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TRANSPORTATION AND THE ENVIRONMENT

16 April 2005
Houston, Texas

State-wide transportation issues

David Stall of Corridor Watch, a 501[c][4] monitoring the Trans Texas Corridor project, began our discussion about transportation and environmental impacts. He explained that his background was in government, both as general manager of the cities of Nassau Bay, Columbus, and Shoreacres, and as a 4th generation public servant. With that experience, he considers the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) project to have little to do with transportation, nor with the Texas Department of Transportation, the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M, nor regional urban traffic planners. To Mr. Stall, the TTC seems to be a rather desperate effort by the Governor’s office to generate revenue.

Nevertheless, Mr. Stall takes the proposal very seriously, as shown by its rapid progress:

  • January 2002: Governor Perry orders TTC plan
  • June 2002: TTC adopted by the Texas Transportation Commission
  • June 2003: HB 3588 establishes the TTC
  • July 2003: A Request for Proposals is issued for the 800-mile TTC-35 (paralleling IH-35)
  • February 2004: 254 meetings held in 254 counties, attended, on average, by 7.5 people (often including 5-6 TXDOT staff. 4000 people attend in total, including 2000 in Colorado and Fayette counties alone.
  • December 2004: Cintra, a Spanish highway contractor, is selected as TTC-35 concessionaire
  • March 2005: Cintra and Zachry (the 2nd biggest Texas highway contractor) enter joint (85% / 15%) venture

Mr. Stall went on to describe the bold outlines of the TTC project:

  • 1200’ right-of-way (compared with 300’ for original Interstate 10-lane highway easements, and 400’ for current Interstate widths);
  • Provision for 10 vehicle lanes (6 car and 4 truck lanes), 6 railroad tracks, a 200’ utility right-of-way, and 435’ feet of unidentified “separator” space;
  • The four priority corridors envisioned by TTC would extend 4000 miles and consume 580,000 acres;
  • A Cintra corporation press release promises investors that the TTC network would reach 8000 miles in length and use over 1.2 million acres of land; and
  • $184 billion is estimated as the cost of just the initial priority lanes – TTC-10, TT-35, and TTC-69.

Mr. Stall also described what he saw as weaknesses and problems in the TTC project:

Land consumption and condemnation

  • Takings of land for TTC routes will exceed that delegated directly to road, railroad and utility rights of way by 36%;
  • TTC routes are vulnerable to railroad alignment problems, which require gentle curves and gradual 1% slopes that consume great amounts of land and require costly roadcuts;
  • Excess “separator” lands will be available for the franchisee to develop for industrial or commercial purposes, with rents going to the private franchisee and fees going to the state general treasury, not toward local county or municipal tax revenues
  • The TTC franchisee has authority to build “ancillary facilities” for any purpose, including the right to purchase property from existing landowners, and then relet that same real estate to the original owner;
  • Environmental land banking for mitigation of TTC impacts can occur far from TTC routes, and the state is not required to demonstrate need;
  • TTC powers include quick-take condemnation authority, which would allow the state to file a taking with a court, serve the owner with notice of the taking, and then take title, with discussions about price postponed to afterward.

Lack of transportation role

  • No traffic demand studies have been held to demonstrate the need or feasibility of the TTC;
  • A traffic demand study conducted in Washington state for a project similar to TTC, though only 720’-wide, rather than 1200’ wide as in Texas, could not justify the investment;
  • Corridors are of equal width regardless of local traffic, hence the lightly-traveled route between Amarillo and Lubbock would be of the same size as that between Dallas and Fort Worth;
  • TTC routes do not connect directly with any city and there are no on- or off-ramps, entry is through “double-diamond” coverleafs with existing freeways;
  • TTC use is limited by the capacity of existing freeways to deliver traffic;
  • TTC appears to emphasize freight through-traffic, particularly from Mexico to the Midwest, rather than state residential mobility;
  • TTC would not apparently alleviate congestion where it is worst, in the metropolitan areas of the state.
  • Limited entry raises EMS access questions in case of accidents related to the higher speeds (80mph), axle count, and weight limits of the TTC system;
  • TTC is at-grade and specifies a 22’ clearance for the railroad tracks, requiring unusually costly, high and broad bridges for all secondary roads crossing the TT corridors.

Financial costs

  • TTC franchisees have authority to toll traffic, and the price of one-way travel from San Antonio to Dallas is estimated at $33 for a car and $99 for a truck;
  • TTC contracts with franchisees have do-not-compete clauses which could hinder government improvements to existing roads which parallel proposed TTC routes;
  • TTC and its franchisee would not be required to compensate for takings of public real property, including roads and schools.

Open government problems

  • Contracts between the state and the TTC franchisee were negotiated in secret, and when the Attorney General required their release, TXDOT sued to block release of the records, a suit that remains in litigation.

Environmental impacts

  • TTC routes would consume and fragment habitat and block wildlife migrations.

Social impacts

  • TTC routes could red-line marginal communities, separating them from more prosperous areas;
  • TTC routes will condemn rural areas and erode rural tax bases, yet revenues will benefit the urban Texas population.

Concerns are starting to build about the TTC proposal. Mr. Stall’s group, Corridor Watch, has more than 2000 members, and has persuaded 5 incumbent senators to criticize the TTC project. Comptroller Strayhorn has also expressed misgivings about the TTC. Some of this political opposition has resulted in legislation. For example, a ban on using TTC lands for water-drilling has passed the Legislature. As well, thirty-three counties have passed resolutions against the TTC, with 31 of these resolutions resulting from local group pressure, rather than Corridor Watch intervention.

Mr. Stall feels that this local pressure can carry the TTC political message in the future. He is planning on setting up a 501[c][3] group, the Blackland Coalition, which he and his wife will focus on in the coming months to work more with general public education about the TTC.

For more information, he refers people to their website: www.corridorwatch.org

Houston-area transportation Issues

Chris Sagstetter, a Houston-based consultant and organizer for the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, spoke next. She has been hired to confront a number of transportation projects in west Houston, including expansion of IH-10, construction of the Grand Parkway (the outer and fourth loop around Houston), and creation of a public airport. Each of these projects threatens the Katy Prairie and Columbia Bottomlands, both due to the paving and fragmentation of habitat, and due to the consequent inflation of land prices which soon make conservation work prohibitively costly.

Challenging the Grand Parkway has been difficult. For instance, it has strong support from the Houston business community, including the Greater Houston Partnership (the Houston Chamber of Commerce) and the West Houston Association. It has been shepherded along by prominent political leaders, such as Jon Lindsay, the current state senator and past Harris County judge. It is connected with larger state projects, such as the evolving Laredo to Chicago route, variously called the NAFTA Highway, IH-69 or, most recently, TTC-69. It has evaded substantive environmental review, since its cumulative impacts are overlooked by segmenting the Parkway into 9 separate arcs, and because Bush Administration streamlining has allowed projects to proceed immediately after environmental impact assessments are filed, regardless of the impacts they uncover.

Ms Sagstetter is also working on a proposal by Bruce Cameron to convert a private airport, known as Air Rice, to a public commercial airport, to be called the South Waller County Airport. While no Waller County funding is involved in the proposal (despite the Airport’s official-sounding name), the County is supporting the Airport politically due to hopes for increased tax revenues to this relatively poor County. Nevertheless, local officials are aware of the drawbacks to an airport in this area. They just concluded spending $750,000 on an unsuccessful environmental review of their own failed north Waller County airport proposal.

Like the previous 4 airports that have been proposed and defeated in the area between Fulshear and Waller, each has been considered too dangerous to operate due to the heavy concentrations of migratory waterfowl. In fact, during the mid-1990s, the FAA had declared the previous West Houston airport site to be “extremely dangerous”. Southwest and Continental Airlines pulled their support for the same West Houston airport when their pilot union refused to fly into the region. The most recent proposal for this South Waller County Airport is particularly risky because the new airport site is less than 5000 feet from the abandoned West Houston Airport’s 4032-acre parcel, now developed as a wetland mitigation and bird habitat preserve.

As with the road proposals, Ms. Sagstetter explained that the airport plan raises concern that new development will be spawned around the expanded highways and airport sites, endangering the dwindling prairie and bottomland habitat, interfering with major bird migration routes, and raising the ante for any conservation initiatives. The airport proposal, if approved, throws in a new factor. Conserved habitat tracts may be deemed wildlife attractants and barred as a risk to air travel. Muddying the waters still further is the conflicting role of a major environmental consultant in the area, SWBCA. SWBCA has been the lead consultant on designing the mitigation area, and ensuring that it attracts, feeds and shelters waterfowl and other wildlife. Recently, though, SWBCA has also hired out to design and develop the nearby South Waller County Airport, which would appear to be simultaneously at risk from the mitigation area, and to cripple any plans to expand that area.

With these challenges, Ms Sagstetter has been happy to see the wide grassroots support for her position. A significant group appears to appreciate the local wildlife and flood control that the existing prairie marshes provide, and to oppose the sprawl, traffic and smog that development might bring. Ms Sagstetter is reaching out to unconventional allies, including realtors, builders, the NRA, and Republican constituencies, to continue to build opposition to the construction of these new roads and airports in the west Houston area.

 

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