Friday, July 18, 2008

"We think we have a potential way to move forward and get this project across the end zone and finally score a touchdown."

TTC supporters hear newest plans for highway

July 18, 2008

The Nacodoches Daily Sentinel
Copyright 2008

Supporters of the Trans Texas Corridor Friday heard Texas Department of Transportation officials summarize recent and upcoming milestones in the highway project's history, including details from the development agreement with Zachary American Infrastructure/ACS approved last month.

The proposed concept brought by ZAI/ACS calls for portions of U.S. Hwy 59 and Loop 224 around Nacogdoches to be developed before 2015, according to the presentation.

Alliance for I-69 Texas — a nonprofit association of local governments, economic development groups and private sector organizations that champions the construction of an Interstate highway through East Texas — hosted TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz and other TxDOT leaders at their quarterly board meeting, held at the Fredonia Hotel and Convention Center.

Introducing Saenz, Alliance Chairman John Thompson, who is the Polk county judge, said "I-69 has cleared a lot of hurdles in the last eight months." Indeed, Friday's remarks were made just yards from the room where, in February, more than 700 East Texans attended a public meeting filled with impassioned pleas against the project. Thompson credited the state transportation agency for adapting the vision of the TTC to accommodate the will of the public, by agreeing to follow the path of existing highways and by adopting policies to secure the existing number of non-tolled highway lanes. "That course correction has made a dramatic change in the attitude in the public," Thompson said.

Saenz broke away from his prepared speech to provide details of the ZAI/ACS proposal as well as information on other state transportation initiatives. Saenz repeatedly emphasized the local input that would be involved in decisions about the need for toll rates, highway alignment and the need for additional transportation services, like rail lines. Corridor Advisory Committee member Nolan Alders, of Nacogdoches, and others from the region were in attendance. Saenz said locally appointed segment committee members will be installed by the end of the year.

"It's been interesting," Saenz said. "Now with the tools that we have, we think we have a potential way to move forward and get this project across the end zone and finally score a touchdown and connect South Texas to the rest of the state, connect the state of Texas with another major corridor to the rest of the United States and both international countries on either side of us."

The ZAI/ACS proposal identifies 10 near-term projects for the corridor, including upgrades to Loop 224 and a "reliever route" for U.S. 59 to pass around Lufkin and Nacogdoches. The project will be based on an earlier design for a bypass route that begins near Corrigan.

Saenz used examples from South Texas to explain how financing such projects might work. Under ZAI/ACS's plan, the revenue from an initial toll project — the upgrade of U.S. Hwy. 77 — would fund construction of the next project, repeating the process across the whole $12 billion to $15 billion estimated to complete the corridor. TxDOT has already spent $48 million on the project's environmental research, according to an Alliance presentation.

Among an audience of corridor supporters, Alliance Attorney and Consultant Gary Bushell delivered his own presentation to the group, elaborating on the larger economic context of the Interstate, which will link port cities in Texas with the nation's interior.

"This is something we have had to convince members of the Texas legislature. We are growing. We are going to grow as a state whether we build infrastructure or not," Bushell said. "Freight is coming, ready or not. World trade is growing. We're the number one export state in the United States."

Thompson said the global economy has presented a lucrative opportunity for Texas in the form of the TTC. "It's a high-stakes game. Little old East Texas has a chance to participate."

© 2008, The Nachodoches Daily Sentinel:

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