Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Grass roots group remains concerned about highway planning

By Donna McCollum

NACOGDOCHES, TX - Thursday night a half a million dollars was approved by the U.S. House for I-69 Texas. The funds will be used to expedite the U.S. Transportation's environmental review to advance I-69. Today the I-69 Alliance publicly praised the legislation. The funding level for I-69 FY 2010 will be determined later this fall when the Senate spending bill is determined.

Meanwhile, the issue remains a topic in national, state and local politics. Tuesday night in Nacogdoches, another group is talking transportation issues with State Representative Jim McReynolds. The Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission (PWSRPC) is keeping a close watch on future transportation issues, includiing a loop by-pass around Nacogdoches, Lufkin and as far south as Diboll.

It's a good idea for moving people quickly, but could be a bad one if the route hampers accessibility to other roadways and towns. "Say on South Street, here in Nacogdoches, where you've already got a lot of businesses and you've got a lot of hotels," Nacogdoches County Judge Joe English began. "Are they going to try to move it (roadway) over a little bit either one side to the left or the right because they don't want the expense of having to replace all those businesses?," the judge questioned. "And so when they start moving it we've got the same issues we had before and that's taking the grass roots mom and pop property."

Sub-regional planning commissions remain in existence along the I-69 route despite recent legislative efforts to disband them. Members are determined to have their voices heard before the Texas Department of Transportation. "We want them to know that we're still looking at it and we're still addressing it and when the planning and the meetings are put together we want to be a part of them," English said.

The commission is gathering information for a rural transportation plan. Members have gatherings planned in Garrison and Chireno. "We'll develop a plan for each community and what their needs and concerns are for transportation in their community," Jan Tracy, a PWSRPC volunteer explained. "And then we'll come back and compile all that together and present that to TxDOT."

Another concern is the financing method chosen. The group questions toll roads and who will own the toll money.

It's a grass roots mission that remains even after the state says the Trans Texas Corridor has gone away.

© 2009 WorldNow and KTRE: www.ktre.com

Monday, July 27, 2009

State Rep. McReynolds To Speak at PWSRPC Meeting

Submitted by Jan Tracy
Shelby County Today

The Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission (PWSRPC) will hold its next meeting on Tuesday, July 28, at 6 PM at the Nacogdoches County Courthouse Annex.

Guest speaker will be Texas State Rep. Jim McReynolds. The public is encouraged to attend and will be invited to ask questions. Representative McReynolds will explain new laws that were passed in the 2009 legislative session and how those laws will affect East Texas and our local economy.

The PWSRPC is currently gathering information to draft a Rural Transportation Plan for Nacogdoches and the surrounding counties and is asking the public to submit their suggestions for improving local transportation. The upgrading of Hwy 59 to Interstate status remains a key issue for our area as any traffic that is routed through or around Lufkin and Nacogdoches will impact nearby businesses and affect local traffic flow.

Traffic congestion continues to be a problem at certain sections along Hwy 59. TxDOT is currently restudying a plan that was devised several years ago for a loop/by-pass around Lufkin and Nacogdoches.

This loop/by-pass system has 2 major issues that will affect our local economy and everyday means of travel. The first issue concerns accessibility of local roadways and the second is financing for the construction. Thru traffic will need easy access on and off of this ‘loop’ to visit our local businesses. Accesses for local traffic for driving to work or school and for emergency vehicles will need to be considered. The financing method chosen for this ‘loop’ will dictate whether or not a toll will be collected and who will own the toll money.

If you are unable to attend this meeting but would like to submit comments or ask questions please contact State Representative Jim McReynolds at 936-634-9786 or call 936-462-8848 for further information.

© 2009 Shelby County Today: www.shelbycountytoday.com

Friday, January 16, 2009

PWSRPC Hosts Meeting with TxDOT, EPA Feb 5th

Press Release
Piney Woods SRPC
Copyright 2009

The Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission (PWSRPC) took another step in the process of maintaining local control of future highway construction during a meeting held with TxDOT representatives last week.

The over-flow capacity crowd of public supporters caused the PWSRPC-TxDOT meeting to be moved to a much larger meeting room in the Nacogdoches County Courthouse Annex. This did not miss the attention of the three TxDOT officials, two of which were from the Austin Office, and the panel of consultants TxDOT brought with them, as nearly a hundred local citizens turned out to hear the Planning Commission's President, Hank Gilbert, grill TxDOT as to their plans.

Doug Booher, 'on the scene' Environmental Manager stated, "We're not going to pursue the 4,000 mile network. We are going to continue to pursue two individual projects; one of them would be the I-35 corridor project and the other one would be the I-69 corridor project."
When asked the question from the attending audience about a loop that once was planned to go around the West side of Nacogdoches, Booher stated, "I'm sure those plans would be dusted off and looked at again."
He also stated the name 'Trans Texas Corridor' would be 'phased out' and mentioned several times that tolling and public/private partnerships (by foreign investors) would still be an option in TxDOT's transportation plans.
Hank Gilbert also expressed to PWSRPC members that he is concerned about legislation Governor Perry may try to pass that would eliminate SRPC's, such as the Piney Woods. "We have people watching out for such legislation and if it is introduced, we will need for the citizens of Texas to call their Representatives and let them know that they want to keep their local SRPC's," Gilbert stated.

The strong show of public support for the PWSRPC's meeting with TxDOT validates the desire of the public for input and information.

The NEXT Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission meeting will be with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Representatives on Thursday, February 5, at 10:00 a.m. in the Nacogdoches County Annex.

This will also be an open meeting and the public is urged to attend. As Board Member Larry Shelton has stated, "You are either at the table or you are on the menu."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

State Officials change Corridor Plan

By Donna McCollum
KTRE-TV (Lufkin - Nacodoches)
Copyright 2008

NACOGDOCHES COUNTY, TX - By trade Larry Shelton is a woodworker. When he's not building cabinets he joins the thousands of East Texas property owners in the fight against the Trans Texas Corridor.

"We were right in the middle of the proper corridor," said Shelton of his rural Nacogdoches County home. The voting member of the Piney Woods Sub Regional Planning Commission is the local voice facing state and federal agencies. He's not easily convinced hearing the news that TX Dot is calling TTC dead. "I'm not really surprised that it took TxDOT 5 years to come to the same conclusion that the people of Texas arrived at immediately," said Shelton.

In Martinsville, the corridor would have sliced right through the school district. Children wrote letters to government offices begging them to reconsider. But the children won't be learning a lesson of victory from their teacher, Jan Tracy, another grassroots advocate against the TTC. "It's very broad," referring to a law passed in 2003 supporting the transportation system. " "And until that law is changed in our legislative session this spring, they can still do whatever they want to do. That's what we're concerned about. "
You'll find the Independent Texans blog claiming "partial victory in fighting the mammoth Trans-Texas Corridor", but writers still call it a "TxDOT spin".

Major corridor projects will now comprise several small segments overseen by local interests. Nacogdoches County Judge Joe English is serving on the segment committee that runs from texarkana to the Angelina River bridge. "In the segment that will go through Nacogdoches County we'll have public hearings on it and get the public's input one more time. "

Like the corridor route, the debate is taking a different direction. You'll hear more opposition concerning toll roads and the use of private public contracts. The issues remain, no matter what the Trans Texas Corridor is called.

Gov. Rick Perry, during a conference call from Iraq, said the smaller version isn't a rejection of his vision. He says his office will continue to work with legislative leaders on building more highways.

Meanwhile, the Piney Woods Sub Regional Planning Commission will meet with TxDOT on January 22nd at the Nacogdoches County Courthouse.

© 2009 WorldNow and KTRE: www.ktre.com

Friday, October 24, 2008

More on Craddick saying TTC is "dead"

Susan Rigdway Garry
Anti-Corridor/Rail Expansion (ACRE)
Copyright 2008

The ACRE message about the quote from House Speaker Craddick that the Trans-Texas Corridor was “dead” has prompted interesting comments. Some who commented were concerned that people would think because Craddick said the Corridor was “dead” we didn’t have to struggle against it anymore. This is not the case; we do need to continue our efforts.

The quote is significant because Craddick had never said anything like this about the Corridor before. It is significant that so many politicians, including Craddick, in this campaign season think it is necessary for them to oppose the Corridor in order to get elected. This is a big change. When we started fighting against the Corridor, politicians weren’t saying this. This means that we are making progress.

We can’t say that the Corridor is dead until it is officially killed legislatively. So we all need to continue working toward this end, but I think it is encouraging that more and more politicians are coming out against it in their campaigns.

Here are comments from representatives of some of the organizations that have been in the forefront of the fight against the Corridor.

DAN BYFIELD, American Land Foundation:

“Don't believe that the TTC is dead. Politicians will say anything to get re-elected. Mr. Craddick had the opportunity the past two sessions to kill this, but why would he now reveal that it's dead? The Legislature is the only body capable of ‘killing’ the TTC, but they're not in session.

What is very revealing about this statement is his need, like so many other politicians running for office, to say anything about the Trans-Texas Corridor - especially something this negative. He realizes it is a hot button issue with his constituents and fellow House members (who will be voting for him for Speaker), otherwise he would never have mentioned it on the campaign stump.

We are making a difference, but if Mr. Craddick and others who voted for the TTC get back into office, nothing will change and the TTC will live on.”

AGNES VOGES, Blackland Coalition:

“I doubt seriously that Craddick has the truth in this matter. Granted, TTC may have hit a snag or two, but one way or the other, it is still happening. Again, the LAW has to be changed before this thing is dead. If not, then there is nothing that will keep it from being resuscitated at any time they can get their fingers on some money.”

LINDA STALL, Corridor Watch

“The law creating TTC remains and it should be changed . . . and some oversight legislation for PPPs put in place. We are hearing from a few people around the state that their Counties are getting into strangely oversized road projects, and we are concerned that the push will shift to developing ‘County projects’ that then are shifted to TxDOT and linked together . . . TTC under the radar.

“It is nice to hear that Craddick realizes it’s in his interest to say the Corridor is dead. I am always leery when a leadership official says something like that, just in case he's trying to get people to stop speaking out . . . and to undermine his opposition candidate's ability to make political mileage out of the Corridor as an issue.”

TERRI HALL, San Antonio Toll Party and TURF:

“Craddick's comments are no more true than saying the sun won't rise tomorrow. This is an election year, period. NO law has been changed or policies reversed to prove this statement correct. In fact, they've gone underground and are cheating in how they're supplementing the environmental record to make it appear they'll use existing right of way for TTC-69 using clever language rife with get of jail free cards. Also, TTC-35 is barreling forward unabated.

“It's huge he [Craddick] even feels the need to say it to get re-elected!”

© 2008 ACRE: acretexas.blogspot.com

Thursday, October 23, 2008

EPA In Corrigan To Hear Concerns About I-69 TTC

By Christel Phillips
Copyright 2008

CORRIGAN, TX - A draft environmental impact statement prepared by TxDOT is at the heart of the I-69 Trans Texas Corridor debate. Members of the Trinity Neches Sub-Regional Planning Committee want to send TxDOT back to the drawing board.

Bob Dickens, President of the Trinity Neches Sub-Regional Planning Committee says, "We don't think the law and regulations were followed and we do not think TxDOT has taken into consideration the impact of the environment, our wildlife, our water districts, our cities, our school districts, and in essence, our way of life."

That's why the Sub-Regional Planning Committee met with the Environmental Protection Agency. The committee wants the EPA to use thier expertise to persuade TxDOT to do a better job in researching the projected highway building area.

Cathy Gilmore, Chief of the EPA Office Planning and Coordination says, "Our place is really to look at the environmental aspects of the project and whether or not they've addressed our concerns."

Pennington Water District services about 900 customers in East Texas, they told the EPA that the TTC would come straight through their water line causing a serious problems for residents.

Bill Wagner, Represenative for Pennington Water District says, "From what we hear there will be no on and off ramps to access the customers. It will stop service to new customers, it will stop maintenence, it's going to have a major impact on us."

Bottom line, the committee wants to TxDOT to redraft their environmental impact statement and address their concerns in the revision.

"We hope we presented adequate information where they will study it, re-think it and go with the I-59 Corridor," says Wagner.

The planning committee hopes that TxDOT will be able to meet with them next month so they can address today's concerns to them as well.

© 2008 KTRE-TV: www.ktre.com

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission Meets

By Mystic Matthews
KTRE (Lufkin)
Copyright 2008

NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - The Trans-Texas Corridor is coming through Nacogdoches County, but the Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission wants to make sure it's done right.

In Thursday's meeting, they discussed how the commission can coordinate with the local and federal governments about transportation in the county.

President Hank Gilbert spoke to a packed house Thursday.

He recently submitted a letter to TXDot, on behalf of the commission, that has gone unanswered.

In Thursday's meeting, they decided to send another letter.

Gilbert says the purpose is to let TXDot know they will have to coordinate and answer to the commission for any future plans involving the Trans-Texas Corridor in Nacogdoches County.

"There's a lot of disgruntled people and a lot of concerned people here in Nacogdoches County. They are concerned about their way of life, concerned about what's going to happen to their heritage and their history and their community with this highway. To get actively involved they need to be a part of this organization. Come to our meetings get behind what we're doing."

As a planning commission, they have privileges of a local government, meaning TXDot is required to coordinate with them on a regional level.

The Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission wants to make sure, even though they are ultimately against it, that I-69 is built on their terms in their county.

© 2008 KTRE-Citizen:www.hcnonline.com
TTC plans for U.S. Hwy. 59 may not come to fruition

The Nacodoches Daily Sentinel

The Pineywoods Sub-Regional Planning Commission met Thursday to hear a presentation by the commission's president, Hank Gilbert, who said the plans to move the Trans-Texas Corridor to the current U.S. Hwy. 59 location may not come to fruition.

The Texas Department of Transportation initially planned to build a new highway system, which would have been as large as 1,200-feet wide, that would run through rural areas of East Texas, including Nacogdoches County. However, TxDOT scrapped those plans in June and announced a new proposal to build the TTC along the existing route of U.S. Hwy 59.

But Gilbert, of the anti-corridor activist group TexasTURF, said TxDOT has not provided new documentation detailing the potential effects of building the TTC on the new site, and he also said the current proposal could still allow TxDOT to build the TTC in the original proposed location.

"If TxDOT gets the approval on the (draft environmental impact statement) as is, they can come back and build the highway wherever they want to," he said. "They can come back and say, 'The Federal Highway Administration said we're good to go, but we don't want to use U.S. Hwy. 59 anymore.' And there's nothing we can do about it."

For this reason, Gilbert and the PWSRPC is requesting a supplemental draft environmental impact statement that takes into account the effects of building the TTC along U.S. Hwy. 59. The commission has already requested meetings with Amadeo Saenz, executive director of TxDOT, and Richard Greene, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. Gilbert said there has been no response from either organization.

Gilbert argued that, by law, TxDOT must prepare a new DEIS from scratch, now that plans have changed. Doug Booher, the TxDOT environmental manager, refuted his claim, saying the final environmental impact statement, which will be released for public review at the end of 2008 or early next year, will include the necessary revisions to avoid starting over.

Because the PWSRPC did not have enough voting members in attendance to form a quorum, Gilbert did not receive approval to send new letters to the EPA and TxDOT requesting a meeting. The PWSRPC will meet again at 4p.m. Thursday, Sept. 11, at the county courthouse.

Before the next meeting, Gilbert asked group members to research facts about how the TTC's new location on U.S. Hwy 59 would affect the county.

"What's the loss going to be to the school districts affected, the water districts affected?" he said. "How many acres will be lost in Nacogdoches County? What's the economic impact of the loss of those acres, in hard dollars? What will be the impact on endangered plants and endangered animals in the area?"

Gilbert said he will incorporate this new data into an updated draft of the letter to the EPA and TxDOT.

"This isn't your mom and dad's interstate," Gilbert said. "This is nobody's interstate."

© 2008 Nachdoches Daily Sentinel:www.dailysentinel.com

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Groups claiming TxDOT falsified toll project studies

August 21, 2008

Country World News
Copyright 2008

Members of a Central Texas sub-regional planning commission believe they have found a "smoking gun" that proves the state's transportation department alledgely falsified an environmental study on the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor.

The development comes from a lawsuit filed by Texans United for Reform (TURF) over a Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) proposal to convert part of U.S. Highway 281 into a toll road. TURF members allege that TxDOT emails show that the department "rigged" the environmental work for the 281 project to pre-determine a finding of "No Significant Impact" before the study began.

Members of the Eastern Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission, which was formed to make sure the state involves people affected by the TTC in the process, believe the allegations by TURF are significant because it shows that TxDOT has done with the 281 study exactly what the commission has accused TxDOT of doing in relation to the corridor proposal.

"What TURF and the Edwards Aquifer Guardians have uncovered shows that the conclusion was there before the study was even done," commission member Ralph Snyder of Holland said at a meeting of the commission on Aug. 12. "They cherry-picked the information to arrive at the conclusion they want.

"This is the most important thing to happen since the inception of the TTC-35. It makes our case by showing that they (TxDOT) worked all along toward a pre-determined conclusion."

Gov. Rick Perry proposed the TTC in 2002 as a series of six-lane highways with separate high-speed rail lines and utility corridors criss-crossing the state. Each corridor could be as wide as 1,200 feet.

Perry, TxDOT and others have touted the corridors as a solution to the state's transportation problems, but opposition has arisen on several fronts, particularly in the rural parts of the state where the corridors would have the biggest impact.

The sub regional planning commissions are local groups formed in response to the Texas Local Government Code, Chapter 391, which requires state agencies "to the greatest extent feasible" to coordinate with local commissions to "ensure effective and orderly implementation of state programs at the regional level."

The Eastern Central Texas commission was formed in August of last year to challenge TTC-35, the first leg of the proposed TTC system, which would run about 600 miles from Gainesville to Laredo, roughly parallel to IH-35. Eight other such groups have formed across the state, most of them in East Texas where another leg of the TTC, TTC-69, has been proposed.

The commission has asked for a supplemental report from TxDOT, which in turn has asked the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) if it has to conduct the supplemental report. The commission received a reply from Janice Weingart Brown, division administrator for the FHA on Aug. 6.

"I can assure you that concerns that you have raised will be addressed in our Final EIS (Environmental Impact Study)," Brown wrote. "FHWA is also independently reviewing and considering the environmental documents being prepared by TxDOT.

"Based on the public involvement meetings that have been conducted and our review and analysis of comments, we firmly believe we are following the prescribed processes and regulations under NEPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the Council on Environmental Quality."

Margaret Byfield with the American Land Foundation, a private property rights group working with the sub-regional planning commissions, noted that the letter is dated one day before the allegations over TURF's 281 lawsuit broke. She added that the letter really doesn't comment on the commission's request for a supplemental report.

"It makes no commitment," she said. "It infers that it will address our concerns in the TIER 2 study, which is too late. TIER 1 approves the building of the highway. TIER 2 is concerned with where the highway will be built."

The commission voted unanimously to forward the letter to Fred Kelly Grant, attorney for the American Land Foundation.

Grant, who lives in Idaho, emailed commission members prior to the August meeting about the TURF 281 lawsuit. "I have already asked for documents from the discovery to include in a proposed augmentation petition for you to send to the federal highway administration," he wrote. "The inference of lack of credibility which is made in your original petition will now be actual, not just an inference."

The commission also received a copy of a May 2006 letter from then state conservationist Larry Butler to engineer Edward Pensock with TxDOT on farmland protection issues related to TTC.

In that letter, Butler said that the TTC project "will constitute the largest conversion of Prime Farmland for a single project in the history of Texas."

The letter also addressed the issue of small dams on private property that are designed to control flooding, noting that more than 260 of those small dams are located in the TTC-35 study area.

"Direct impacts include areas where the TTC-35 might eliminate the structure, causing roads, bridges, towns and houses to flood."

Current state conservationist Don Goihmert addressed the group last month and said the state's NRCS office would conduct a study for the group to further evaluate the impact of the TTC along specific routes identified by TxDOT.

© 2008 Country World News:www.countryworldnews.com

Sunday, August 3, 2008

From July 15 TxDOT Sunset Hearing, public testimony

TxDOT pushes Rural Planning Organizations in contravention of legislation—testimony from Hank Gilbert

Susan Rigdway Garry
Anti-Corridor/Rail Expansion (ACRE)
Copyright 2008

Hank Gilbert, former Democratic nominee for Agriculture Commissioner, testified about the proposed Rural Planning Organizations (RPO’s). He is especially interested in the RPO’s because of the possibility that the RPO’s are being pushed by TxDOT in an attempt to make the public believe that they are the same as the 391 Sub-Regional Planning Commissions. Gilbert is president of one of these new 391 Commissions, the Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission.

This is a very important issue. If TxDOT is behind the formation of RPO’s, the RPO’s will be controlled by TxDOT through the regional Councils of Government (COG’s). On the other hand, the 391 Sub-Regional Planning Commissions are formed by the citizens through their local governments, and they have their own powers, given to them by statute.

Gilbert said, “I don’t believe he [Saenz] exactly told the truth a minute ago. Chairman Delisi, she wanted to make this a love fest today and she committed to honesty. But they have already broken that honesty when it was brought up about the RPO’s earlier today. We had a person at that meeting [on RPO’s] who sent me an email of what went on at that meeting on July 10. TxDOT, specifically Amadeo Saenz, addressed this and said they had come up with money at TxDOT to help fund and reimburse the COG’s if they created an RPO.”

Gilbert continued, “What’s important is that TxDOT has promulgated regulations to create RPO’s, which legislation actually failed last session. . . . So TxDOT decided to push the RPO issue forward so when the legislature comes into session they are having the legislation filed to authorize by statute what they have done by regulation. Then, they will pull the COG RPO’s into the Transportation statute and totally control all of the RPO’s. They’ll be nothing but a sounding board instead of a real board.”

Saenz contradicts Gilbert

After Gilbert’s testimony, Saenz then returned to the testimony table. “What Mr. Gilbert just presented is not factual. First of all, for the commissions, we have not adopted or done anything with the RPO’s. This was a conference, there is a mechanism in there that if they would be formed, which is one of the recommendations, then we can use state planning funds from the federal side to be able to cover their planning needs. But we have not taken any action on anything like that.”

Kolkhorst said “I’m not sure I’m for these RPO’s. . . Let’s not move forward on these RPO’s quite yet until we get through this.” Another Sunset Commissioner commented, “They need legislation to do it.” Kolkhorst replied, “I think what Hank [Gilbert] was trying to say is they’re doing it before we get there.”

Gilbert documents his testimony

Gilbert had documentation from the RPO conference including the agenda showing that TxDOT sponsored the meeting, that Saenz was on the agenda to speak about RPO’s, and info from COG’s about their new efforts to form RPO’s with the assistance of TxDOT. The list of attendees listed 45 TxDOT employees out of 200 registered in attendance at the meeting. Gilbert provided copies of his documentation to the Sunset Commissioners—the proof that his information IS “factual.”

TxDOT is already working on a plan to create its own system of RPO’s so that residents will think they are getting their own powerful Sub-Regional Planning Commission that represents them, but they will really be getting an RPO that represents TxDOT.

© 2008, ACRE: acretexas.blogspot.com

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

East Texans voice opinions about TxDOT at Sunset Commission hearing

By Donna McCollum
KTRE-TV (Channel 9)
Copyright 2008

NACOGDOCHES, TX - The Sunset Commission staff report begins with a very telling statement. Under issues/recommendations it states, " Until trust in the Texas Department of Transportation is restored, the state cannot move forward to effectively meet its growing transportation needs.

Some of that mistrust comes from entities that continue to join the Piney Woods Sub Regional Planning Commission. Number one on its list is to abolish the appointed Transportation Commission and replace it with mostly elected commissioners. Member Merry Anne Bright said, " We feel like that's a political encumbrance when you have an appointed board as opposed to an elected board. "

Second, is the request that all TxDOT ad campaigns receive final approval from the legislature and transportation committees. Accountability is the concern. Bright said, " We would like an investigation into the mismanagement of taxpayer's money. "

The third request is a mandate forcing TxDOT to coordinate with local towns and cities the proposed pathways of their future projects. President of the Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission, Hank Gilbert of Whitehouse was scheduled to testify in Austin today. Additional Piney Wood members were in Bell County meeting with other sub regional commissions along the I-35 corridor.

Not all East Texans can go to Austin to voice their opinion before the Sunset Commission in person so many of them wrote letters. Their letters can be found on the Sunset Commission web site. www.sunset.state.tx.us/ Some are handwritten by individual property owners. Others represent multiple entities.

Despite the criticisms, most Texans recognize the agency's benefits. Senator Robert Nichols from Jacksonville said, " That agency is wonderful. I strongly support it. What we have a problem with are some of the actions that have occurred. "

The positive aspects are there, but the Sunset Commission is still recommending a four year legislative conservatorship to return control over transportation policy to the legislature.

More Reaction To Today's Sunset Commission Hearing

The following statement can be attributed to Bill Noble, executive director of Texans for Safe Reliable Transportation:

"Today Texas lawmakers showed they are absolutely committed to improving the trust and transparency of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). TxDOT and the legislature demonstrated their commitment to building quality statewide infrastructure that will help grow the economy of Texas. In the days and weeks ahead, a lot of hard work will take place to put past mistakes behind them and promote transportation initiatives that will make Texas the best place to live, work and play."

© 2008, KTRE-TV: www.ktre.com

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Rocks for the Goliath Road

Small-town leaders in Central Texas think they’ve found cracks in the Trans-Texas Corridor’s armor.

Fort Worth Weekly
Copyright 2008

BARTLETT — Sitting in Lois and Jerry’s Restaurant, surrounded by a blue-jean and overalls lunch crowd, Mae Smith and Ralph Snyder don’t look like giant-killers. In fact, the small-town mayor (5’ 2”) and the salvage shop owner (6’ 6”) look more like a Mutt and Jeff comedy team.

But along with mayors, business leaders, and farmers in Bell County, north of Austin, and their counterparts in several other parts of the state, Smith and Snyder are taking on a Texas Goliath — the Trans-Texas Corridor, the monster transportation project being pushed by Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Department of Transportation.

Two years ago, the I-35 section of the project, planned to parallel the existing interstate, was seen as a done deal, and TxDOT was busy signing contracts with the Spanish-U.S. consortium called Cintra-Zachry to build a section of the corridor and operate it as a private toll road. Now, however, much of the political support for it has drained away in the face of widespread grass-roots opposition. Even the project’s backers say the small-towners’ group may have a chance of causing major holdups — and perhaps even fatal delays.

Smith, Snyder, and a growing group of leaders in other small towns and rural areas in the TTC’s path have found what they believe to be a chink in the giant’s armor, and they are exploiting it for all they’re worth — backed by national property-rights groups that have fought government land seizures in other states with some success.

In the last two years, Smith, the 64-year-old firebrand mayor of Holland, and the leaders of three other Bell County towns, with a combined population of less than 6,000, had grown increasingly worried about the threat that the TTC project posed for their communities. Frustrated by their inability to get state transportation officials to pay attention to their fears, the mayors found a provision in state law that allows for the creation of local planning commissions — and then requires TxDOT and other state agencies to coordinate projects with those commissions.

So they created a planning commission and began asking for consultations and records on TTC. And what they found in the process astounded them.

Smith said that TxDOT claims in official documents that it has studied the Corridor’s expected effects on communities it will run through — but that it has done no such studies. In the draft version of its environmental impact study, she said, the agency wrote a summary — the only part many busy lawmakers are likely to read — that varied wildly from the information in the body of the report.

The local officials charge that the transportation agency report broadly misstated its own consultant’s findings regarding jobs that the TTC would create and failed to mention heavy losses in personal income and in the tax base the project would cause. They say TxDOT has also ignored requirements in state and federal law that it consider effects on air quality and the environment, look into other alternatives — or even to state why the TTC, with its grand vision of toll roads, train and pipeline rights of way, and commercial areas controlled by private corporations, is needed at all. And, perhaps most importantly for one of the state’s richest farming areas, they charge that TxDOT has failed to consider the major impact the project would have on their federally protected farmland.

As a result, the planning commission is pressing for TxDOT to redraw its environmental impact statement and to stop any further work on the TTC until proper studies have been done and requirements met — or expect to be sued.

TxDOT officials have said only that they have contacted the Federal Highway Administration to find out if the Central Texas group, which now includes a fifth town, in Milam County, has the power to compel it to respond. TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippencott wrote in an e-mail that, “We are awaiting further guidance from [the federal agency] on whether and how to revisit the already-completed portion of this process.” Gov. Rick Perry, who has been the power behind the push for the TTC, declined to comment.

Perhaps worse news, from TxDOT’s point of view, is that, since the Central Texas group formed, four more local planning commissions have been formed in East Texas, two more are being organized on the other side of the state, and the Sierra Club is getting into the action, pointing out problems with the environmental assessment on another major portion of the TTC and asking that that work be delayed as well, until a new impact study is done.

The small-town group’s formal request to the state agency cites so many sins in the Corridor planning process, Smith said, that the detailed document “can almost indict people for the way TxDOT has purposely ignored state and federal law.”

Chapter 391 of the Texas Local Government Code is the not-so-secret weapon of the Central Texas officials who are fighting the Corridor. The code “says that TxDOT and other state agencies have to coordinate project planning with local planning commissions,” Smith explained, “so we formed one” – specifically, the Eastern Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission, of which she is president.

The commission was created in August 2007, by which time TxDOT had already released its draft environmental impact statement on the part of the Corridor project that affects Bell and Milam counties, known as TTC-35. In the draft statement, Smith said, the agency “claimed to have studied the highway’s environmental impact and the impact it would have on the communities it ran through, but that wasn’t true.” So the group asked for a meeting with TxDOT to talk about it.

At that first meeting, in October, Smith said, TxDOT officials admitted they hadn’t studied the environmental impact the planned 1,200-foot wide corridor would have on the area covered by the four towns — Holland, Bartlett, Rogers, and Little River-Academy (Buckholts has joined since then). That area is part of the Blackland Prairie, covered by the federal Farmland Protection Act.

A second meeting revealed that the environment wasn’t the only thing TxDOT hadn’t studied. The local commission concluded that in fact, TxDOT hadn’t studied much of anything with regard to Bell County “They had no idea how to answer questions about [the TTC] dividing our cities in half and the effect that might have on school districts, on the agriculture business this area depends on, or the effect that highway would have on our emergency services,” Smith said.

TxDOT officials, she said, promised they would do that work when they began the second phase of the project — that is, after they decided exactly where to put the superhighway. In the meantime, however, the agency was already buying land and making deals with contractors. “That’s not OK with us,” she said. “That’s not the law. You can’t begin to study the impact you’ll have after you’ve made your plans; you have to make your plans around the impact you are going to have.”

The planning commissioners also found that the state highway agency’s draft environmental study didn’t even agree with itself — the summary wasn’t supported by the text of the report.

And so Smith’s group sent out a formal request on May 20 to Edward Pensock Jr., the engineer who is director of corridor systems of the TxDOT’s turnpike division, asking the agency for a supplemental report on the project’s environmental impact.

The Central Texas commission backed up its request with a 28-page list of “deficiencies” in the current environmental assessment. Perhaps as important as the request itself is the commission’s insistence on when it should be done.

“We want the supplemental environmental impact study done by TxDOT prior to any further work or planning on the highway,” Smith said.

TxDOT wasn’t happy with the request and sent it on to the Federal Highway Administration, asking whether it indeed has to do a supplemental report. The federal agency’s answer is expected by the end of the month. And if the ruling favors the local commission, the entire TTC could be held up until that new report is complete.

A TxDOT official who asked not to be named said the state agency has satisfied its obligations by holding hearings and meeting with the commission — and that it isn’t required to actually address the commission’s request for a new study.

Not so says Snyder, the only non-elected member of the commission. “We’re a political entity, and as far as this request is concerned, there are things that TxDOT ignored under federal law,” he said. “And they’ve got no choice but to abide by those federal laws.”

Snyder predicted that the feds will pressure TxDOT to do the additional study before further work is done on the TTC plans. But if that doesn’t happen, he said, he’s confident that the commission can force the state agency’s hand through the court system. “We’ve got the law on our side,” he said. “TxDOT has to do this thing right, or there will be no TTC.”

The Central Texas group has environmental, economic, and legal issues to pick with TxDOT. One of their key points, for instance, is TxDOT’s claim that when the new superhighway is complete it will add 434,000 permanent new jobs and $135 billion in additional personal income in the state.

But in fact, the report done for the state agency on the TTC’s economic impact doesn’t make that prediction on new job creation, and suggests that the project would decrease personal income across the state by $90 million a year because of land to be taken by the project. On the TTC-35 section alone, the Perryman Group consultants predicted governments will lose $94 million in taxable property.

More than 4,000 acres would be lost just in Smith’s planning region, which includes an area roughly 30 miles by 30 miles. Additionally, the Perryman Group’s report, which was all but ignored by TxDOT in its draft environmental statement, predicted hundreds of millions of dollars would be lost from the agricultural sector.

In its request for a new impact report, the small-town group wrote that TxDOT’s draft environmental statement “should have revealed the [Perryman] study … and then analyzed those facts to determine the economic impact” on the region.

“In plain language, they had a study done, and then when the figures didn’t match what they wanted, they just made up some figures and put them in the summary they passed out,” Smith charged. “Just made them up.”

In addition to the financial losses to individuals and governments in the area, the TTC would force area governments to build their own overpasses and underpasses for all except state highway crossings — and some crossings could carry tolls. “None of those issues were even considered” in TxDOT’s draft environmental statement, said Smith.

Beyond that, the planning commission charges, are all the federal laws and even state needs that are being ignored by the TTC planning process, including the Environmental Protection Act.

But there is one overriding concern that the Central Texas commission members share, and it is more basic than tax losses or expensive overpasses. It is the land itself, the rich black clay that defines their region’s culture and economy. And in saving the land, they believe they’ve got the federal government — and, oddly enough, some of the federal government’s most implacable opponents — on their side.

Just a few miles east of I-35, near Salado, lies the heart of the Blackland Prairie. The gently rolling hills reach to the horizon, the fields alternating with stands of Osage orange, hackberry, cedar elm, oak, and pecan orchards. Corn ready for harvest stands next to the dark brown of the milo tops and the rich green of cotton. Recently harvested wheat fields expose the rich black clay from which the prairie gets its name.

Holland’s downtown, a block of old brick buildings dating back more than 100 years, is a throwback in time. The only lunch spot in town is closed for vacation. At noon a siren shrieks, calling the hour.

So when Mae Smith drives up in her dusty dark green Dakota pickup, we head over to Bartlett, to meet reinforcements and find lunch. She wears jeans and a red blouse, and her blonde hair is cropped short.

“Most of the people living here have been living here for generations,” she explains as she drives. “And they like this life. They may work in Temple or Austin, but they still live here. Just like their daddies and their daddies.”

Stepping out of the truck 20 minutes later on Bartlett’s main drag, we’re met by the huge figure of Snyder. He has the same searing blue eyes as Smith.

“Let me tell you something about the Blackland Prairie,” Snyder says. “In 1850 this was the most heavily populated area in the United States west of the Mississippi. That’s because of the soil here. Now the blackland, a fine clay, runs from Mexico up to Canada.” In some parts of the country, the swath of soil is 250 miles wide, but here it’s just 30 miles across. “And if you take any of it away, well, it’s gone forever, and these towns depend on the ag business.”

At one point in the lunch, he makes a dash to his truck and comes back with an ear of corn. “Take a look at that,” he says, peeling back the husk to show off a large ear with golden kernels. “The black clay here expands with the winter rains and then gives off the water during the summer months. We’re in the middle of a drought, and this was grown without irrigation. Farmers will be averaging 130 bushels of corn around here per acre without irrigation. This soil is a national treasure. To pave it over is a crime.”

Farmland is lost every day in this country to urban sprawl and road development, but this fertile region has federal law on its side — the Farmland Protection Act — as well as state protections. Although most of the Blackland Prairie in Texas is being farmed, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has identified the remaining 5,000 acres of the formation as deserving “high priority protection” — and has already recommended that TxDOT not put another huge highway through the area, but stick to the I-35 corridor to build any additional freeway capacity.

The Farmland Protection Act has already been used in freeway fights. According to the lawyer for a national property rights group, the Federal Highway Administration cited that law in rejecting plans for a new highway in Indiana, in favor of an alternative that had less impact on farmland.

The property rights group in question is called Stewards of the Range. And one of its founders is neck-deep in the TTC controversy.

Snyder was the linchpin in getting the Bell County planning commission off the ground. In the spring of 2007 he attended a meeting called by Margaret and Dan Byfield in the town of Jonah, about the TTC. “There had been a lot of misinformation put out by TxDOT on the Corridor, and the Byfields were meeting with the folks ... to give them the real story,” he said.

The Byfields, who joined us for lunch, are controversial figures. Margaret, 41, helped found the nonprofit Stewards of the Range in 1992, when the federal government moved to take away her family’s right to run their herds on 1,100 square miles of federal land next to their Nevada ranch. Dan Byfield, 54, is the president and founder of another land rights group, the American Land Foundation. When they met, the two were already involved with their respective organizations in the long-running private property rights called the Sagebrush Rebellion, which has pitted Western U.S. farmers and ranchers against environmental groups fighting for causes like the protection of wetlands and endangered species habitat.

The couple moved to Central Texas about five years ago — only to find that the behemoth TTC was being aimed within a mile of their property. It was the attorney for Stewards of the Range who drew up the Bell County group’s demand letter to TxDOT, asking for a new environmental impact study.

“We’ve often fought with environmental groups,” Dan said, “but in this case we seem to have come full circle and are fighting [alongside] them.”

It was from Dan Byfield that Snyder heard about the local government code provision that allows for creation of the sub-regional planning commissions. Similar federal provisions had been used by the Stewards of the Range to force the federal government to deal with counties in the West.

“I told him we ought to try it up in Bell County,” Snyder recalled, “because those people were already looking for a way to stop the TTC from destroying the Blackland Prairie.”

His first step was to approach each of the four mayors with his idea. “And then I got on the agenda for the city councils for each of the four cities and explained to them how a commission worked and that we wanted to form one. And as there was zero opposition to it, we did.” The school boards of the four cities joined as well.

“It wasn’t hard, because I knew everyone. Heck, I probably know everyone in Bell County,” said Snyder, 64, who owns three farms besides his salvage business.

From the viewpoint of Snyder, Smith, and the Byfields, the whole TTC is a land grab disguised as a transportation issue. Snyder pointed to a study done in the 1990s by the Federal Highway Administration and TxDOT. “That study says that you can expand I-35 in the existing right of way to build enough road to take care of our transportation needs until 2025,” he said. “But that study has been thrown away for the TTC. So it’s not about transportation.

“But the TTC is planned at 1,200 feet wide so that there will be room to lease land to McDonalds and gas stations and motels along the highway, and they’re going to lease the rights to use the pipelines and rail lines they’re planning. That’s when you get to see it for what it is: the use of eminent domain to grab hundreds of thousands of acres in rural Texas to make money.”

While none of Snyder’s property would be affected directly by any of the proposed routes of the TTC, he’s passionate on the issue. “A lot of people here have been here for as many as six generations. They’re not all very sophisticated, and they’re the ones who are going to be taken advantage of,” he said. “They’ve got no idea what their land is worth, they don’t trust lawyers, and they’re ripe. … You cut these towns up and you’ll kill them; they’ll never be the same again.”

A fellow in overalls at the next table leaned over to say, “I agree with you. I hope you stop it.”

Then Sammy Cortez, a huge young man whose arms are covered in tattoos, stopped by. “I can’t see it,” he said of the TTC. “People have been living on and working this land forever. They’re not going to give it up. I don’t even know why we need a new road.”

“That’s what most people are beginning to ask,” Dan Byfield said.

Another few miles away, through more lush farmlands, is the town of Little River-Academy. The drive comes with Smith’s travelogue of memory — here’s where the old road was, that pecan orchard is new, her uncle used to live over there.

At Gunsmoke Motors, wrecker service owner Ronnie White was inflating a stack of tractor-tire inner tubes. His family and friends were planning to celebrate the Fourth with a five-mile float down the Little River. A Navy veteran who took part in the Cuban missile crisis action and served in Vietnam, White has been mayor of this town, population 1,645, for 27 years. Now he’s also a member of the planning commission.

Light-hearted in talking about his holiday plans, he grew serious when the topic turned to the TTC. “The politicians and the people behind the corridor plan, they talk about how it will help the economy. I know I’ve had a few run-ins with the mayor of Temple — that’s the largest city in Bell County, with a population of close to 60,000. He’s all for it. He thinks the TTC is going to bring more money, help his city’s economy. But down here, out here in rural Texas, we don’t think that way.

“Our lifestyle is our wealth. Our land is our wealth,” he said. “People have been here for generations, and we’re happy with the way things are. If you start telling us you’re going to take our land and put up new shops and we’re going to start making a few more dollars and all we have to do is give up the way we live, well, that’s not something people around here are going to go for.

“When they were taking land for I-35, they took a much wider piece than they needed,” White said. “And we asked why they needed to take that much. The answer was that they’d need it in the future. Now they’re saying the same thing when they’re talking about taking 1,200 feet of land. Well, I say, ‘You already took all that land for I-35, so now use it.’ ”

Pensock, the TxDOT official, sounded supportive when he talked about the Central Texas group. “These folks that form regional subcommittees are very concerned folks,” he said, “and we definitely want to hear what they want to say and know what their thoughts are. We’ve already met with Mayor Smith and some of the other folks from the Holland area several times and spent a lot of time trying to give them information and answer their questions.”

He’s not quite so definite about what his agency needs to do in response. Does TxDOT have to meet the commission’s demand for a new study? “Well, they have a voice and a right to be heard,” he answered. “But Texas is a big state, and there are a lot of voices to be heard.”

Pensock doesn’t think that simply widening I-35 without taking more land is a real option. “People look at those broad medians and those gently sloping embankments and picture that we can just lay down another 12-foot lane. That’s not really the case. For one, our highway engineering specifications are quite rigorous. And then there’s the matter of why we put those medians there in the first place. They’re there to help prevent head-on collisions. Our first guiding principle is how to best keep traffic flowing while minimizing accidents.

“So say you take away those medians and turn them into lanes. Well, we think that will increase the risk of horrible accidents. And those gentle embankments? If you cut them at a steeper angle to add lanes, or get rid of them altogether and put up a retaining wall, you’ll get your lanes but at what price? How many more accidents will you have and how much more severe will they be?”

For now, TXDOT is waiting on word from the Federal Highway Administration before moving on the commission’s request for a supplemental study.

Fred Kelly Grant, president of Stewards of the Range, who wrote the commission’s request to TxDOT, said he’s thought from the first that the TTC issue would end up in court.

And Margaret Byfield said that, if that happens, the 5,000-plus-member Stewards group is ready to fund the fight. “Our membership opposes the corridor. And we’re nationwide, so we have the financial backing, and we’ve already got the attorneys. So we are ready to go to court.”

Smith said the commission has talked to officials of the Environmental Protection Agency and has a meeting scheduled with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged with protecting farmland.

“We’re tired of fooling around,” she said. “We want the supplemental studies done. And we’re coming at them from state law, from the EPA, the NRCS … from all sorts of directions.”

While the Central Texas group is lining up its arguments and allies, it also appears to have exported its revolutionary sentiment to other parts of the state. The several newly formed planning commissions in East Texas and around El Paso are considering asking for TxDOT to re-do the environmental studies on TTC’s impact in their areas as well.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club has also asked TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration to withdraw and redo the impact study on I-69, the leg of TTC planned between Laredo and Texarkana. The environmental group backed up its request with an 84-page document pointing out errors or omissions in TxDOT’s original report on that road.

Smith said she expects to see an attempt in the Texas Legislature next year to eliminate the part of the local government code that allows for the formation of local planning groups like hers. Grant, the Stewards of the Range attorney, said that even if that happens, legislators won’t be able to strip already-existing commissions of their powers.

“The public hearings that TxDOT holds are just that,” said Smith. “The people come in and speak what’s on their mind, but then TxDOT goes on its merry way. But with the commission we’ve formed, with four mayors and four school board officials, well, we’re all elected officials — TxDOT is compelled by Texas law to speak with us.

“We may not be able to stop a toll road,” she said. “But we set ourselves a goal when we formed: to get I-35 finished and expanded before anyone jumps into a toll road. And we believe that if that’s done, then people will see that a toll road isn’t needed at all.”

© 2008, Fort Worth Weekly: www.fwweekly.com

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Grassroots Opponents To TTC Not Going Away

by Donna McCollum
Copyright 2008

During Trans Texas Corridor hearings before the Texas Department of Transportation you found ranchers to business owners. There were retirees to school children. And strict conservatives to far left liberals. More than 28,000 of them united in the fight against the Trans Texas Corridor. Their hard work paid off.

Jan Tracy, a landowner and advocate said, " We're thrilled that TxDOT has come to their senses and that they have decided to sue the existing footprint of 59. I mean that is wonderful news, certainly for our school district and for our area. "

We first visited Tracy in her elementary classroom where children wrote letters to state and national leaders. She sees TxDOT's decision as a victory for their future. Tracy said, "Not having a 1200 foot swath coming through here is great news for all of us here."

But no one is removing their 'No TTC' signs just yet. There are still serious concerns regarding this issue.

Larry Shelton, President of the Piney Woods Alliance said, " As long as there is still a highway of this magnitude that is coming through Nacogdoches County we have every reason to stay involved, so the Piney Woods Sub-Regional Planning Commission is not going to go away. We're going to continue to engage the planning process and protect the local interest here. "

A CorridorWatch newsletter criticizes TxDOT for its lack of sincerity writing, " Faced with pressure from state and federal officials, an unhappy Sunset Advisory Commission, and pending report from the state auditor, it was time for TxDOT to find something they could give up. Hello TTC-I 69. " Shelton said, " The decision you see today has not as much to do with listening to the people as it does with election year politics. There are a lot of politicians that are afraid of losing their jobs come November. "

A changed route for TTC is a won battle for East Texas landowners, but they're far from saying the TTC war is over.

© 2008, KTRE-TV www.ktre.com

Friday, May 23, 2008

Governor Reportedly Pondering Special Session To Curtail Power Of Sub-Regional Planning Commissions

by Vince Leibowitz
Capitol Annex
Copyright 2008

There are rumblings in the Capitol that Texas Governor Rick Perry is looking at the possibility of calling a Special Session of the Texas Legislature to curtail the power of Regional Planning Commissions.

Why? Because Sub-Regional Planning Commissions have become the latest weapon in the arsenal of opponents of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Perry is reportedly considering calling a special session on transportation issues with altering Chapter 391 of the Texas Local Government Code being the session’s number one priority.

Chapter 391, the codification of the Regional Planning Act of 1965 codified by the 59th Texas Legislature, has a proviso that has become particularly nettlesome to proponents of the Trans-Texas Corridor, Chapter 391.009(c):

In carrying out their planning and program development responsibilities, state agencies shall, to the greatest extent feasible, coordinate planning with commissions to ensure effective and orderly implementation of state programs at the regional level.

Because these commissions are considered political subdivisions of the state, they are on equal footing with state agencies like TxDOT.

One Sub-Regional Planning Commission in particular, the Eastern Central Texas Regional Sub-Regional Planning Commission, has become a particularly nettlesome thorn in the side of TxDOT. They have demanded, in a 28-page missive, that TxDOT conduct another Environmental Impact Study specific to their region. TxDOT, of course, is required under the National Environmental Policy Act, to conduct an EIS, and the current Draft Environmental Impact Study for TTC-35 is, according to the ECTRSRP, “deficient in issue analysis.”

Whether Perry will call the special session or not remains to be seen, but Austin sources tell Capitol Annex that the issue has been discussed between TxDOT and the governor’s office.

The funny part, however, is that the existing sub-regional planning commissions would be grandfathered, but legislative action could severely clip their wings and possibly stop new SRPCs from either forming or acting so boldly.

© 2008 The Capitol Annex www.capitolannex.com

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Nacogdoches County will fight TTC as new member of regional planning commission

Nacodoches Daily Sentinel
Copyright 2008

County commissioners reaffirmed their stance against the Trans-Texas Corridor, and they took another step toward keeping county government transparent when they met Tuesday.

First up on the court's agenda, commissioners heard a presentation by Connie Fogle on behalf of the newly formed Pineywoods Sub-Regional Planning Commission.

According to Fogle, the Texas Local Government Code, Chapter 391, requires state agencies to coordinate with local commissions to "ensure effective and orderly implementation of state programs at the regional level."

"Critical in the code is the word 'coordinate,'" she said. "This does not mean the commission has to cooperate. The intent is to put Sub-Regional Planning Commissions on equal-footing with state agencies."

The Pineywoods commission is against the TTC, but supports expansion of U.S. Hwy. 59 to Interstate status.

There are now four Sub-Regional Planning Commissions in Texas, but the law that allows the groups to exist and operate has been in existence for more than 10 years.

"It's really amazing that it's a forgotten law," Fogle said to the commissioners. "We are inviting you to join us.

"You have to realize that our governor, Rick Perry, is determined, although I don't quite understand his reasoning at this point, to push this transportation system down our throats without giving us a say-so in this," she added. "Now, they will have to come and sit across the table from us and address our concerns — that's the whole purpose of the commission."

When Fogle asked the commissioners if they had any questions, Precinct 2 Commissioner Reggie Cotton asked about the Texas Department of Transportation's handling of the project.

Fogle claimed that TxDOT has hired five lobbyists, at $10,000 each per month, totaling $50,000 per month in taxpayer money, for the TTC, yet "they are telling us they don't have the money to fix our roads."

"That's illegal," Cotton said of the hired lobbyists.

"Yes, it's illegal," Fogle said. "TxDOT is a state agency. They are supposed to do what they are told by our governor, state Legislature and the representatives."

Commissioners voted unanimously to join the Pineywoods Sub-Regional Planning Commission. In the court's next meeting, commissioners will select a representative of the county as a board member on the commission.

© 2008 Nachodoches Daily Sentinel: www.dailysentinel.com

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Road Ahead: Group fighting Trans-Texas Corridor

Country World News
Copyright 2008

As proposed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2002, the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) would consist of a series of six-lane highways criss-crossing the state with separate lanes for cars and commercial trucks, high-speed rail lines and utility corridors. Each corridor could be as wide as 1,200 feet. The TTC is touted by Perry and other state officials as the best way to relieve traffic congestion on the state's highways.

If members of a small group with a long name - the Eastern Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission - have their way, the highways will never get built. By utilizing a little known state law, the commission is ensuring the state hears what the commission has to say about the corridor.

The Texas Local Government Code, Chapter 391, requires state agencies "to the greatest extent feasible" to coordinate with local commissions to "ensure effective and orderly implementation of state programs at the regional level."

The Eastern Central Texas commission was formed in August of last year to battle TTC-35, the first leg of the proposed TTC system, which would run about 600 miles from Gainesville to Laredo, roughly parallel to IH-35.

The commission consists of mayors Mae Smith of Holland, president of the commission, Arthur White of Bartlett, Ronnie White of Little River-Academy and Billy Crow of Rogers along with Holland business owner Ralph Snyder. Five non-voting members are also included on the commission.

The commission has met twice with representatives of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Smith said the meetings were productive.

"We opened some eyes," she said. "When they (TxDOT officials) left our last meeting one of them said, 'We've got to go back and read some things.' All we're trying to do is make sure they work with us and follow the law."

White said that feelings against the TTC run deep in the rural areas that would be most affected. One proposed TTC-35 route would parallel State Highway 95, effectively cutting the towns of Holland, Bartlett, Little River-Academy and others in half.

"For us, this isn't about the money," White said. "It's about being happy. It's about taking up so much of this good river bottom land. It would destroy a lot of farms in this area, and once that land is gone, it's gone. When you come right down to it, we have to eat before we can drive anyway."

Last month the commission took its message and tactics to East Texas to help people in that region mobilize opposition to the I-69 project, a federal project that would cover seven states. The Texas portion would run approximately 650 miles from Laredo to Texarkana. According to the TxDOT website, the Texas part of I-69 will be developed under the TTC master plan.

Smith and Snyder represented the East Central Texas commission at the Lufkin meeting on March 17, which was hosted by the American Land Foundation, Stewards of the Range and Texans United For Reform (TURF). Around 50 people attended the meeting. Participants received a workbook detailing what is meant by "coordination" under Chapter 391, how to form a 391 commission and the correspondence necessary to notify both the state and federal governments of local demands.

"We went to Lufkin and told the people in East Texas that they have to get on the ball and form those commissions now," Smith said. "The Governor can call a special session any time he wants and change that law, because it allows for an effective, legal argument against the Trans-Texas Corridor. Even if we don't stop it, we can delay it for a long time and at least make sure the rural concerns are being heard."

Since that meeting, the City of Groveton in East Texas has passed a resolution to form a 391 commission like the East Central Texas model. Smith said that two more cities could join the commission.

Fred Kelly Grant is an attorney who serves as an advisor to the commission. He is also president of Stewards of the Range, a property rights group.

"This is one of the most important projects in the nation for stopping federal and state government in its tracks and it's all done by local people who represent our views," Grant said.

The TTC proposal has drawn harsh opposition from some cities along the proposed routes and especially from farmers, ranchers and private landowners. A public hearing on TTC-35 held in Temple two years ago drew more than 1,500 people, most of whom opposed the project.

Though no more public hearings are scheduled on the Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) for the I-69/TTC project, TxDOT has extended the public comment period to April 18 (the comment period began in December). TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz said in a statement on the agency's website that the agency has held 95 environmental meetings and hearings on I-69/TTC and received more than 14,000 comments.

TxDOT is in the process of narrowing the study area for the TTC-35 route, according to TxDOT spokeswoman Gaby Garcia.

Smith said the East Central Texas commission and others that form in its wake are not going to go away.

"Like I said, we may not stop them from building the Trans-Texas Corridor, but we're going to keep coming at them," she said. "We're going to show them plenty of reasons why they shouldn't build it. And we're going to make sure they follow the law."

Comments on the TTC can be mailed to: I-69/TTC, P.O. Box 14428, Austin, Texas, 78761 or submitted online at www.keeptexasmoving.com.

© 2008, Country World News www.countryworldnews.com

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Putting up a roadblock of questions

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2008

LUFKIN — Mae Smith, the 64-year-old mayor of the teeny Central Texas town of Holland, seized the civic center lectern like a dragon-slayer ascending the throne.

In a fiery red pantsuit and a voice that echoed without the help of a malfunctioning microphone, she and her cohorts revealed to a crowd of about 50 souls clad in denim and plaid a little-known weapon against the foe of all in the room: Gov. Rick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor.

The weapon, Smith said, doesn't involve marching on the Texas Capitol, like more than 1,000 did last year, some on tractors and horses. It doesn't involve clever Web sites that have been launched with cartoon characters and screaming rainbow text. And it doesn't involve confronting TxDOT big shots at public hearings across the state, like thousands did last year.

No, the mighty sword revealed by Smith is something called the Eastern Central Sub-Regional Planning Commission.

"It's a mouthful," Smith acknowledged quickly of the bureaucratically nebulous name. "You ought to try saying it with a lisp."

Re-conquest of Texas

Smith insists that such a commission is the best way for rural communities to empower themselves and fight the massive highway-tollway-rail project, slated to cover 4,000 miles, cost up to $183 billion and take a half-century to build.

The corridor, pitched by TxDOT as the answer to Texas' urban traffic crisis, is perceived by many rural folks as a land grab, an assault on rural life, the Spanish re-conquest of Texas by the Madrid-based company Cintra, which won the first contract.

But since Smith and three other mayors of nearby towns in Bell County formed their nine-member commission in August, they've already had an influence on the process.

Just since October, several representatives from the Texas Department of Transportation have traveled to Holland — population 1,180 — to meet with Smith and her cohorts, not once, but twice, to discuss citizens' concerns over the project. The most recent chat lasted four hours.

The fine folks of the Environmental Protection Agency paid a visit in January.

"They wouldn't be coming to us if they didn't have to and if a law wasn't on the books saying they had to," Smith said.

The law to which Smith is referring is found in Chapter 391 of the Texas Local Government Code. Strengthened in 2001, the provision requires state agencies, "to the greatest extent feasible," to coordinate with local commissions to "ensure effective and orderly implementation of state programs at the regional level."

In other words, the law may require TxDOT officials to sit in a room for hours, months, years, maybe even decades, as members of the Eastern Central Sub-Regional Planning Commission dwell on how the corridor might affect their water lines, EMS response times and any unforeseeable impact on their rural way of life.

ECSRPC commissioners plan to prolong the "coordination" process until, as Smith puts it, "they do it right or change their mind. I have no time limit, honey."

If all goes according to plan, the mighty Trans-Texas Corridor will succumb to a death by a thousand questions.

And the plot becomes all the more menacing if other rural towns across Texas join in, which was the goal of Smith's Monday speech in Lufkin.

"Delay is victory!" was a common battle cry to the crowd.

The workshop, entitled "How to Fight the TTC," charged participants up to $30 a pop for a barbecue lunch and step-by-step instructions on how to create a commission of their own. It was sponsored by corridor foes such as the American Land Foundation, Stewards of the Range and Texans Uniting for Reform & Freedom (TURF).

The folks at TxDOT don't appear to be flipping on the hazard lights just yet. Spokesman Chris Lippincott said his agency would happily meet or exceed legal requirements to coordinate with such commissions. But he questioned any intentions of commissioners who want to use the law for — in my words — evil rather than good.

"My understanding, and I haven't read the law, but they're not called 'obstruction committees'; they're called coordination committees," he said.

'Time is of the essence'

"I don't profess to be able to predict whether or not they could stop the project, but again, the law, it's not found in the 'how to stop a road' section of the state law," he said.

There's no doubt in the minds of some who attended the workshop. A few conspiracy theorists even preached that "time is of the essence" because, when the governor gets wind of their scheme, he could call a special session to change the law.

Paul Hale of Cass County, northeast of Lufkin, got so wound up at the historic significance of thwarting the TTC that he proclaimed it on par with the "Roman highway debacle" — whatever that means.

But if he and others intend to spread the word, their first order of business should be drawing more than 50 people to the meeting.

© 2008, Houston Chronicle: www.chron.com

Monday, March 17, 2008

Anti-corridor groups apprise locals of ways to 'just say no to TTC'

March 17, 2008

The Lufkin Daily News
Copyright 2008

Plots by Communists to infiltrate America. The disintegration of borders and rural areas. Citizens mobilizing and rising up against government agencies and big business.

It all sounds like the plot for a summer blockbuster, but it's something that could be happening in your own backyard.

These were just a few of the topics addressed in the "How to fight the TTC" workshop, held Monday at the Pitser Garrison Civic Center in Lufkin. The conference served as an informational meeting aimed at informing citizens and local government officials how they can unite in trying to stop the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor project.

The TTC, a new grid of superhighway being proposed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), would crisscross the state and connect Texas with the rest of the nation in a thoroughfare that would take large trucks and heavy traffic off of local roads and place them into one, fast-moving highway. But with a budget at an estimated $145 billion to $183 billion, many organizations are questioning if the money could be spent elsewhere. Plus the fact that the overall plan would involve the confiscation of 584,000 acres of privately owned Texas agriculture and rural land doesn't have environmentalists too pleased either.

"There is a rogue agency out there that isn't listening to you and what you have to say," said Dan Byfield, president of the American Land Foundation, one of the hosts of Monday's workshop. "If you form your own committees, you can force TxDOT to work with you and let them know how you feel." Byfield gave a step-by-step process on how activists can form a sub-regional planning commission and circumvent local government committees altogether in a continued grass-roots effort to stop the TTC.

The conference was hosted by the American Land Foundation, the Stewards of the Range, and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, with the heads of all the organizations giving seminars on topics ranging from community coordination and organization, to detailed legalities that groups can utilize to fight TxDOT and possibly stop the construction of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

"This plan has not considered the environmental impacts on our communities," said Hank Gilbert, director for TURF, and the program's moderator. "The more community involvement, the louder the community voice, and the more the state government will be forced to take notice."

One of the bigger underlying issues at hand was that the TTC would be the first step toward a unification of Canada, America and Mexico in an effort to create a "North American Union" similar to the European Union, which could even maintain its own currency, the Amero. In its final realization, the highway would begin in Chinese-controlled ports in Mexico and run all the way up through Canada, basically dissolving any ideas of borders or searchable cargo.

Standing Ground, a newsletter printed by the ALF that was distributed at the conference, touched deeper on the subject: "This treatise is the blueprint for the North American Union... which would signal the destruction of America as we know it by merging the United States, Canada and Mexico into a single economic and political entity... Once only considered a conspiracy theory, the NAU is dangerously close to reality, with timetables set for partial completion in this decade."

Attempts to reach a TxDOT official for comment Monday afternoon were unsuccessful, but according to the TxDOT Web site, www.keeptexasmoving.com, because of the corridor, "drivers will face less congestion, businesses will have more reliable transportation networks, users will have more choices, including rail and transit, and more job opportunities will arise due to new and improved trade and transport corridors." All of which sounds good on paper, opponents said, but remains fishy in the eyes of the various organizations gathered at Monday's meeting.

With the deadline for proposals from developers to orchestrate the project being pushed back to March 26, there is still time for advocacy groups to let TxDOT know how they feel. Opinions are varied about the outcomes of the TTC, but as one Texan landowner who asked not to be named put it, "if TxDOT tries to come and take my land, they'll find me waiting on the porch with a loaded gun."

For more information visit www.amland.us, www.stewards.us and www.texasturf.org.

© 2008, Lufkin Daily News: www.lufkindailynews.com

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Anti-corridor groups plan Monday workshop at civic center

The Lufkin Daily News
Copyright 2008

There's been a lot of talk about the new Trans-Texas Corridor — the next-generation "super-highway" — and opinions are varying. Now the debate is coming to Lufkin's doorstep.

On Monday, the American Land Foundation, Stewards of the Range and TURF will hold a workshop at Lufkin's Pitser Garrison Civic Center on how to stop the Trans-Texas Corridor 69. The event runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

A portion of Texas citizens have voiced their opposition to the TTC-69 in public meetings held by the Texas Department of Transportation, but believing they are not being heard, four cities and their school districts have found a way to force TxDOT to "coordinate" with them on the TTC-35 and they are sharing their information across the state.

"Utilizing Chapter 391 of the Texas Local Government Code, four rural towns in Bell County, Texas formed the Eastern Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission forcing TxDOT to come to them," stated Fred Grant, attorney and president of Stewards of the Range. Grant has been helping the four cities and school districts for the past six months.

According to www.keeptexasmoving.com, the official Web site for the Trans-Texas Corridor, Texas is growing and is in dire need of a state thoroughfare. The Web site lists some startling statistics: during the past 25 years in Texas, population increased 57 percent, road use grew 95 percent, while state road capacity only grew 8 percent. The predictions for the future of Texas are even grimmer if the corridor isn't built, with road use growing 214 percent while road capacity only growing 6 percent, according to TxDOT, "Right now, we face increased congestion, deteriorating roads, safety issues, and air pollution, all of which hinder mobility as well as current and future economic opportunities," as stated by the TxDOT Web site.

Members of the various commissions campaigning against the corridor will attend the workshop to help answer questions for city leaders, businesses and concerned citizens. "If we can get commissions established up and down the I-69 Corridor we have a real shot at stopping this monster," said Hank Gilbert, director of TURF and one of the workshop speakers. The seminar is open to the public, and everyone is encouraged to attend.

Sign up by calling the American Land Foundation at 800-452-6389, or go online at http://www.stewards.us/. Pre-registration costs $20 and will be $30 at the door. A workbook and a barbecue lunch will be provided. The Pitser Garrison Civic Center is located at 601 N. Second St.

© 2008, Lufkin Daily News: www.lufkindailynews.com

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Toll Road Privatization May Result In More Crashes On Other Roads

Copyright 2008

Privatizing toll roads in the U.S. may result in significant diversions of truck traffic from privatized toll roads to "free" roads, and may result in more crashes and increased costs associated with use of other roads, according to a new study.

The study used data from the State of Ohio, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Ohio Turnpike to predict annual Turnpike truck vehicle miles traveled, and therefore diverted vehicle miles, based on National truck traffic and Turnpike rates. The researchers then compare estimated truck traffic diverted from the Turnpike to truck traffic on Ohio road segments on possible substitute routes.

Both economic models support the hypothesis that rate increases divert traffic from toll roads to "free" roads.

"While recently privatized roads do not have enough history to determine how high actual rates will rise, adequate data do exist to determine what happens when toll rates increase dramatically on state-run toll roads," says co-author Peter Swan, Assistant Professor of Logistics and Operations Management at Penn State's Harrisburg campus.

The study concludes that if governments allow private toll road operators to maximize profits, higher tolls will divert trucks to local roads, depending on the suitability of substitute roads. The authors estimate that for 2005, a for-profit, private operator of the Ohio Turnpike could have raised tolls to roughly three times what they were under the public turnpike authority, resulting in about a 40% diversion of trucks from the Ohio Turnpike to other roads.

"The Ohio Turnpike substantially increased tolls during the 1990s to help finance construction of a third lane in each direction over substantial portions of the Turnpike," the researchers say. "Because the Ohio Turnpike raised its rates for trucks in the 1990s and later lowered them again, sufficient data exist to calculate a demand curve for the Turnpike based on demand and the toll rate. We then use the resulting demand curve to estimate diversion of trucks caused by the changes in the toll rates and to forecast how toll rates might affect Turnpike truck revenue."

The number of diverted trucks is important to both the State of Ohio and the Nation for economic and social reasons.

  • First, many of the substitute roads are two-lane highways with crash rates many times that of the Turnpike.
  • Second, the increased traffic has reduced the quality of life for communities located along diversion routes and dramatically increased the maintenance costs of many of these roads, say the researchers.
  • Finally, higher truck tolls have two negative effects on the economy. Motor carriers eventually pass all tolls to consumers in the form of higher prices for goods. While higher toll rates may not decrease the efficiency of non-diverted trucks, they have raised costs.
  • Furthermore, diversion reduces the efficiency of these trucks because they clearly are taking a second-best route. The resulting loss of efficiency can stifle economic activity, according to the study.
Many of these economic and social costs may not be considered in future leases or sales, especially when such costs are paid by people in states other than the one making the lease agreement.

The study researchers question whether it makes good policy sense to substitute the existing fuel tax-based system of funding road infrastructure with a system that uses widespread tolls and to grant long-term leases to private enterprises that will operate them for profit.

"The combination of inadequate maintenance, lack of capital for new capacity, and ever-growing demand has led to renewed calls for tolls," Swan and Belzer state. "It is curious that national policy clearly supports sales or long-term leases of roads to private parties when such negative results can be expected.

"It does not appear that the U.S. Department of Transportation has considered how far tolling and highway privatization should go ... how such a market-based system of interstate highways will affect the parallel system of publicly-owned state and local roads ... or the effect of private tolling on interstate commerce - unless U.S. DOT is already committed to the toll-based funding for all roads."

"If the true problem is that political leaders are unwilling to face the voters with the reality that there is no free lunch, then the problem we seek to solve by tolling and privatization will not solve the problem at all. In fact, our research suggests that it will only make the problem worse," Swan and Belzer say.

Peter Swan of Penn State -- Harrisburg and Michael Belzer of Wayne State University presented the findings of their study, "Empirical Evidence of Toll Road Traffic Diversion and Implications for Highway Infrastructure Privatization" on Jan. 14 at the 87th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C.

© 2008 ScienceDaily:www.sciencedaily.com