Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Citizens' groups will keep watching to make sure new roads "meet the public's transportation needs and not Wall Street's profit needs."

Trans-Texas Corridor is dead, TxDOT chief says


Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2009

AUSTIN — In response to public outcry, the ambitious proposal to create the Trans-Texas Corridor network has been dropped and will be replaced with a plan to carry out road projects at an incremental, modest pace, a state transportation official announced today.

"The Trans-Texas Corridor, as it is known, no longer exists," said Amadeo Saenz Jr., executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, at the agency's annual forum in Austin.

The state, he said, will carry forward with modifications to proposed projects and will rely heavily upon input from Texans through more town hall meetings and an updated Web site.

He also made clear that, should toll lanes be added to various roads, tolls will be assessed only on those, and not existing lanes.

The renewed effort now will operate under the name "Innovative Connectivity Plan."

The decision won applause from a number of officials and watchdog organizations. David Stall of the citizens' group Corridor Watch called it a major victory for Texans.

"We're real pleased that a project once described as unstoppable has now screeched to a halt," he said.

Saenz said the state will continue to pursue various projects, including the Interstate 69 project. If, however, more lanes are needed along U.S. 59, the state will simply widen that roadway, Saenz said.

Last January, town hall meetings conducted across the state drew huge crowds but few supporters for Gov. Rick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor plan, particularly among rural property owners north and west of Houston.

TxDOT announced last summer that the corridor would stick to major highways for most of the route in southeast and South Texas.

The proposal called for a network of broad corridors linking major cities, with toll roads for cars and trucks, rail tracks for freight and passenger trains, and space for pipelines and power lines.

Thousands of residents crowded into public meetings to question and lambaste the plan, complaining it would take too much private land, and bring traffic and crime to small towns and rural areas.

Perry, who is visiting troops in Iraq, said today that the name Trans-Texas Corridor is dead, but that the state will still look at public/private partnerships to build roads, including toll roads.

"The name Trans Texas Corridor is over with. We're going to continue to build roads in the state of Texas," Perry said.

"Our options are relatively limited due to Washington's ineffectiveness from the standpoint of being able to deliver dollars or the Legislature to raise the gas tax," he said. "So we have to look at some other options."

Stall, the Corridor Watch leader, said his group understands that toll roads likely will be needed to address congestion. But he said those roads now will be built to meet local transportation needs rather than to allow a private company to profit from business development along new routes.

He said his group will continue to watch TxDOT to make sure new roads "meet the public's transportation needs and not Wall Street's profit needs."

Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Chairman John Carona said the announcement "should be of great relief to literally thousands of Texans we heard from who were opposed to the Trans-Texas Corridor as first envisioned."

It also removes a distraction for the Legislature, which will convene on Jan. 13.

"We can now focus on the real issue, which is additional road capacity and the means to finance the same," said Carona, R-Dallas.

He said his goals are to win passage of a proposed constitutional amendment that would, if approved by voters, dedicate all of the motor fuels tax to highway funding.

Additionally, he said, the Legislature should pass a bill that ties the gas tax to inflation.

"Operating off a 1991 motor fuels tax makes funding our transportation needs impossible," he said.

Carona said raising the gas tax will be politically difficult.

"I try to remind people, we're not just talking about the inconvenience of congestion," he said. "Insufficient road capacity affects the quality of life and economic development. It also effects air quality."

Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, said she is glad that TxDOT is responding to people who were concerned that their land would be condemned to make way for the huge corridors — four football fields wide — envisioned for the TTC.

"I'm optimistic that they're going to continue to listen to the citizens and make sure that private property rights are protected," said Harless, a member of the House Transportation Committee.

Chris Lippincott, a spokesman for the transportation department, said the public reaction played a key role in dropping the TTC.

"As we evaluated these projects against the backdrop of public reaction and assessments of local leaders, we realized we could go forward with a more modest approach," he said.




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