Opposition Arises to $184B Trans Texas Corridor

Tue February 22, 2005 - West Edition

AUSTIN (AP) Farmers oppose it, metro area officials are upset about it and now state lawmakers have their own concerns about the Trans Texas Corridor, Gov. Rick Perry’s $184 billion plan to build megahighways around the state.

While the Legislature would seem unlikely to put the brakes on Perry’s ambitious transportation plan, lawmakers appear willing to start tinkering with policies regarding tolls, eminent domain and just how wide the corridor will be.

“Change brings about cause for concern,” said Sen. Todd Staples (R-Palestine), chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security.

“We know there’s a mobility crisis in Texas today,” Staples said. “The status quo won’t do. Change must occur. We want change to occur in the most user-friendly manner as possible.”

Staples’ committee heard invited testimony from state Transportation Commissioner Robert Nichols, the Texas Farm Bureau and other groups affected by plan that could include concrete and rail corridors snaking around the state and stretching as wide as 1,200 feet in some areas, with enough room for cars, trucks, trains, pipelines and utility cables.

The proposed first phase of the project, a 300-mile stretch of tollway from San Antonio to the Oklahoma border, would run parallel to Interstate 35.

The hearing also allowed senators to raise concerns about the project, which is charging full steam ahead as the state negotiates with the Spanish consortium Cintra to begin the first phase.

Cintra’s proposal is still developing but essentially calls for it to spend about $7.2 billion in private money for construction. In return, the company wants to maintain and operate the tollway for 50 years.

Nichols said the corridor was the best answer to solving the problems of Texas’ increasingly congested highways.

“We could build a new highway quicker, cheaper and with a lot more capacity,” he said.

Perry spokesman Robert Black said the sweeping corridor project will only be built as needed.

“Governor Perry firmly believes the construction of Trans Texas Corridor is vital for the economic future of the state,” he said.

Texas farmers are worried they’ll lose large chunks of land and be inconvenienced if a large highway splits their property. Cities like Dallas and Waco are worried the new route would take commerce away from established commercial centers.

If the corridor is 1,200 feet wide in some areas as planned, a farmer could lose as much as 146 acres per mile, said Albert Thompson of the Texas Farm Bureau. The bureau last year adopted a resolution opposing the Trans Texas Corridor.

Farmers object to the state condemning their land to give to a private company to earn a profit, and the prospect the state could drill water wells on corridor easements running through their property.

Sen. Jon Lindsey (R-Houston), told Nichols he thought the project could be scaled back to take only about 25 percent of its present size.

Nichols said officials planned wide so that it could be expanded if needed. The Trans Texas Corridor might not be needed if federal interstate system planners in the 1950s had allowed room to grow, he said.

He also tried to calm the farmers concerns about water rights.

“[The state] isn’t planning on going out and drilling water wells and sucking down the aquifers,” Nichols said.

On other transportation and toll road issues, Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), said she wanted to write into law a policy that prevents the state from tolling roads that drivers are currently using for free.

That issue flared up last year with the approval of the Statewide Mobility Program, a blueprint developed from regional transportation plans, nearly all of which include toll roads.

Shapiro said any toll money collected should stay in the region where it is paid. Nichols acknowledged that would be the first choice, but current law allows the state spend unused toll funds somewhere else.