Thursday, February 19, 2009

"While 'last rites' for the TTC have been announced, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the corridor has continued."

Revised corridor plans still under review


Country World News
Copyright 2009

In the wake of a recent announcement that the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) proposal is dead, Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) officials have met with several sub-regional planning commissions to clarify what projects associated with the TTC will still go forward.

Members of the sub-regional commissions, which were formed in response to the corridor, have expressed concern that while last rites for the TTC have been announced, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the corridor has continued.

Doug Booher, an environmental specialist with the Texas Turnpike Authority, told the commission that the state EIS is continuing because individual corridor projects are still being planned.

“The documents for the EIS, as it relates to the Trans-Texas Corridor as a whole concept, have to be revised,” he said.

Mark Tomlinson, director of the Texas Turnpike Authority Division, said the TTC-35 and I-69 programs will go forward as individual projects rather than as part of a larger system. The turnpike division is responsible for toll roads and other financing options for TxDOT.

The TTC-35 project calls for a highway running roughly parallel to Interstate 35 from the Red River to the Mexican border. The I-69 project would create a highway running from Texarkana to Laredo or the Rio Grande Valley.

“The overall goal of the (EIS) document is the same,” he said. “How we plan to implement the projects has changed. For example, the overall width of the corridor projects still under consideration was conceptualized at 1,200 feet but are now closer to 600 feet.” He added that the proposed paths haven’t changed, and that the widths weren’t considered when the first proposed routes were drawn.

Gov. Rick Perry first proposed the TTC in 2002 as a $175 billion, 4,000-mile network of highways, rail and communication lines through the state. The elaborate system was designed to ease overcrowding on current highways and accommodate future growth.

The plan was controversial from the first. The massive amount of land needed for the project drew critical attention from farmers, ranchers and rural landowners.

Agriculture groups, such as the Texas Farm Bureau and others, spoke out loudly against the proposal at a series of public hearings to gather public input on the TTC.

Fred Kelly Grant, a lawyer and legal adviser for the sub-regional planning commissions, asked the officials if they have worked within the provisions of the Farmland Protection Policy Act in drafting the EIS.

“That (Farmland Protection Policy Act) is not the only factor we have to consider,” Tomlinson said. “We looked at unique farmland on both sides (of Interstate 35) but we also have to look at the Endangered Species Act, which comes into play a lot more on the western side of the highway. Until it’s an actual project, we can’t say for sure how the Farmland Protection Act will come into play.”

Richard Skopic, district engineer for TxDOT, said the federal stimulus plan could have an impact on TxDOT’s ability to fund projects like TTC-35 and I-69, but added that it is too early to tell what impact, if any, it will have.

“Part of the plan, as it stands now, calls for $27 to $30 billion for highways, bridges and transportation,” Skopic said. “I think we could expect Texas to get just under $2.5 billion. When you look at that amount of money, it’s less than what we spent on similar projects over the last five years.”

TxDOT Executive Director Amando Saenz announced at a transportation conference in Austin last month that the name Trans-Texas Corridor, as a single-project concept, is not the choice of Texans and that the name will be put to rest. He also announced the Innovative Connectivity in Texas/Vision 2009 program, which includes a policy of meeting with local groups for input on transportation projects.

Dan Byfield with the American Land Foundation, a private property rights group that advises the sub-regional commissions, said that TxDOT has held several meetings with the local commissions.

“The Pineywoods group got a letter from Amando Saenz saying that the department looks forward to working with them on the I-69 project,” he said. “That’s a step in the right direction.”

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