Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"We don't want you, we don't want the route, and we don't want you across our farm."

Trans-Texas Corridor plans take a detour
I-69 Trans Texas Corridor

State rules out building roads through rural areas and now says it will stick to major highways

June 11, 2008

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2008

The Texas Department of Transportation said Tuesday it has abandoned plans to build part of the controversial Interstate 69/Trans-Texas Corridor through rural areas north and west of Houston.

Instead, TxDOT said, it will stick to major highways — principally U.S. 59 — for most of the route. Through the Houston area, it could stay on U.S. 59 or go on Loop 610 or the planned Grand Parkway.

In South Texas, where many residents welcomed the corridor plan, part of the superhighway would go on U.S. 281, U.S. 77 and Texas 44.

The change of plans comes after months of grass-roots opposition from rural residents in the areas under study for the route in East Texas and counties west of Houston.

Merchants along U.S. 59 who had supported the idea of making the route an interstate highway were incensed at TxDOT's announced plan to name a private partner to build and operate the corridor as a toll road and develop its own concessions along it.

The revolt spread to elected officials at all levels, leading the Legislature in 2007 to impose a two-year moratorium on long-term privately operated toll projects.

"Thank God. That is the best news I have heard in a long time," said Dennis Mlcak, who ranches in Frydek, near Sealy. The small Czech community is in the former corridor study area.

Lloyd Koppen of nearby Mixville, whose ranch lay near the center of the study area, was brief in his response: "Whooo!"

"Maybe now we can get on with our lives and make some repairs that we have been putting off," Koppen said.

TxDOT officials had planned to publicly announce the change today after briefing reporters privately Tuesday.

The story broke early, however, after others, including state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Palestine, spoke to news media about the change.

Grand Parkway in the mix

Nichols, a former member of the Texas Transportation Commission, said he sees the change as "a huge victory for the public," KHOU-TV reported.

"I believe utilizing existing infrastructure will be more cost efficient and have far less negative impact on family farms and small communities," Nichols said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the change would have little impact on Harris County "because we already have a fully developed U.S. 59 and they're not allowed to go in and toll. They can't lease a highway that's already been built."

The Harris County Toll Road Authority is eager to develop the northwest segment of the planned Grand Parkway, which was being considered as long ago as 2000 as the route for a future Interstate 69. That project was folded into Gov. Rick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor plan, announced in 2002.

Under legislation enacted by opponents of the corridor idea, the county has first shot at developing the Grand Parkway if it can reach an agreement with TxDOT on its value.

Amadeo Saenz, the department's executive director, said Tuesday that TxDOT is "working closely with HCTRA" on the project. "They are just as interested in getting this built as we are," he said.

Saenz said a large share of the 28,000 comments received in 47 public hearings and 12 town hall meetings along the route expressed opposition to the project.

"A lot of them said, in essence, 'We don't want you, we don't want the route, and we don't want you across our farm,' " Saenz said. "And a lot of people said, 'Why don't you expand 59? You have a perfectly good road in 59.' "

Saenz said he will recommend to the Texas Transportation Commission, which sets policy for TxDOT, that only existing highways, principally U.S. 59, be considered for the route.

"Anything not on an existing highway will be set aside and not moved forward," he said, adding that in the distant future — perhaps 50 years from now — that may become necessary.

He said TxDOT no longer is considering bringing the route west of Houston. Earlier plans had showed the study area passing near Huntsville, Navasota, Prairie View, Waller, Sealy, Wallis, Richmond and Rosenberg, drawing intense opposition from residents.

To be built in segments

Although the revised route sticks mostly to U.S. 59, there still are spurs to the ports of Houston and Corpus Christi.

Through Houston, Saenz said, the corridor might follow U.S. 59, Loop 610 or the planned Grand Parkway. In each of eight segments, he said, the route would be decided by TxDOT with input from advisory committees of local residents and officials.

The initial phase likely would involve adding toll lanes to the present lanes of U.S. 59 and building bypasses around many built-up areas, Saenz said.

Other corridor components, such as dedicated lanes for trucks or cars, tracks for passenger or freight rail and easements for utilities, could be added later as needed, he said.

The project likely would be built in segments as needed, based on traffic growth and forecasts indicating that tolling a segment would be profitable, Saenz said. No existing free lanes would be tolled, he said.

© 2008, The Houston Chronicle

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