TRANS-TEXAS CORRIDOR DEBATE CONTINUES
(AUSTIN) — A controversial plan to build a system of interstate highways, the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC), continued to spark debate at a Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee meeting Wednesday. The TTC would involve more than 4,000 miles of interstate, rail link and utility connections intended to make Texas one of the top hubs of interstate and intercontinental trade. Many who live along the corridor's proposed route, however, worry that land will be taken and communities will be divided by this project. Others are concerned about expanding toll roads. The committee heard testimony from both sides of the debate, as well as changes needed to the current proposals to preserve property rights and public oversight.
The TTC calls for the extension of Highway 69 to run from Laredo to Houston, then on to Louisiana, with a spur to run north through the Texarkana area. It would also expand the I-35 corridor, and proposes possible expansion or modification of other major highways in certain areas, like Interstates 10, 20, and 27.
Tom Paben, state director of the Texas Farm Bureau, testified that his organization and its members are united in opposing the TTC. While agriculture producers need to ship goods like any other industry, Paben said that farming operations would be severely disrupted by construction and the taking of land for corridor construction and expansion. The Farm Bureau commissioned a study of the TTC through Baylor School of Law, and Paben said the results should give lawmaker's pause. The study showed that the current proposal would restrict the state's ability to build competing routes or buy back the project from a private firm. It also suggests that the project suffers from a lack of a firm tolling cap, insufficient environmental impact studies and improper transparency of plans and contracts.
Paben offered his organization's solution to these problems. First, any trans-state trade corridor should be built by following current roads and right-of-ways whenever possible. Toll road construction should be concentrated in the fastest growing areas, like the Golden Triangle region of southeast Texas. The state should also drop plans, he said, to build the north and south legs of the TTC.
Even proponents of a trade corridor, like Bowie County Judge James Carlow, have issues with the current proposals. Carlow testified that it is the duty of current policy makers to create infrastructure to prepare for the needs of the future. He agreed with Paben that the TTC should be developed along existing roads, especially the addition of special freight only lanes for tractor trailers.
One of the underlying issues in this debate is how the state pays for its infrastructure improvements. Comprehensive Development Agreements (CDAs) are where the state allows a private firm to build and operate roads in exchange for upfront concessions. Opponents of CDA's say they allow private firms to own public projects, as well as their own tolling rates, and non-compete clauses keep the state from building parallel routes. Fred Kessler, an attorney that represents the Department of Transportation in CDA matters, testified that these agreements are useful, but not ideal in all circumstances. For large projects where a large capital outlay is needed, CDA's are often the best alternative. He cautioned, though, that lawmakers must always control the cap on toll rates, and it must have a buyback formula that lets the state get a fair price if it decides to buy out a controlling firm.
The Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee is chaired by Dallas Senator Jon Carona, and consists of Senators Florence Shapiro, Kirk Watson, Kim Brimer, Tommy Williams, Robert Nichols, Rodney Ellis, Jeff Wentworth and Eliot Shapleigh.