10/7/2009 3:19 PM
Along with the announcement that TTC-35 is dead at a press release today came a mea culpa of sorts from a Texas Transportation Commissioner.
The Texas Transportation Commission decided this week to pursue a "no action alternative" following the federally mandated environmental study period and public opinion gathering process for TTC-35.
After noting the public relations failures of the TTC-35 project (a north-south element of the Trans-Texas Corridor, a privately built multi-lane toll road, railway and utility line network to run roughly parallel to Interstate Highway 35), Commissioner Ted Houghton said there were four groups which rallied against the project in large numbers -- one of which he said made a "legitimate" case:
1) "Conspirists" who assumed TTC-35 was part of a larger plan to unite Canada, the United States and Mexico into a North American Union government similar to the European Union.
2) Anti-toll road activists.
3) Anti-immigration and immigration control activists.
4) Landowners whose property value was at risk due to the possibility of land being taken for TTC-35 right-of-way.
"By that blue line on that map (the proposed study area for TTC-35) we tainted that property, and we really didn't understand that until we got out into that region and listened to those folks," Houghton, an El Paso resident, said. "Those (property owners) are the ones I really listened to -- though we listened to all Texans ... They had a legitimate gripe."
Houghton said the strategy for now is to work in four regional segments to relieve north-south traffic congestion.
"We didn't do a good job of explaining Trans-Texas Corridor," Houghton said. "A lot of it was mostly our fault in how we explained it, and how we rolled it out. We're not good marketeers here at the Texas Department of Transportation, but we've learned the hard way, and I've got scars to prove it."
Prior to that statement, Houghton jokingly refered to himself as "the most arrogant commissioner of the most arrogant state agency in the history of the state of Texas" -- perhaps a reference to comments made by gubernatorial candidate Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Though officials did not have any statistics on how many comments for and against the project were received, it was pretty clear that public sentiment was generally against the plan.
Amadeo Saenz, chief engineer of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), said a public input campaign "on a scale never seen before" would be implemented for future plans to build segments of an alternate north-south route. He said work will soon begin on a "citizens' plan" for relieving traffic along the I-35 corridor.
Work that has already been done on TTC-35 comes at no cost to the state of Texas, Houghton said, though Saenz added there is a $300,000-$500,000 charge for changing plans, payable to TTC-35 conscesssionaire Cintra-Zachary. There is no fee for terminating the state's contract for TTC-35, Saenz said.
Roughly $11.8 million has been spent on the environmental study so far, according to a press packet from TxDOT. Today's announcement does not affect the construction of Segments 5 and 6 of the project, which is a widening of State Highway 130 from Seguin to Austin. It also does not affect I-69 additions or infrastructure improvement.
It will take another three-to-six months to complete the final environmental impact statement. "The blue line won't disappear overnight," Saenz said.
Terri Hall, director of the anti-toll road group TURF (Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom) said she considered today's announcement a major victory in the fight against TTC-35, but questions whether the project is dead, yet.
"How does this affect Chapter 227 of the transportation code, that still has the Trans-Texas Corridor in there? ... But I do think at the end of the day this is a huge defeat for the Trans-Texas Corridor concept that the governor (Rick Perry) put out years before. It's clear that there's no political support for it. And what cracks me up is that there has never been any political support for any of his toll road projects, frankly!"
Houghton said TxDOT is still committed to expanding I-35 to six lanes between Hillsboro and San Antonio.
"The funds invested in the study of TTC-35 remain a sound investment, as the analyses and citizen comments collected during the review may be used in the I-35 Corridor Advisory Committee's planning effort, as well as other project-specific planning efforts," a press release for today's event said. "Congestion on I-35 is a well-known problem, and is one that will certainly grow over time. I-35 appears on TxDOT's list of the 100 most congested roadways in the state 13 times -- more than any other roadway. An estimated 45 percent of Texas' population resides along the I-35 corridor, with more people moving here each day."
LSR will, as we always have, keep an eye on this.