Friday, July 11, 2008

"Amendment would not prevent the construction of new toll roads or newly constructed highways, and does not affect state highways."

Amendment continues Texas toll moratorium on federal roads

July 11, 2008

Dallas Business Journal
Copyright 2008

The ban on federal toll roads in Texas will continue under an amendment added to a transportation spending bill under consideration by the U.S. Senate.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R- Texas, added the amendment, which was originally passed in 2007 to prohibit tolling on existing federal highways in Texas. That amendment became part of the 2008 fiscal transportation bill.

Hutchinson said in a press statement that the new amendment will expand the Texas toll road moratorium on existing federal highways through September 2009.

The amendment still must go before the full Senate. It would not prevent the construction of new toll roads or newly constructed highways, and does not affect state highways.

© 2008, Dallas Business Journal:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Terri Hall goes to Washington

Local Toll Opponent to Address Ron Paul Rally

Hall among featured speakers in 'Freedom March'

July 11, 2008

By Jim Forsyth
WOAI (San Antonio, TX)
Copyright 2008

Local toll road activist Terri Hall, the Spring Branch home schooling mom who's campaign against toll roads made her WOAI's San Antonian of the Year for 2007, is taking her populist campaign nationwide.

Hall is among the speakers for Saturday's 'Freedom March,' in Washington DC, organized by supporters of former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, and designed to keep alive his message of smaller government and vigilance against encroaching government power.
"They wanted someone to speak about the Trans Texas Corridor, and what's happening here, and the eminent domain abuses, and how all these toll roads are tied to corporate sweetheart deals," Hall said.

She says she will address the group from the steps of the U.S. Capitol following a march through Washington.

Hall's group, Texans Uniting fro Reform and Freedom, has been a major advocate against toll roads across Texas, and has been instrumental in holding the Texas Department of Transportation and other state agencies accountable.

She says many of the speakers will talk about different things, but all share one basic point of view.

"Concern about losing our freedoms and liberties, concerns about the 'Real IF law, and some of the surveillance measures that we've been seeing," she said.

Paul, who is a southeast Texas Congressman, started the Freedom March when he withdrew from the presidential race earlier this year. The idea is to mobilize a continuing base of voters in support of his smaller government and anti war ideals.

© 2008, WOAI:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


NCTCOG and TxDOT compromise pumps up North Tarrant Express

North Texas regional council backs deal on Loop 820

July 11, 2008

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

ARLINGTON -- The North Texas Tollway Authority will pay $26 million to guarantee toll collections on the proposed expansion of Loop 820, a compromise that improves chances that the long-delayed project will be under construction by early 2009, officials said.
On Thursday, the Regional Transportation Council endorsed the compromise by the tollway authority and Texas Transportation Department, two agencies that are often at odds but are working together on the Loop 820 project.

Loop 820 is four lanes wide from North East Mall to Interstate 35W but would be expanded to six toll-free and four toll express lanes. It would be the first phase of a project known as North Tarrant Express, which also includes construction of new toll and nontoll lanes on I-35W in north Fort Worth and Texas 121/183 in Bedford, Euless and Hurst.

But private companies have been wary of bidding on the project because the tollway authority wasn't required to put up a bond guaranteeing that the developer would be paid.
Some RTC members worried that the tollway authority was taking money that should be spent on the east side of the Metroplex and using it to guarantee work on the west side.

But Tarrant County officials pleaded with their colleagues and noted that the $26 million payment could be used to guarantee toll collections on the east side, too.

"We are losing momentum daily," Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes told the RTC. "It's very important for 17 to 18 cities, from Fort Worth to Haslet."
The compromise also ends a nearly yearlong dispute between the tollway authority and Transportation Department over the Texas 121 toll road north of Grapevine. The tollway authority paid the transportation department $3.2 billion to take over the project, but the two agencies were at odds over the long-term value of interest payments. The department believed it was owed $52 million, but the tollway authority believed it owed nothing more. They compromised by splitting the $52 million and placing the money into an account for the North Tarrant Express project.

Transit talk
The Regional Transportation Council heard an update Thursday from its transit committee, which is working with business leaders to come up with a politically palatable plan to build a regionwide commuter rail system and also generate money for new roads.

The choices to pay for the project, now known as Rail North Texas, have been narrowed to six combinations of new taxes and fees, including increases in sales taxes, gas taxes, motor vehicle taxes, vehicle registration fees, new resident vehicle impact fees and a transportation property tax.

The options would require approval from the Legislature and voters in Tarrant and other counties wishing to join the regional rail/road network. Tarrant County's interest is primarily rail, but other counties could choose to use the money on roads.

Read more at (keyword "rail north texas")

Source: North Central Texas Council of Governments

GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

© 2008, Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


North Texas Tollway Authority Floats $1 Billion in Bonds

Texas toll road agency leads muni market with $1 billion sale


Adam L. Cataldo
Copyright 2008

NEW YORK - The North Texas Tollway Authority led borrowers in the municipal bond market with a US$1 billion sale Thursday to help finance a new toll road outside of Dallas.

Florida's Miami-Dade County will offer $468 million of water and sewer system revenue bonds. Proceeds will refinance insured variable-rate demand obligations whose cost rose, and to pay as much as $70 million to terminate a related interest-rate swap, finance director Rachel Baum said.

The Dallas-area toll-road operator revived a deal that was delayed in May amid rising borrowing costs. The bonds are rated A3 by Moody's Investors Service and BBB by Standard & Poor's. Top-rated municipal bonds gained 1.1 per cent for the year to date, while BBB rated bonds lost the same amount, based on total-return indexes compiled by Merrill Lynch & Co.

"The market's somewhat familiar with the story,'' said Paul Brennan, who manages about $14 billion of municipal bonds at Nuveen Investments in Chicago, said about the Texas deal. "There's going to be a pretty good opportunity if investors are comfortable with the credit.''

The Texas authority sold bonds maturing from 2031 to 2038 backed by a subordinate lien on their revenue. Underwriters, led by New York-based Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., received sufficient demand to raise the price and lower the yield on 30- year bonds by 1 basis point, or 0.01 percentage point, to 5.99 per cent after initial pricing.

State and local government borrowers are selling about $6.2 billion of fixed-rate bonds this week, close to the weekly average this year and up from $1.5 billion last week, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Yields on top-rated, 10-year general obligation debt declined 1 basis point, or 0.01 percentage point, to 3.81 per cent, according to data compiled by Municipal Market Advisors, a Concord, Massachusetts-based research firm. It was the 10th consecutive decline after reaching an almost 10-month high of 4.05 per cent on June 25.

The Texas debt will refinance a portion of one-year notes sold in November 2007 to help finance construction of a 26-mile (42-kilometer) extension of State Highway 121 outside Dallas. The authority won a 50-year concession to operate the highway last year, beating out Madrid-based Cintra Concessiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte.

To help finance that project, the authority expects to sell $5 billion of debt, according to its preliminary official statement.

The authority sold $1.7 billion of bonds on March 6, its most recent transaction, with a yield of 4.79 per cent on debt maturing in 2018. The debt was rated A2 by Moody's and A- by S&P. That was 94 basis points higher than yields on AAA rated municipal bonds that day.

The authority operates two highways, two bridges and a tunnel, according to their preliminary official statement.

Miami-Dade County will sell $400 million of revenue refinancing bonds, and $68 million of new debt, backed by revenue from its water and sewer system.

Proceeds from the sale will refinance the county's 1994 water and sewer system revenue bonds. Rates on that variable debt rose to ten per cent in April after the debt's guarantor, FGIC Corp., was cut to speculative grade by S&P.

The swap agreement the county is terminating requires it to make a fixed-rate payment on that debt in return for a floating- rate payment from New York-based American International Group Inc., said Baum, the county's finance director. The county has made an additional $6.5 million in swap payments since mid- February, Baum said.

The water and sewer system provides service to most of the county's almost 2.5 million residents, according to its official statement. The bonds are rated A by Fitch Ratings. The sale will be managed RBC Capital Markets, a subsidiary of Toronto-based Royal Bank of Canada.

© 2008, Bloomberg:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Grimes County officials continue foot-dragging on 391 Commission

Local republicans invite 391 commission speakers

Related Link: Texas 391 Commission Alliance


The navasota Examiner
Copyright 2008

The regular meeting of the Grimes County Republican Party held Monday, July 7, at 7 p.m. in the commissioners’ courtroom in Anderson featured a slightly different agenda and group in attendance.

This meeting was open to all concerned citizens, regardless of political affiliation, to gather information regarding the formation of a 391 sub-regional commission in Grimes County.

Special guests were Commissioner Glenn Beckendorff of Waller County, who is also an officer of the Waller County sub-regional planning commission and a director of the Houston- Galveston Area Council (COG); Trey Duhon, an attorney from Waller County, as well as a director for the Waller County Toll Road Authority and a director of the TTC/I-69 Advisory Committee; and Don Garrett, long time Waller County realtor and president of the Citizens for a Better Waller County Organization. Each spoke, then answered questions for the 35-plus people assembled Monday evening.

Grimes County officials attending were Judge Betty Shiflett, District Attorney Tuck McLain and councilman Norman from the newly-formed City of Iola.

Duhon presented an overview of a 391 sub-regional planning commission, explaining the state statutes authorizing the formation and authorities awarded the commission under those statutes.

He allayed the fears of some that a 391 might have the authority of eminent domain by citing Texas statutes as well as assuring listeners that for extra measure, special verbiage could be included in the commission by-laws to exclude any and all condemnation authority.

Another negative brought before the Iola City Council in a recent meeting was the threat of a lawsuit. Duhon again countered with an explanation of the commission’s authority, which in general is to coordinate with State Agencies. “How can someone get sued for coordinating?” he asked.

Beckendorff assured the group that forming a 391 sub-regional was not an obstructionist movement but a full-fledged effort to bring their county together to work toward common goals and improvements for the cities individually as well as the county as a whole. He cited a working example.

Several months ago, TxDOT proposed a road widening. The school district and bus drivers were concerned with the plan as presented because they felt it put the drivers and children at risk.

After contacting TxDOT and explaining their 391 commission was in progress, meetings were facilitated and the schedule and plans for the project were adjusted to meet the needs and safety concerns of the school district.

After a general question and answer session, Judge Shiflett spoke to the group. She reported on her recent visit with TxDOT and stated that TxDOT welcomed the formation of a 391 sub-regional planning commission.

She added that the Commisisoners Court still needs more information before making a decision on the matter.

© 2008, The Navasota Examiner:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

“We’ve got the law on our side. TxDOT has to do this thing right, or there will be no TTC.”

Rocks for the Goliath Road

Small-town leaders in Central Texas think they’ve found cracks in the Trans-Texas Corridor’s armor.

Related Link: Texas 391 Commission Alliance


Fort Worth Weekly
Copyright 2008

BARTLETT — Sitting in Lois and Jerry’s Restaurant, surrounded by a blue-jean and overalls lunch crowd, Mae Smith and Ralph Snyder don’t look like giant-killers. In fact, the small-town mayor (5’ 2”) and the salvage shop owner (6’ 6”) look more like a Mutt and Jeff comedy team.

But along with mayors, business leaders, and farmers in Bell County, north of Austin, and their counterparts in several other parts of the state, Smith and Snyder are taking on a Texas Goliath — the Trans-Texas Corridor, the monster transportation project being pushed by Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Department of Transportation.

Two years ago, the I-35 section of the project, planned to parallel the existing interstate, was seen as a done deal, and TxDOT was busy signing contracts with the Spanish-U.S. consortium called Cintra-Zachry to build a section of the corridor and operate it as a private toll road. Now, however, much of the political support for it has drained away in the face of widespread grass-roots opposition. Even the project’s backers say the small-towners’ group may have a chance of causing major holdups — and perhaps even fatal delays.

Smith, Snyder, and a growing group of leaders in other small towns and rural areas in the TTC’s path have found what they believe to be a chink in the giant’s armor, and they are exploiting it for all they’re worth — backed by national property-rights groups that have fought government land seizures in other states with some success.

In the last two years, Smith, the 64-year-old firebrand mayor of Holland, and the leaders of three other Bell County towns, with a combined population of less than 6,000, had grown increasingly worried about the threat that the TTC project posed for their communities. Frustrated by their inability to get state transportation officials to pay attention to their fears, the mayors found a provision in state law that allows for the creation of local planning commissions — and then requires TxDOT and other state agencies to coordinate projects with those commissions.

So they created a planning commission and began asking for consultations and records on TTC. And what they found in the process astounded them.

Smith said that TxDOT claims in official documents that it has studied the Corridor’s expected effects on communities it will run through — but that it has done no such studies. In the draft version of its environmental impact study, she said, the agency wrote a summary — the only part many busy lawmakers are likely to read — that varied wildly from the information in the body of the report.

The local officials charge that the transportation agency report broadly misstated its own consultant’s findings regarding jobs that the TTC would create and failed to mention heavy losses in personal income and in the tax base the project would cause. They say TxDOT has also ignored requirements in state and federal law that it consider effects on air quality and the environment, look into other alternatives — or even to state why the TTC, with its grand vision of toll roads, train and pipeline rights of way, and commercial areas controlled by private corporations, is needed at all. And, perhaps most importantly for one of the state’s richest farming areas, they charge that TxDOT has failed to consider the major impact the project would have on their federally protected farmland.

As a result, the planning commission is pressing for TxDOT to redraw its environmental impact statement and to stop any further work on the TTC until proper studies have been done and requirements met — or expect to be sued.

TxDOT officials have said only that they have contacted the Federal Highway Administration to find out if the Central Texas group, which now includes a fifth town, in Milam County, has the power to compel it to respond. TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippencott wrote in an e-mail that, “We are awaiting further guidance from [the federal agency] on whether and how to revisit the already-completed portion of this process.” Gov. Rick Perry, who has been the power behind the push for the TTC, declined to comment.

Perhaps worse news, from TxDOT’s point of view, is that, since the Central Texas group formed, four more local planning commissions have been formed in East Texas, two more are being organized on the other side of the state, and the Sierra Club is getting into the action, pointing out problems with the environmental assessment on another major portion of the TTC and asking that that work be delayed as well, until a new impact study is done.

The small-town group’s formal request to the state agency cites so many sins in the Corridor planning process, Smith said, that the detailed document “can almost indict people for the way TxDOT has purposely ignored state and federal law.”

Chapter 391 of the Texas Local Government Code is the not-so-secret weapon of the Central Texas officials who are fighting the Corridor. The code “says that TxDOT and other state agencies have to coordinate project planning with local planning commissions,” Smith explained, “so we formed one” – specifically, the Eastern Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission, of which she is president.

The commission was created in August 2007, by which time TxDOT had already released its draft environmental impact statement on the part of the Corridor project that affects Bell and Milam counties, known as TTC-35. In the draft statement, Smith said, the agency “claimed to have studied the highway’s environmental impact and the impact it would have on the communities it ran through, but that wasn’t true.” So the group asked for a meeting with TxDOT to talk about it.

At that first meeting, in October, Smith said, TxDOT officials admitted they hadn’t studied the environmental impact the planned 1,200-foot wide corridor would have on the area covered by the four towns — Holland, Bartlett, Rogers, and Little River-Academy (Buckholts has joined since then). That area is part of the Blackland Prairie, covered by the federal Farmland Protection Act.

A second meeting revealed that the environment wasn’t the only thing TxDOT hadn’t studied. The local commission concluded that in fact, TxDOT hadn’t studied much of anything with regard to Bell County “They had no idea how to answer questions about [the TTC] dividing our cities in half and the effect that might have on school districts, on the agriculture business this area depends on, or the effect that highway would have on our emergency services,” Smith said.

TxDOT officials, she said, promised they would do that work when they began the second phase of the project — that is, after they decided exactly where to put the superhighway. In the meantime, however, the agency was already buying land and making deals with contractors. “That’s not OK with us,” she said. “That’s not the law. You can’t begin to study the impact you’ll have after you’ve made your plans; you have to make your plans around the impact you are going to have.”

The planning commissioners also found that the state highway agency’s draft environmental study didn’t even agree with itself — the summary wasn’t supported by the text of the report.

And so Smith’s group sent out a formal request on May 20 to Edward Pensock Jr., the engineer who is director of corridor systems of the TxDOT’s turnpike division, asking the agency for a supplemental report on the project’s environmental impact.

The Central Texas commission backed up its request with a 28-page list of “deficiencies” in the current environmental assessment. Perhaps as important as the request itself is the commission’s insistence on when it should be done.

“We want the supplemental environmental impact study done by TxDOT prior to any further work or planning on the highway,” Smith said.

TxDOT wasn’t happy with the request and sent it on to the Federal Highway Administration, asking whether it indeed has to do a supplemental report. The federal agency’s answer is expected by the end of the month. And if the ruling favors the local commission, the entire TTC could be held up until that new report is complete.

A TxDOT official who asked not to be named said the state agency has satisfied its obligations by holding hearings and meeting with the commission — and that it isn’t required to actually address the commission’s request for a new study.

Not so says Snyder, the only non-elected member of the commission. “We’re a political entity, and as far as this request is concerned, there are things that TxDOT ignored under federal law,” he said. “And they’ve got no choice but to abide by those federal laws.”

Snyder predicted that the feds will pressure TxDOT to do the additional study before further work is done on the TTC plans. But if that doesn’t happen, he said, he’s confident that the commission can force the state agency’s hand through the court system. “We’ve got the law on our side,” he said. “TxDOT has to do this thing right, or there will be no TTC.”

The Central Texas group has environmental, economic, and legal issues to pick with TxDOT. One of their key points, for instance, is TxDOT’s claim that when the new superhighway is complete it will add 434,000 permanent new jobs and $135 billion in additional personal income in the state.

But in fact, the report done for the state agency on the TTC’s economic impact doesn’t make that prediction on new job creation, and suggests that the project would decrease personal income across the state by $90 million a year because of land to be taken by the project. On the TTC-35 section alone, the Perryman Group consultants predicted governments will lose $94 million in taxable property.

More than 4,000 acres would be lost just in Smith’s planning region, which includes an area roughly 30 miles by 30 miles. Additionally, the Perryman Group’s report, which was all but ignored by TxDOT in its draft environmental statement, predicted hundreds of millions of dollars would be lost from the agricultural sector.

In its request for a new impact report, the small-town group wrote that TxDOT’s draft environmental statement “should have revealed the [Perryman] study … and then analyzed those facts to determine the economic impact” on the region.

“In plain language, they had a study done, and then when the figures didn’t match what they wanted, they just made up some figures and put them in the summary they passed out,” Smith charged. “Just made them up.”

In addition to the financial losses to individuals and governments in the area, the TTC would force area governments to build their own overpasses and underpasses for all except state highway crossings — and some crossings could carry tolls. “None of those issues were even considered” in TxDOT’s draft environmental statement, said Smith.

Beyond that, the planning commission charges, are all the federal laws and even state needs that are being ignored by the TTC planning process, including the Environmental Protection Act.

But there is one overriding concern that the Central Texas commission members share, and it is more basic than tax losses or expensive overpasses. It is the land itself, the rich black clay that defines their region’s culture and economy. And in saving the land, they believe they’ve got the federal government — and, oddly enough, some of the federal government’s most implacable opponents — on their side.

Just a few miles east of I-35, near Salado, lies the heart of the Blackland Prairie. The gently rolling hills reach to the horizon, the fields alternating with stands of Osage orange, hackberry, cedar elm, oak, and pecan orchards. Corn ready for harvest stands next to the dark brown of the milo tops and the rich green of cotton. Recently harvested wheat fields expose the rich black clay from which the prairie gets its name.

Holland’s downtown, a block of old brick buildings dating back more than 100 years, is a throwback in time. The only lunch spot in town is closed for vacation. At noon a siren shrieks, calling the hour.

So when Mae Smith drives up in her dusty dark green Dakota pickup, we head over to Bartlett, to meet reinforcements and find lunch. She wears jeans and a red blouse, and her blonde hair is cropped short.

“Most of the people living here have been living here for generations,” she explains as she drives. “And they like this life. They may work in Temple or Austin, but they still live here. Just like their daddies and their daddies.”

Stepping out of the truck 20 minutes later on Bartlett’s main drag, we’re met by the huge figure of Snyder. He has the same searing blue eyes as Smith.

“Let me tell you something about the Blackland Prairie,” Snyder says. “In 1850 this was the most heavily populated area in the United States west of the Mississippi. That’s because of the soil here. Now the blackland, a fine clay, runs from Mexico up to Canada.” In some parts of the country, the swath of soil is 250 miles wide, but here it’s just 30 miles across. “And if you take any of it away, well, it’s gone forever, and these towns depend on the ag business.”

At one point in the lunch, he makes a dash to his truck and comes back with an ear of corn. “Take a look at that,” he says, peeling back the husk to show off a large ear with golden kernels. “The black clay here expands with the winter rains and then gives off the water during the summer months. We’re in the middle of a drought, and this was grown without irrigation. Farmers will be averaging 130 bushels of corn around here per acre without irrigation. This soil is a national treasure. To pave it over is a crime.”

Farmland is lost every day in this country to urban sprawl and road development, but this fertile region has federal law on its side — the Farmland Protection Act — as well as state protections. Although most of the Blackland Prairie in Texas is being farmed, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has identified the remaining 5,000 acres of the formation as deserving “high priority protection” — and has already recommended that TxDOT not put another huge highway through the area, but stick to the I-35 corridor to build any additional freeway capacity.

The Farmland Protection Act has already been used in freeway fights. According to the lawyer for a national property rights group, the Federal Highway Administration cited that law in rejecting plans for a new highway in Indiana, in favor of an alternative that had less impact on farmland.

The property rights group in question is called Stewards of the Range. And one of its founders is neck-deep in the TTC controversy.

Snyder was the linchpin in getting the Bell County planning commission off the ground. In the spring of 2007 he attended a meeting called by Margaret and Dan Byfield in the town of Jonah, about the TTC. “There had been a lot of misinformation put out by TxDOT on the Corridor, and the Byfields were meeting with the folks ... to give them the real story,” he said.

The Byfields, who joined us for lunch, are controversial figures. Margaret, 41, helped found the nonprofit Stewards of the Range in 1992, when the federal government moved to take away her family’s right to run their herds on 1,100 square miles of federal land next to their Nevada ranch. Dan Byfield, 54, is the president and founder of another land rights group, the American Land Foundation. When they met, the two were already involved with their respective organizations in the long-running private property rights called the Sagebrush Rebellion, which has pitted Western U.S. farmers and ranchers against environmental groups fighting for causes like the protection of wetlands and endangered species habitat.

The couple moved to Central Texas about five years ago — only to find that the behemoth TTC was being aimed within a mile of their property. It was the attorney for Stewards of the Range who drew up the Bell County group’s demand letter to TxDOT, asking for a new environmental impact study.

“We’ve often fought with environmental groups,” Dan said, “but in this case we seem to have come full circle and are fighting [alongside] them.”

It was from Dan Byfield that Snyder heard about the local government code provision that allows for creation of the sub-regional planning commissions. Similar federal provisions had been used by the Stewards of the Range to force the federal government to deal with counties in the West.

“I told him we ought to try it up in Bell County,” Snyder recalled, “because those people were already looking for a way to stop the TTC from destroying the Blackland Prairie.”

His first step was to approach each of the four mayors with his idea. “And then I got on the agenda for the city councils for each of the four cities and explained to them how a commission worked and that we wanted to form one. And as there was zero opposition to it, we did.” The school boards of the four cities joined as well.

“It wasn’t hard, because I knew everyone. Heck, I probably know everyone in Bell County,” said Snyder, 64, who owns three farms besides his salvage business.

From the viewpoint of Snyder, Smith, and the Byfields, the whole TTC is a land grab disguised as a transportation issue. Snyder pointed to a study done in the 1990s by the Federal Highway Administration and TxDOT. “That study says that you can expand I-35 in the existing right of way to build enough road to take care of our transportation needs until 2025,” he said. “But that study has been thrown away for the TTC. So it’s not about transportation.

“But the TTC is planned at 1,200 feet wide so that there will be room to lease land to McDonalds and gas stations and motels along the highway, and they’re going to lease the rights to use the pipelines and rail lines they’re planning. That’s when you get to see it for what it is: the use of eminent domain to grab hundreds of thousands of acres in rural Texas to make money.”

While none of Snyder’s property would be affected directly by any of the proposed routes of the TTC, he’s passionate on the issue. “A lot of people here have been here for as many as six generations. They’re not all very sophisticated, and they’re the ones who are going to be taken advantage of,” he said. “They’ve got no idea what their land is worth, they don’t trust lawyers, and they’re ripe. … You cut these towns up and you’ll kill them; they’ll never be the same again.”

A fellow in overalls at the next table leaned over to say, “I agree with you. I hope you stop it.”

Then Sammy Cortez, a huge young man whose arms are covered in tattoos, stopped by. “I can’t see it,” he said of the TTC. “People have been living on and working this land forever. They’re not going to give it up. I don’t even know why we need a new road.”

“That’s what most people are beginning to ask,” Dan Byfield said.

Another few miles away, through more lush farmlands, is the town of Little River-Academy. The drive comes with Smith’s travelogue of memory — here’s where the old road was, that pecan orchard is new, her uncle used to live over there.

At Gunsmoke Motors, wrecker service owner Ronnie White was inflating a stack of tractor-tire inner tubes. His family and friends were planning to celebrate the Fourth with a five-mile float down the Little River. A Navy veteran who took part in the Cuban missile crisis action and served in Vietnam, White has been mayor of this town, population 1,645, for 27 years. Now he’s also a member of the planning commission.

Light-hearted in talking about his holiday plans, he grew serious when the topic turned to the TTC. “The politicians and the people behind the corridor plan, they talk about how it will help the economy. I know I’ve had a few run-ins with the mayor of Temple — that’s the largest city in Bell County, with a population of close to 60,000. He’s all for it. He thinks the TTC is going to bring more money, help his city’s economy. But down here, out here in rural Texas, we don’t think that way.

“Our lifestyle is our wealth. Our land is our wealth,” he said. “People have been here for generations, and we’re happy with the way things are. If you start telling us you’re going to take our land and put up new shops and we’re going to start making a few more dollars and all we have to do is give up the way we live, well, that’s not something people around here are going to go for.

“When they were taking land for I-35, they took a much wider piece than they needed,” White said. “And we asked why they needed to take that much. The answer was that they’d need it in the future. Now they’re saying the same thing when they’re talking about taking 1,200 feet of land. Well, I say, ‘You already took all that land for I-35, so now use it.’ ”

Pensock, the TxDOT official, sounded supportive when he talked about the Central Texas group. “These folks that form regional subcommittees are very concerned folks,” he said, “and we definitely want to hear what they want to say and know what their thoughts are. We’ve already met with Mayor Smith and some of the other folks from the Holland area several times and spent a lot of time trying to give them information and answer their questions.”

He’s not quite so definite about what his agency needs to do in response. Does TxDOT have to meet the commission’s demand for a new study? “Well, they have a voice and a right to be heard,” he answered. “But Texas is a big state, and there are a lot of voices to be heard.”

Pensock doesn’t think that simply widening I-35 without taking more land is a real option. “People look at those broad medians and those gently sloping embankments and picture that we can just lay down another 12-foot lane. That’s not really the case. For one, our highway engineering specifications are quite rigorous. And then there’s the matter of why we put those medians there in the first place. They’re there to help prevent head-on collisions. Our first guiding principle is how to best keep traffic flowing while minimizing accidents.

“So say you take away those medians and turn them into lanes. Well, we think that will increase the risk of horrible accidents. And those gentle embankments? If you cut them at a steeper angle to add lanes, or get rid of them altogether and put up a retaining wall, you’ll get your lanes but at what price? How many more accidents will you have and how much more severe will they be?”

For now, TXDOT is waiting on word from the Federal Highway Administration before moving on the commission’s request for a supplemental study.

Fred Kelly Grant, president of Stewards of the Range, who wrote the commission’s request to TxDOT, said he’s thought from the first that the TTC issue would end up in court.

And Margaret Byfield said that, if that happens, the 5,000-plus-member Stewards group is ready to fund the fight. “Our membership opposes the corridor. And we’re nationwide, so we have the financial backing, and we’ve already got the attorneys. So we are ready to go to court.”

Smith said the commission has talked to officials of the Environmental Protection Agency and has a meeting scheduled with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged with protecting farmland.

“We’re tired of fooling around,” she said. “We want the supplemental studies done. And we’re coming at them from state law, from the EPA, the NRCS … from all sorts of directions.”

While the Central Texas group is lining up its arguments and allies, it also appears to have exported its revolutionary sentiment to other parts of the state. The several newly formed planning commissions in East Texas and around El Paso are considering asking for TxDOT to re-do the environmental studies on TTC’s impact in their areas as well.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club has also asked TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration to withdraw and redo the impact study on I-69, the leg of TTC planned between Laredo and Texarkana. The environmental group backed up its request with an 84-page document pointing out errors or omissions in TxDOT’s original report on that road.

Smith said she expects to see an attempt in the Texas Legislature next year to eliminate the part of the local government code that allows for the formation of local planning groups like hers. Grant, the Stewards of the Range attorney, said that even if that happens, legislators won’t be able to strip already-existing commissions of their powers.

“The public hearings that TxDOT holds are just that,” said Smith. “The people come in and speak what’s on their mind, but then TxDOT goes on its merry way. But with the commission we’ve formed, with four mayors and four school board officials, well, we’re all elected officials — TxDOT is compelled by Texas law to speak with us.

“We may not be able to stop a toll road,” she said. “But we set ourselves a goal when we formed: to get I-35 finished and expanded before anyone jumps into a toll road. And we believe that if that’s done, then people will see that a toll road isn’t needed at all.”

© 2008, Fort Worth Weekly:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

"Disband TxDOT altogether and start over."

TxDOT In Disarray

July 8, 2008

Jim Joslyn
KSAT (San Antonio)
Copyright 2008

SAN ANTONIO -- It's official. Texas Department Of Transportation really does need to be more accountable, responsive and transparent.

We could all guess what the Sunset Commission finally recognized: TxDOT is out of control and needs to take radical measures to restore trust.

Of course, TxDOT promises to do better, but we'll believe it when we see it.

They may be so far gone that the only way to fix TxDOT's mess is to disband them altogether and start over.

With a Trans-Texas Corridor and toll roads in play, as well as grossly miscalculated budgets, TxDOT needs more oversight now more than ever.

Until they realize they don't get a free ride with the public's money, TxDOT is likely to continue their pattern of mismanagement.

The report makes valid recommendations -- It's now up to the Legislature to act.

© 2008,

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Monday, July 07, 2008

"Mike will be a tremendous addition to the Board."

Heiligenstein elected to board of international toll association

July 7, 2008

Austin Business Journal
Copyright 2008

Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein has been elected to the board of directors of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, the worldwide association for toll facility owners and operators and businesses that support them.

Heiligenstein's term on the board will extend through 2012.

"As the dynamic leader of an innovative and highly successful startup toll agency, Heiligenstein has been a tireless advocate for addressing transportation funding challenges," says Patrick Jones, executive director and CEO of IBTTA. "With his knowledge, experience and vision, Mike will be a tremendous addition to the Board."

Heiligenstein has been at CTRMA since its creation in 2003 and oversaw the financing and construction of the independent agency's first toll road, 183A, which opened in March 2007. Heiligenstein has advocated innovative funding mechanisms to make $1.5 billion available for regional transportation.

"As more and more communities face the harsh reality of funding shortfalls, tolling is going to play a greater role in financing transportation," Heiligenstein says. "As communities struggle with the problem, I want IBTTA to be a resource they can turn to."

Prior to joining CTRMA, Heiligenstein spent more than 23 years in public service, first as a Round Rock city councilman and later as a Williamson County commissioner. He served as chair of the Clean Air Force, was a founding board member and two-time vice chair of the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council, a founding member and board member of Envision Central Texas, and a member of the Air and Water Quality Subcommittee of the National Association of Counties.

© 2008, Austin Business Journal:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"The tollway to nowhere, courtesy of our commissioners."

Williamson's plans for highway causing small uproar

Officials say they are trying to prepare for expected growth.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

GEORGETOWN — Adolph and Barbara Supak have plans for the land they live on west of Georgetown, 390 gorgeous, rolling acres in two large parcels tucked between Texas 29 and forks of the San Gabriel River.

At some point, their notion is to sell off some of the valuable land alongside the five-lane highway, a thin strip on the westerly parcel where someone might build stores or a restaurant. But behind that frontage, among the oaks, creeks and stock ponds where generations of Barbara Supak's family ranched and where the Supaks have lived for three decades, the plan is to sustain the Hill Country for their children and grandchildren to enjoy.

Williamson County, anticipating rapid growth from Georgetown to Liberty Hill, also has plans for that area. Big plans.

The county in a few weeks, after the completion of an initial $2.4 million engineering study of potential routes, will announce its preferred path for what would be a six-lane expressway (with up to six frontage road lanes alongside) on the Texas 29 corridor from just west of Georgetown to the Burnet County line a few miles past Liberty Hill. Those 12 potential lanes would require an Interstate 35-sized swath of right of way: 400 feet, more than triple the 120 feet the state owns on Texas 29 now.

Most of the route, if not all of it, will probably follow Texas 29, ballooning out north or south, or north and south, of the current pavement. The county, using money from a $228 million 2006 bond package, would begin buying that additional right of way once Williamson County commissioners make a choice. The county's engineers say 500 acres to 850 acres would be needed for the 400-foot width, at a cost of somewhere between $14 million and $41 million.

The county's intentions have caused what passes for an uproar in the still mostly rural northwestern quadrant of the county. The idea of a massive expressway, probably with tolls, replacing what is a lightly traveled highway is a concept many find outlandish. Especially with gas at $4 a gallon and Americans recalculating the math of long commutes.

Throw in Texas 29 landowners' fears that they'll be forced to sell their property — unfounded, it turns out — and you have the ingredients for a mini-rebellion.

"This is absurd," said Clyde Davis, a Liberty Hill real estate agent who owns several properties fronting Texas 29. "We don't have the money, and we don't have the need. The tollway to nowhere, courtesy of our commissioners."

Texas 29, at its busiest point in the section under study, has less than 16,000 cars a day. But the engineers, looking at the county's explosive growth since 1990 and a Texas 29 corridor with at least 20,000 more homes already approved for construction, see traffic tripling or more by 2035. As for high gas prices, officials say hybrid vehicle technology and cross-county commuting will sustain the market and justify expanding Texas 29.

Williamson County Commissioners Cynthia Long, who represents Liberty Hill and other territory in the western end of the project, and Valerie Covey, whose precinct takes in Georgetown and the Supaks' land, have taken the brunt of this. Long and other supporters of the effort emphasize that construction of the road is probably 15 to 25 years away. But better to buy what undeveloped land they can now, they say, rather than wait until Texas 29 is lined with businesses and subdivisions.

"If we don't do it now, we will not be able to afford to do it later," Long said.

The county will not use its power of eminent domain to force sales, county officials said. In fact, it can't.

On state highways, such as Texas 29, construction projects almost always use some federal transportation dollars. That in turn triggers a rigorous environmental process that includes an official designation of the route by the Federal Highway Administration. Until that occurs, and it is years away in this case, the county can't legally condemn land for the project, said Charlie Crossfield, an attorney who has long overseen Williamson County right of way purchases.

So the route that emerges from the study under way by engineering consultant Chiang, Patel & Yerby Inc. will be what amounts to a preliminary choice. To the extent that Williamson County buys land for the notional expressway, it will be taking a chance that the federal environmental process someday might yield a different route.

Adolph Supak, told that the county can't use eminent domain now, said that news is comforting. But the county's designs on part of his land, he said, will still throw his life into limbo and perhaps hurt the price of his land.

"It's not developable property," said Supak, 63, who commuted to Austin for years when he was assistant superintendent of the Austin State Hospital. "We can't do anything with it."

The county and CP&Y have put together dozens of possible combinations for the route. The section between D.B. Wood Road just west of Georgetown and Ronald Reagan Boulevard (the extension of Parmer Lane in Williamson County), which includes both Supak properties, has four alternatives. All hug the current road, and the one that Supak considers the most likely manages to snag nearly 300 feet from his properties on both sides of Texas 29.

Between Ronald Reagan and Burnet County, a stretch that includes Liberty Hill and its 1,510 residents, there are 16 possibilities. Several depart from Texas 29 and loop north or south around the developed part of the town. The longest — and from listening to the engineers, the most likely — would go north around the Sundance Ranch and Sundance Estates subdivisions and add about two miles to the trip from Georgetown to Burnet County. It would also avoid the necessity of buying out the numerous gas stations and other businesses on Texas 29 through Liberty Hill.

Davis, the Liberty Hill agent, said the timing for the route analysis is terrible. Liberty Hill, he said, is about to finally get sewer service and was set to take off economically. The turmoil set off by the Texas 29 decision is wholly premature and unnecessary, he said.

But Suzy Bates, a real estate agent and retired teacher who owns property on Texas 29 just west of town, said opponents are overreacting. In her lifetime, she has already seen Liberty Hill's "main vein" change from tiny Loop 332, to a two-lane Texas 29 on the outskirts of town, to the current five-lane Texas 29 that is now the de facto business district.

"I'm saying, 'Calm down,' " Bates said. "They're getting all upset when it's not going to happen for 20 or 30 years."

As for the fears of the Supaks and others about not being able to market their Texas 29 frontage before the road expands, she said businesses will still be interested in buying strips of highway land and developing small businesses. Those business owners, she said, will make money and be able to resell the land to the county or the Texas Department of Transportation at a premium when expansion arrives.

"The businesses that would be put there would follow the highway and move back," Bates said.

What will be lost, eventually and inevitably, is at least some measure of what ties longtime residents such as the Supaks to the land: the quiet and a Hill Country life dominated by raggedy wire fences, creeks, cows, family — and family history.

"I was in the hospital a month ago with high blood pressure just thinking about all this," Barbara Supak said. "I can't stand the thought of this happening to our property."; 445-3698

© 2008, Austin American-Statesman:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Sunday, July 06, 2008

“It’s a smoke screen, this is not over. We are going to be fighting this battle for several years.”

Is the Trans-Texas Corridor I 69 issue over?

Related Link: Texas 391 Commission Alliance


Groveton News
Coyright 2008

CORRIGAN – Is the Trans Texas Corridor-I 69 issue over? The Trinity-Neches Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission says no, at last week’s meeting held at Corrigan City Hall. Approximately twenty-five people attended the meeting to hear the commission’s plans.

According to TNTSRPC President Bob Dockens, on June 11 the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) held a press conference and announced that the department would no longer explore building the TTC-I69 through undeveloped areas of East Texas.

During the press conference, TXDOT officials said the I-69/TTC would use existing highway facilities, which in this part of the state means U.S. 59 through Angelina, Polk and San Jacinto counties.

According to Craig Whealy, member of TNTSRPC, “The maps are still in place for the TTC-I-69 and it could resurface in five, ten or fifteen years.”

“The thing we need to do is have some conversations with politicians to get rid of the maps,” stated Whealy.

“We have sent letters to TXDOT and will be hearing from them by July 18,” said Whealy. The planning commission will meet with TX DOT and they will address the commission’s questions.

Connie Fogle, member of TNTSRPC stated, “It’s a smoke screen, this is not over. We are going to be fighting this battle for several years.”

Dockens stated that the fight is not over.

“Spread the word to your friends, we need your support,” said Dockens.

“We need each entity to get a group of questions together for the TxDOT meeting,” stated Dockens.

According to Dockens, if the I-69/59 is put in place, Hwy 59, as we know it will only be feeder roads. The new roads will be limited access toll roads.

The Trinity-Neches Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission held their first meeting after representatives from Trinity, Groveton and Corrigan met on April 22, 2008 at Groveton City Hall.

The TNTSRPC was formed under the authority of the Texas Local Government Code Chapter 391 which allows counties and towns to “join together and cooperate to improve the health, safety and general welfare of their residents.”

Under chapter 391, state and federal governments must coordinate with local planning commissions concerning “com-mon problems of transport-ation” before building roads or other transportation facilities through their jurisdictions.

The TNTSRPC Board members are Bob Dockens– president, Corrigan Mayor Grimes Fortune– vice-president, Trinity Mayor Lyle Stubbs– secretary, Groveton Mayor Troy Jones– treasurer, Connie Fogle– member and Craig Whealy– member.

© 2008, The Groveton News News:

Related Link: Texas 391 Commission Alliance:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Would Dallas residents prefer visitors remember their trip for the Tex-Mex and rock shows or the toll violations?

My topsy-turvy tangle with Texas toll roads

July 6, 2008

Ben Westhoff
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

I visited Dallas, on business, for the first time in March. I enjoyed the local sights, shuttling around the northern suburbs and coming into the city for delicious Tex-Mex and an excellent rock show. The weather was great; everyone was kind.

But one aspect of my Texas odyssey left a bad taste in my mouth. Upon returning home to Hoboken, N.J., I received a notice in the mail from a Montana-based collection agency called Violation Management Services. It indicated that I had been billed for four 60-cent tolls in Texas , plus a $5 service fee for each. These $22.40 worth of charges had already been conveniently – make that inconveniently – charged to my credit card.

I had no idea what this was about. Though I remembered handing over dollars to some toll attendants, I certainly didn't recall driving through any tolls without paying.

Upon investigation, however, I realized this was exactly what I had done. It turns out that I couldn't have paid even if I'd wanted to. And the same confusing system ensnares other visitors all the time.

Let's back up a little. Upon arriving at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, I endured a long shuttle ride to the airport's rental car center. After getting over the fact that I was going to have to pay a huge percentage of my Advantage Rent A Car bill in taxes and fees (including a 15 percent sales tax, an 11.11 percent airport fee, a $2.50-per-day licensing fee, a $4-per-day airport concession fee and a 77-cents-per-day transportation fee) I quickly scanned my rental agreement and signed it.

What I apparently glossed over – and what other Dallas renters miss all the time – is a clause permitting the rental car company to turn over the collection of any unpaid tolls to a third-party agency. Why would I have paid the clause any mind? I'm not the type to break any traffic laws, much less bust through tolls like this was an episode of Dukes of Hazzard.

Little did I know that along State Highway 121, physical tolls have been replaced by electronic tolls. Instead of humans or machines collecting change, cameras snap pictures of your license plate, and you aren't given the option of stopping to pay.

It works like this: If you have a TxTag, Toll Tag or EZ Tag, the charge is deducted from your account. If you don't, a bill is sent to the address corresponding with the vehicle's license plate number. That means that if you're driving your own car, the fee (plus a surcharge) is sent to you at home. (If your kid is driving your car, it still gets sent to you at home, but that's another matter.)

But if you're driving a rental car, the bill is sent to the rental car company. Then – in the case of Advantage and at least a few others – the rental car company passes it along to a third-party collection agency, which adds a service charge and bills you. I had to pay $5 per "infraction," but some companies hit you a lot harder; renters with Thrifty and Dollar are charged $25 each.

I called Violation Management Services, Advantage's collection agency, to complain. The agent said that although plenty of others like me have made similar complaints, we have no recourse.

But I should look on the bright side, she said; until last fall, the company charged $40 for each infraction of this type. Only after being besieged with complaints did they lower their fee to $5. Why? "Because it's not fair to you to have to pay $40 for something you don't have any control over," she explained.

But $5 is fair?

The agent next referred me to TxTag, the company that handled the Highway 121 tollway when I visited. (As of April 4, responsibility was handed over to the North Texas Tollway Authority.)

She explained that, yes, other people had the same complaint. But she implied that we were all a bunch of whiny complainers, since there are clearly marked signs on 121 explaining that the road is a tollway.

But there's no indication that 121 is a special kind of toll road. It's beyond me how a non-local can be expected to know the difference between (A) toll roads where you can pay with change and (B) toll roads that send you a bill in the mail. (Though more common in other countries, electronic tolls that employ video cameras are still quite rare in the U.S.)

Sure, if I'd seen a sign saying, "Renters, get the heck off the road now, or you're going to get stuck with surcharges!" I would have exited immediately and hoped my GPS could come up with an alternate route. But as far as I could tell, Highway 121 drivers aren't given any explanation of what's going on until they get to the toll itself, at which time they're informed that they can use a tag or else "Pay By Mail."

This is where it begins to seem like a cruel hoax. Pay by mail? Huh? Where does one get the envelope?

I next asked the TxTag operator what course of action she would have suggested for me. Avoiding the road altogether? "Pretty much," she said. "In the case of 121, that's what we would recommend. Otherwise, there will be extra charges, and there will be extra fees."

An NTTA representative was more sympathetic. "If I was from another state, I might not [understand] something like that either," he said, suggesting that the next time I'm in town I use service roads instead of Highway 121.

Perhaps Advantage would have more helpful advice, given the number of renters they send out on the streets of North Texas every day?

But no. An agent said that the next time I was in town, I had another option. She gave me an 800 number to call shortly after going through an electronic toll, and the charge would be excused. (They even have a sign saying as much on the premises.)

But that number is for TxTag, which no longer administers the road. And an operator with the new administrator, NTTA, said she had no idea what the Advantage agent was talking about; they would not, in fact, excuse these charges.

This is a relatively small problem now; only Highway 121 and one Dallas North Tollway exit use the electronic tolls. But soon all NTTA tolls in the area will be electronic. Starting in August, the remaining cash booths will be ripped out.

No doubt, many drivers will find this more convenient. But, as the system is configured now, it is a potential nightmare for visitors. It's easy to image folks returning home with three- and four-figure surcharges "conveniently" added to their credit cards.

Aggravation for renters is not the only problem with electronic tolls. Economic studies – including one conducted by M.I.T. recently reported on in Scientific American – also show that toll prices rise more quickly when drivers aren't physically dispensing money.

But despite these problems, I do not advocate eliminating camera-aided tolls. They have a couple of important advantages. By making traffic flow faster, they are more convenient and gentler on the environment than old-fashioned tolls; long lines of idling cars burn more gas and produce more exhaust.

I do suggest, however, that y'all work a little harder to make life easier on out-of-town guests. One suggestion would be to maintain a single toll lane for renters or folks who want to pay with cash. Short of that:

• Rental car companies could charge the tolls directly to the renter's credit card themselves – without employing a collection agency, and without adding a surcharge. In fact, The Dallas Morning News just reported that Advantage is thinking of severing ties with Violation Management Services and trying a method in which renters pay $5 a day or so to cover their tolls.

• Renters could be given the opportunity to rent a tag apparatus from the rental car company.

• At the very least, renters should be made aware upon signing their agreements that they may encounter tolls they won't be able to pay. They should be told exactly where those tolls are and informed of alternate routes.

Every municipality has its quirks. Here's hoping that this one can be fixed, which would permit people like me to enjoy their time here even more. I'm sure Dallas residents would rather visitors remember their trip for the Tex-Mex and rock shows rather than the toll violations.

Ben Westhoff is a freelance writer; his e-mail address is ben.westhoff@

© 2008, The Dallas Morning News:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


“We’re out of the station. We’re quickly picking up momentum.”

High speed rail plan put to sniff test

July 6, 2006

by Paul A. Romer
Temple Daily Telegram
Copyright 2008

BELTON - The best way to describe a meeting between high speed rail proponents and Bell County commissioners last week may be to compare them to two dogs that approach each other, sniff around for a while and then choose to go in different directions.

Officials from both organizations used careful language after the Monday meeting to describe exactly what occurred but their words were measured, possibly to preserve political relationships for future considerations.

It may be more beneficial to the people of Bell County to know what didn’t occur.

The Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corp. would like Bell County to become a dues paying member of the corporation, which is taking its message all around the state that now is the time for high speed rail in Texas. But an invitation for Bell County to come aboard for the ride was not extended.

Maybe it was the tepid response from commissioners that curtailed the invitation, but paperwork describing the benefits of such membership was contained in packets of information distributed to commissioners before the meeting.

Two Bell County cities, Killeen and Temple, are already spending taxpayer money to support the rail corporation’s efforts in bringing high speed rail, dubbed the Texas T-Bone Corridor, to the state. Each city pays annual membership dues of $25,000.

The rail corporation is proposing that two high speed rail lines be built: one from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to San Antonio and the other from Houston to Fort Hood. The lines would cross in the Temple area.

This fiscal year the rail corporation will bring in $210,000 in membership dues, according to officials. At this point the dues appear to be used almost exclusively to promote the idea.

“We are working to plan this,” Bill Jones III, Temple mayor and corporation vice chairman, said to commissioners. “We don’t have all the answers. We’re doing nothing but raising dues that support us to get the word out right now.”

None of the Bell County commissioners spoke in favor of the proposal. Each had questions that when considered together helped show the high speed rail project for what it is: a speculative proposal that is in its infancy.

Eddy Lange, commissioner in Precinct 3, spoke with the most passion against high speed rail.

“The timing could not be worse coming right off the tail of the Trans-Texas Corridor,” he said. “I’m open (to new ideas) but right now I’m not coming out in support of this. It would be political suicide for any of us.”

Lange said he felt sure his constituents in eastern Bell County would be against selling their land so that rail infrastructure could be built. He said his constituents would even be against an above ground rail that would help preserve farmland.

In its promotional materials the rail corporation identifies more than 20 congressional and legislative supporters - including U.S. Rep. John Carter - but it is unclear the level of support of these state and national leaders.

Some have written letters supporting the concept of high speed rail, encouraging the rail corporation to combine private and public resources to see if it has potential to benefit Texas. Others believe high speed rail is coming and want it in their state or district first.

Tim Brown, commissioner for Precinct 2, said the transportation model in Texas is very different from the model where similar trains are operating in Asia and Europe. The population in Texas is more spread out than other regions using high speed rail.

And Brown doesn’t believe the train would make a substantial impact on highway traffic. He said it would compete more directly with small airports.

“This could put our small airports out of business,” said Richard Cortese, commissioner for Precinct 1.

Brown said it is time that the corporation move past concepts and start compiling data to see if such a project is even feasible.

“I understand the concepts; I’d like to see the numbers,” he said. “We need to know if it can work. Right now there is a line on the map drawn up by the people who have given money.”

County Judge Jon Burrows intimated that the county would like to be involved early on with a venture that would relieve future highway congestion and provide more transportation options to residents but at this point he doubts that the organization would have the political clout to bring the T of the T-Bone through Bell County. He said a more logical route might be from Houston to Austin.

“My concern is the political realities,” Burrows said. “If this thing gets close to happening, Austin and San Antonio may come forward with fistfuls of money and Bell County could be left out.”

Comments made by John Fisher, commissioner for Precinct 4, seemed to support Burrow’s position. Fisher asked the group who they had spoken to at Fort Hood. He said he has not talked to a single official from the base who said high speed rail was an option for the Army moving its freight.

Jones said the rail line may prove most useful to families and soldiers traveling to and from Fort Hood.

The annual meeting of the rail corporation is scheduled for Aug. 13 in Irving. The meeting will include a year-end review, overview of fact-finding missions to areas with high speed rail and legislative planning for 2009.

The corporation has a goal of bringing high speed rail to the state by 2020, which critics say may not be possible.

Brown estimates that it would take 10 years to do an environmental analysis of the area where the track would run and another 10 years to build it.

To accomplish its objectives the rail corporation would have to move at a pace much faster than what government is generally accustomed to. Jones says the project can meet its objectives if the public and private sector work together.

“We’re out of the station. We’re quickly picking up momentum,” he said.

© 2008, Temple Daily Telegram:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE