TransTexas Corridor still raises more questions than answers, opponents say
Polk County Enterprise - March 2008
LIVINGSTON — Members of the Livingston Specialty Merchants Guild are mobilizing to oppose the TransTexas Corridor and its potential negative effects on the Livingston business community as well as potential losses of private property. Guild members met with County Judge John Thompson and former Texas Rep. Dan Ellis to discuss the local impact of the proposed project. “There is so much up in the air a lot of the questions people have about where it’s going and is my property going to be affected there really isn’t an answer to,” County Judge John Thompson said. Thompson added that the hearing process for Tier One is a federally mandated process and the study area will continue to shrink as the process continues.
As the Texas Department of Transportation moved into Tier Two, federal approval will be required before property acquisition and construction can begin. Thompson estimates that stage is roughly three years away. For TCC/I-69 opponents a much bigger opportunity to stop the project will occur during the 2009 session of the Texas Legislature. TxDOT will undergo its mandatory Sunset Review during the session. The 12-member commission reviews all state agencies every 12 years.
To prepare for the review, an outside contractor prepared an audit of all agency function and has submitted it to the Sunset Advisory Commission. TxDOT’s self-evaluation report is available online at http://www. txdot.gov/services/government_ and_public_affairs/sunset.htm. In the meantime, the Specialty Merchants Guild is preparing information packets to distribute at several key locations in Livingston as part of an education effort. Guild member Debra Nelson said most Polk County residents believed that the I-69 project would be simply a widening of the existing U.S. 59 roadway.
“Now we fi nd out something different,” Nelson said. The amount of land that lies within the “preferred route” in the draft environmental study is huge, Nelson and fellow Guild member Molly Anderson said. “It’s going to affect a lot of subdivisions and area farms according to this map,” Anderson said. Texans have until March 19 submit their comments on any aspect of the TTC/I-69 project. Written comments can be mailed to I-69/TTC, P.O. Box 14428, Austin, TX 78761. Comments can also be submitted online at www.keeptexasmoving. com. Supporters of the TTC/I-69 project say overcoming a number of myths about the project has become a major obstacle.
The draft environmental study area included a 10-mile wide which became the starting point for a second phase of environmental studies. During that phase, a area will be identifi ed of 1,200 feet in width or less. Texas Senator Robert Nichols, whose district includes Polk County began speaking against the TTC/I-69 project and supported the moratorium on construction of toll roads that was later vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.
Nichols said he will work hard to ensure any road built in East Texas will meet our needs and not advance someone else’s agenda at our expense. “I-69/TTC was conceived as an effort to address anticipated population growth and ease congestion on our highway system. However, at this time I am not convinced the need exists for a new route for the Corridor through East Texas,” Nichols said in a letter sent out to many concerned constituents.
“At the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) public hearings in East Texas, there has been a ground swell of opposition to the Corridor and private ownership of this roadway. Environmental guidelines require that public support be considered. They have clearly failed in this aspect with regards to TTC-69.” “There does appear to be some support for the proposed Interstate 69 which was designated by the United States Congress several years ago. At this time, I believe utilizing existing infrastructure could be more cost efficient and have far less negative impact on family farms and East Texas communities.
Nichols also points out that neither TxDOT for the Federal Highway Administration has the funds to build TTC/I-69. “In fact, both agencies are facing a significant financial shortfall and have encouraged Public Private Partnerships as a way to construct new highway capacity,” Nichols said. At the beginning of the 80th Legislative Session, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst placed Nichols on the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. “As a member of that committee, I authored the bill that placed a two year moratorium on privately funded toll roads. Now, with few exceptions, TxDOT cannot enter into a contract with a private firm to construct and operate a toll road during the two year period,” Nichols said.
The legislation also created a special committee, of which Nichols is a member, to study the longterm effects of public-private toll road contracts. This committee is charged with making legislative recommendations on this issue before the two-year moratorium expires. Nichols also filed legislation to prevent converting existing highways to toll roads. Although it passed unanimously in the Senate, this bill failed to get approval in the House. Nichols has promised to file it again next session.
Additionally, he worked with United States Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to craft an amendment preventing any existing Texas Interstate from becoming a toll road. The amendment was signed into law by President Bush in December 2007. “I strongly advocate the protection of private property rights and oppose the misuse of eminent domain,” Nichols said. During the 80th Legislative Session, he sponsored House Bill 1895 establishing a “Land Owner Bill of Rights.”
Under this law, which went into effect in January, any time a governmental entity tries to take your property through eminent domain, the Attorney General must first provide you a comprehensive list of available options and your rights, Nichols said.
“This document will explain steps you can take to prevent and appeal the eminent domain process,” he added. “This was a victory for property owners. I will continue to champion private property rights in future legislative sessions.”