Thursday, December 11, 2008

"The fact that our primary environmental agency isn't involved in the planning stages of the EIS is unbelievable."

Agency not part of corridor planning


Country World News
Copyright 2008

The state's environmental agency told a sub-regional planning group recently that it has not been involved with the planning process of the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) and does not plan to get involved until the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is released.

Clyde Bohmfalk, a program specialist with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), told the East Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission that the agency signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) in 2002 specifically for transportation issues, but that TCEQ has not been involved with the planning process up to this point.

The memorandum between TCEQ and TxDOT states that "TxDOT is committed to performing early identification efforts to assess potential environmental concern related to proposed transportation projects, and initiating coordination with TNRCC (now TCEQ) during the early planning stages of these projects."

Mae Smith, president of the Eastern Central Texas planning commission, said the commission had a good meeting with TCEQ, but she was disappointed to find out that the environmental agency has not been involved with the planning process for the TTC.

"We were prepared with dozens of questions regarding air quality, water runoff, flooding, erosion and concerns about the Trinity Aquifer, but TCEQ said they weren't sure if they had even seen the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the TTC," Smith said. "It's hard to imagine the state's leading environmental agency didn't have a larger role in the planning stages of such a huge project, but that's been how TxDOT has operated from the beginning of the whole process."

If TCEQ waits until the final EIS is released, it will be too late for the agency to have a say in whether or not the TTC gets built, she added.

"TCEQ keeps saying 'Phase II, Phase II, but that's too late," she said. "By Phase II, it will already be decided that the TTC will be built. This is the largest transportation project in the history of our state and the fact that our primary environmental agency isn't involved in the planning stages of the EIS is unbelievable."

The Environmental Impact Study is currently awaiting final approval from the Federal Highway Administration.

Gov. Rick Perry first proposed the Trans-Texas Corridor in 2002, as a series of six-lane highways, each one as wide as 1,200 feet, with separate lanes for cars and commercial trucks, high-speed rail lines and utility corridors. Perry, TxDOT and others have touted the TTC as a way to relieve traffic congestion on the state's highways.

Rural towns, agriculture producers and the Texas Farm Bureau have opposed the TTC from its inception. The opposition led to the formation of sub-regional planning groups that formed under the Texas Local Government Code, Chapter 391, which requires state agencies "to the greatest extent feasible" to coordinate with local commissions to "ensure effective and orderly implementation of state programs at the regional level." There are now nine such sub-regional planning commissions in the state, of which the Eastern Central Texas group was the first.

The Eastern Central Texas commission is made up of representatives of the cities of Bartlett, Buckholts, Holland, Little River-Academy, Rogers and their respective independent school districts.

Smith said the commission's primary complaint against the TTC has been that it will take about 6,000 acres of prime farmland out of production and that a large chunk of land will be taken out of local school districts' tax bases and given to the state forever.

"Right now, our planning commission knows more about the environmental issues in our jurisdiction than TxDOT and it's our hope we can get TCEQ to assist by holding TxDOT's feet to the fire," she added.

In other news related to the Trans-Texas Corridor, a citizen's advisory group has issued a report rejecting the concept of TTC-35. The report, issued last month, recommends a "more inclusive solution that respects local communities and private property rights while addressing statewide and local transportation needs."

The committee, one of two citizens' advisory committees appointed to advise the Texas Transportation Commission on planning issues in the I-35 and I-69 corridors, recommends that TxDOT coordinate with Texas Farm Bureau and other agriculture groups to minimize the impacts on farmers and ranchers. A report from the I-69 citizens' committee is expected soon.

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