"The policy applies only to the I-69 project and not the I-35 corridor leg of the Trans Texas Corridor."
June 11, 2008
By JIM VERTUNO
AUSTIN - Responding to concerns that a superhighway project running from East Texas down to the Mexico border could cut through private lands, state transportation officials said Tuesday they'll only consider putting it along existing roadways.
State officials have held nearly 50 public meetings and received about 28,000 responses from the public over the proposed Interstate 69 project and the so-called Trans-Texas Corridor.
The "overwhelming sentiment" of the public comment was for the state to focus on using existing roads instead of carving new ones out of the countryside, said Amadeo Saenz, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation.
Transportation officials said they would only use existing corridors, such as U.S. Highway 59 in East Texas from Texarkana to Houston and U.S. Highways 77 and 281 in South Texas, in their environmental studies for the project. If existing roadways need to be expanded, only the new traffic lanes would have tolls.
While many people said they want the project built, many others were concerned they would lose land to the superhighway system, Saenz said.
"We are dropping consideration of new corridors that would run west of Houston in addition to other proposals for new highway footprint in other parts of the state," said Ted Houghton, a member of the state transportation commission.
The existing roads policy applies only to the I-69 project and not the I-35 corridor leg of the Trans Texas Corridor project, which is separate and under contract, Saenz said.
The Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposed network of superhighway toll roads, rankles opponents who characterize it as the largest government grab of private property in the state's history and an unneeded and improper expansion of toll roads.
Gov. Rick Perry and transportation officials have defended the project as necessary to address future traffic concerns in one of the nation's fastest-growing states. They also say the project is vital because of insufficient road revenues from the state gas tax and the federal government.
Cost of the project has been estimated at approaching $200 billion, and it could take as long as 50 years to complete.
Supporters of the corridor and toll roads say they are the only way the state's growth can be accommodated without increasing gasoline taxes. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, people in the fast-growing border area between Brownsville and McAllen have noted with frustration that it is the state's largest metropolitan area without an interstate highway.
Last month, the Texas Transportation Commission adopted guiding policies for developing toll road projects in the Trans-Texas Corridor and the state highway system. They include that only new lanes added to an existing highway would be tolled and there would no reduction in non-tolled lanes.
The state also is to use existing rights-of-way whenever possible for developing new projects.
"The governor is pleased with this announcement and that the Trans-Texas Corridor project is moving forward," Perry spokeswoman Krista Piferrer. "We are now closer to building this road than we ever have been before."
© 2008, The Associated Press www.ap.org
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