOT’s announcement was “motivated by two things: financial ability and political expediency.”

According to Stall, TxDOT never had the financial wherewithal to build the massive multi-lane project they envisioned and that private contractors were getting sticker shock at the thought of the construction prices. On top of that, he added, there is a hostile political climate with which to deal.

“TxDOT is going though a tough sunset review this year,” Stall said. He continued on to say that, for a few months, TxDOT executives have been talking amongst themselves about pulling back to the 59 corridor.

“We don’t feel it’s a new lease on being responsive to citizens,” Stall said. “They’ve never taken the public’s input into consideration before.”

In order to test what Stall and his wife Linda perceive to be TxDOT’s newfound public responsiveness, CorridorWatch has issued a challenge to Saenz.

“We want him to the send the same letter to the Federal Highway Administration for TTC I-35 that he sent about I-69. There was as much public input about I-35 as there was about 69,” Stall said. Stall is referring to the formal declaration Saenz sent to the U.S. government stating that TxDOT is only going to consider the 59 corridor.

Despite TxDOT’s assurances, Stall and other anti-TTC activists still are skeptical.

“As soon as it becomes fiscally viable, it will come back,” Stall said, “like the monster in a horror movie.”

© 2008, Houston Community Newspapers Online

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