"The name isn’t the problem"
By JOANN LIVINGSTON
Waxahachie Daily Blog
The Trans-Texas Corridor is dead – maybe.
The Texas Department of Transportation announced during a forum in Austin on Monday that it was scuttling plans for the project as it was envisioned.
In its place is a scaled down model with a new name – Innovative Connectivity in Texas/Vision 2009 – that the agency says will be more in tune with local needs and public concerns.
In his prepared remarks, as published on TxDOT’s Web site, the agency’s executive director Amadeo Saenz said the TTC, as a single project concept, wasn’t what Texans wanted, “so we’ve decided to put the name to rest.”
“That does not mean that we will abdicate our mission. We will still develop transportation projects that move Texas forward,” the remarks read. “We will still partner with local governments and entities, and where appropriate, the private sector, to get needed projects on the ground.
“We will still use all the financial tools that have been authorized by law to get projects to Texans sooner rather than later.”
As originally proposed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2002, the Trans-Texas Corridor would encompass not only lanes for passenger vehicles, but would also bundle lanes for large rigs, freight rail, passenger rail and other utility easements into a bundle that would be 1,200 feet wide.
Complaints against the TTC have ranged from loss of farm and ranch land that has been in families for generations to loss of livelihood, as well as economic devastation for rural Texas. Many people have expressed fears their communities will be bypassed and or cut off by the transportation project that could – if built out completely – include 8,000 miles of roadway criss-crossing the state. Opponents to the project say thousands of acres would be taken from property owners in eminent domain proceedings.
Concerns also have been raised in Texas as to whether or not Perry’s plan is part of a greater agenda that would seek to bring about a North American Union comprised of the United States, Canada and Mexico.
What’s in a name?
TxDOT’s Web site, www.keeptexasmoving.org, reports the Trans-Texas Corridor name “has taken on unintended meaning that can obscure the facts.”
In a conference call from Iraq, where he and several other governors were visiting the military, Perry said, “The days of the Trans-Texas Corridor are over, it’s finished up. The name ‘Trans-Texas Corridor’ is over with.”
TxDOT “is continuing to make good decisions for the state of Texas,” Perry said during the call. “The fact of the matter is we don’t really care what name they attach to building infrastructure in the state of Texas, but the key is we have to go forward and build the infrastructure so the state of Texas and our economy can continue to grow.”
The name isn’t the problem
Concerns about the project haven’t been confined to Texas. The TTC and the issue of toll roads also drew attention from Congress, where U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, passed an amendment that placed a one-year moratorium on tolling existing highways in the state of Texas and also pushed for a permanent prohibition of tolling existing highways. The senator also became involved when concerns were raised after the North Texas Tollway Authority was awarded the contract for State Highway 121 instead of the Spanish-based Cintra. Hutchison garnered assurances from the U.S. Department of Transportation that federal funding would not be impacted.
A spokesman for Hutchison, who is Perry’s likely opponent in the 2010 gubernatorial election, said that in fact the Trans-Texas Corridor name isn’t the problem but rather the cross-state tollways associated with it and the rural land that would be needed to build them.
“When citizens pointed out the flaws in his original corridor idea, specifically trampling private property rights, the Perry administration responded with condescension and arrogance,” said Todd Olsen, an Austin-based spokesman for Hutchison’s gubernatorial exploratory committee. “It wasn’t about a name.”
The transportation agency’s Web site indicates parts of the original concept will still be constructed: “Whether in far south Texas, the northeast region of the state or somewhere in between, major corridor projects will be comprised of several small segments no wider than 600 feet, and will no longer be called the Trans-Texas Corridor. Each segment will be referred to by its original name, such as SH 130, I-69 and Loop 9.”
The Web site also notes, “There are currently two TTC projects under development: I-69/TTC, which extends from Texarkana/Shreveport to Mexico (possibly the Rio Grande Valley or Laredo) and TTC-35, which generally parallels I-35 from north of Dallas/Fort Worth to Mexico.”
The Web site says some TTC-35 facilities “could be constructed upon completion of the Tier Two environmental studies and in response to a demonstrated transportation need.”
Ellis County impact
A map on the www.keeptexasmoving.com Web site indicates a preferred route through Ellis County that would bisect the county in half. County commissioners have previously passed a resolution asking that the route – if constructed – be moved so as to run north and south along the Ellis/Hill counties line.
Ellis County Judge Chad Adams and county planner Barbra Leftwich are in attendance at the two-day transportation forum.
In a telephone interview, Adams responded to the TxDOT announcement.
“The message I got this morning in visiting with TxDOT officials is that this is the beginning of a new way of doing business for TxDOT – that they have chosen to be more responsive to the citizens of Texas and their concerns,” Adams said.
“I am certain that all the local elected officials will be paying close attention to how this all plays out in the coming months, and listening very carefully to the voices of our citizens,” he said.
Political activists pleased, but wary
David Stall of Corridor Watch has opposed the project since its inception six years ago – and has headed up the Corridor Watch Web site for the past four.
“Of course, we’re pleased,” he said. “The statements and reports of Vision 2009 that TxDOT released today puts a lot of spin on it, but the result is still a major victory. We’re pleased that the corridor project as it was no longer exists.”
Changes in the project include the corridor’s width being cut in half and its multi-modal element dropped. There’s also an emphasis on using existing facilities, he said.
“TxDOT has indicated there will be greater community and local input on projects as they are developed,” he said, noting however that Corridor Watch’s work isn’t over. The group will continue to monitor the Legislature, watching over bills and working with legislators and attending committee meetings.
“I think we will remain vigilant, although the nature of the effort will change significantly in some respects,” Stall said.
Lawmakers have filed bills, he said, that will ensure the TTC is brought to an end. “We look forward to seeing that happen to make sure that this isn’t the end of the first reel of monster film only to see it come back in a sequel,” he said.
Much of the last four years was spent in educating the public and Legislature about the massive project – with Stall anticipating the education effort will continue in particular with legislators and public officials with a focus on how public/private partnerships are utilized.
He does wonder if public interest and participation will wane now that TxDOT is saying the TTC is no more.
It was the public rallying together that brought pressure on TxDOT, an agency Stall notes is under Sunset Review this legislative session.
“I think that the action today is a very high profile demonstration that public participation can have an impact on statewide and local policy – and we applaud our members and all of those likeminded Texans who have raised their objections,” he said. “The evidence is there today.”
Is there a victory?
Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom is hesitant at declaring victory.
“We think a lot of this is the fact that the legislative session is about to begin and this is a last gasp by a rogue agency that’s about to be scrapped and rebuilt all over again by the Legislature,” she said. “They’re trying to convince everyone they are listening to the people.” Right now, it’s just “a bunch of words and hot air,” she said. “At the end of the day, no legislation has been repealed, no minute orders have been rescinded, no CDAs scrapped and there are two signed contracts on the first five segments of the TTC,” she said. “They haven’t changed the environmental impact statement documents. … Until all of that’s done, they don’t mean it.”
The EIS documents are pending federal approval and are especially worrisome to Hall, who said if they’re not changed – and no other action taken such as legislation repeal – that TxDOT could resume the project as is when the OK is received from Washington.
“Once the feds give their final approval and put it into the register, there are only six months to litigate,” she said. “Once that deadline expires or passes, there’s no way to stop it after that. … We don’t want to be duped and we don’t want to wake up two years from now and see ground being broken.”
A number of bills have been filed in anticipation of the 81st Legislature, which is set to convene Jan. 13 in Austin.
Among those is House Bill 11 filed by state Rep. David Leibowitz, D-San Antonio, which would repeal authority for the Trans-Texas Corridor by removing any reference to the project from the state’s Tax and Transportation codes.
There is work ahead for the Legislature, agrees state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who was co-author on a bill during the 80th Legislature that put the TTC under a moratorium until the 81st session.
“I’m pleased TxDOT recognizes the widespread opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor,” Pitts said of Monday’s development. “But we still have a lot of work to do next session toward reforming this agency and ensuring it is accountable to the public.”
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