Sunday, June 15, 2008

Slowly Devouring a White Elephant

Texas Corridor detour: Officials nix land grab

Toll plan tossed: 'Any area that is not along an existing highway will not be considered'

June 14, 2008

Copyright 2008

Opponents of a plan to build a Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) road and rail system from Mexico to Oklahoma received welcome news this week, as Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) officials announced their strategy would no longer include building new highway routes southwest of Houston, a plan that would have annexed huge tracts of private land.

The $184 billion TTC project originally called for a 4,000-mile network of transportation corridors, 1,200 feet wide, to be built across Texas. The plan would have taken about a half million agricultural acres out of private hands, leading to a maelstrom of objections from Texas landowners.

But now TxDOT executive Director Amadeo Saenz says plans have changed. In a conference call with reporters he said TxDOT "had narrowed the study area for TTC I-69" and that the department "is going to be considering only existing highway" routes, and "any area that is not along an existing highway will not be considered."

"This is great news for landowners," said John Means, president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. "TSCRA appreciates the agency's decision to not build the toll roads through rural lands that would threaten the private property rights of many of our members."

The TxDOT website states that "the preliminary basis for this decision centers on the review of nearly 28,000 public comments made" on the issue. Saenz added that 47 town hall meetings with Texas residents had further influenced the decision.

Brehham, Tex., State Rep. Lois W. Kolkhorst, who joined in the battle to protect rural lands from the project, told The Huntsville Item, "The real heroes who deserve the credit here are the constituents. I want to thank the thousands of people who joined me in fighting the I-69 TTC for the past 5 years, writing letters, calling and attending meetings to make their voices heard."

Though opponents of the TTC celebrate victory in this battle, they have been quick to point out that the war is not over.

"This is good news about a retreat from the corridor," Kolkhorst said, "but the controversy over how we pay for our roads will continue. We need to stay strong against the forces out there who want to sell off our highway infrastructure to foreign sources."

"This is a great first step," said Kenneth Dierschke, president of the Texas Farm Bureau. "But we must continue to hold TxDOT's feet to the fire during the next legislative session to ensure they keep these promises."

David Stall of the anti-TTC group CorridorWatch is also wary of crying victory too soon. Speaking of TxDOT, Stall told a Houston Community Newspaper, "They've never taken the public's input into consideration before."

Part of the concern is that the announcement to limit the TTC's scope only included project proposals south and west of Houston. The announcement did not mention plans for the northern I-35 corridor.

"We want (Saenz) to send the same letter to the Federal Highway Administration for TTC I-35 that he sent about I-69," Stall said. "There was as much public input about I-35 as there was about 69."

Stall also worries that TxDOT was motivated largely by "financial ability and political expediency," warning, "As soon as it becomes fiscally viable, it will come back."

For now, landowners in southwestern Texas are breathing a sigh of relief and preparing for future battles if necessary.

Last year Amy Klein, a member of CorridorWatch, quoted Stall in the Gainesville Daily Register with words that are just as meaningful now to the group as they were then. "You eat an elephant one bite at a time," she quoted. Then she added, "I think we're slowly devouring this elephant."

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