Wednesday, June 11, 2008

“Why should we believe TxDOT now?"

Choice of existing routes along TTC-69 met with skepticism

Agency officials say choice of route was based on public feedback, not pressures from lawmakers or the Sunset Commission.

June 11th, 2008

By: Harvey Kronberg
The Quorum Report
Copyright 2008

The Texas Department of Transportation can’t catch a break.

Even today’s announcement that TxDOT would narrow its study area on I-69 TTC and use existing highway facilities whenever possible along the route between East Texas and the Texas-Mexico border was met with suspicion from Trans-Texas Corridor critics.

David Stall of the CorridorWatch issued a bulletin last night and called the decision a public relations move that lacked sincerity from TxDOT.

“Faced with pressure from state and federal officials, an unhappy Sunset Advisory Commission, and pending report from the State Auditor, it was time for TxDOT to find something they could give up,” Stall wrote. “Hello, TTC-69.”

Terri Hall of Texans United For Reform and Freedom was scornful.

“Why should we believe TxDOT now? The public has lost all trust in this agency that even the Sunset Committee calls ‘out of control,’” Hall said. “Certain landowners will no longer be affected and can breathe a sigh of relief, this project is still ill-conceived. This corridor was promised as a FREE interstate highway for decades, now they’ll convert existing freeways like Hwy 59 into privately controlled toll roads. Somehow we feel in no mood to celebrate.”

Still, TxDOT has decided to use existing roadways for I-69/TTC. That means long stretches of US Highway 59, along with segments of US Highways 77 and 281 in South Texas; State Highway 44 in the Coastal Bend; and US Highways 84 in East Texas out to Texarkana. Such a configuration would give access points to the highway on the south out of the Valley and Laredo -- possibly a TTC-69E and TTC-69W like IH-35E and IH-35W -- plus north-end access to both Texarkana and Shreveport, Louisiana.

Executive Director Amadeo Saenz, who was in Lufkin for today’s press conference with Phil Russell, said the choice came out of feedback up and down the corridor. Asked by media in Houston why the agency had changed its mind, Saenz said the agency rolled out its initial draft environmental impact statement with both existing and new alignments. Comments out of the communities stated existing roads as the preferred route.

Russell added the choice of a preferred route came when it should have, at the point where the agency sent its environmental impact statement to the Federal Highway Administration. Once that’s approved next spring, the agency will do another round of hearings to narrow down the route further and consider some of the initial options on routing through the metropolitan areas of Corpus Christi, Houston and Texarkana.

“You asked why this is so late,” Russell told the reporters from Houston. “My response is that we did not anticipate this sort of decision. That is what shows the public involvement has worked. It has taken a couple of years, but, ultimately, I think that the process of gathering public comments and doing additional analysis worked. This is exactly the right time to make the decision.”

The TTC-69 route will serve a number of purposes. While much of the initial publicity on the 600-mile route focused on Mexico-Texas commerce, Deputy Director Steve Simmons, in Austin on today’s teleconference call with Turnpike Director Mark Tomlinson, said there is still plenty of activity and new business on the north end of the I-69 highway project to make predicting the phasing of the project difficult. Construction phasing along the route could start on the north end as easily as the south end, depending on traffic, Simmons said.

Simmons said TxDOT intends to secure a consultant contract on TTC-69, just as they did with Cintra Zachry on TTC-35. That partner will work with TxDOT to plan the route; determine the phasing based on demands and traffic; and explore financing options.

Financing is still a question mark on TTC-69. Simmons said the agency would pursue any and every financial option available to the agency to build the road, from gas taxes to bonds and tolling. In addition to the main route, the agency also will consider access connections to regions of the state that want to be connected to TTC-69 through other routes, such as Bryan-College Station. Connections to the ports at Corpus Christi, Houston and Beaumont also are on the table. Funding for those connections could come from public or private funding, as well as state and local options.

In any scenario, tolling will be part of the financing solution for TTC-69, Saenz agreed, but that tolling will be limited to new capacity on the project. This is not a privately tolled road. Lanes that were free before expansion will be free after TTC-69 is complete, Saenz said. If there were four free lanes before construction, there will be four or more free lanes after the construction of TTC-69 is complete.

One of the bigger challenges for TxDOT and its partners – other than the sheer challenge of financing TTC-69 -- will be figuring out how to cross Houston. Certainly a route through the downtown Highway 59 canyon would be difficult, if not impossible. That could leave an option such as the Grand Parkway, although agency staff brush aside such speculation, which is a fairly wise thing to do given the wide number of local stakeholders out of Houston: HCTRA, HGAC, Harris County and local cities.

It’s hard to argue that some kind of reliever for Highway 59 won’t be welcome in Houston. Anyone gridlocked on Houston freeways during Hurricane Rita almost three years ago also understands what Simmons means when he suggests Houston could use additional, or even better, hurricane evacuation routes out of town.

Public meetings on the route are unlikely to happen for another year, at least. The will be part of the second phase of the draft environmental impact assessment. In the meantime, TxDOT intends to appoint segment advisory committees, which will make recommendations along the overall Trans-Texas Corridor citizen advisory committee.

A reporter in Houston – home to the 16 lanes of concrete now known as the Katy Freeway – asked whether rail was an option over the typical concrete. TxDOT official agreed the route could include transportation modes beyond new lanes.

“The TTC legislation is a procurement mechanism,” Saenz said. “It allows us to build rail and utility corridors. We would have to look at the options available.”

© 2008, by Harvey Kronberg

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