Trans-Texas Corridor spurs controversy: Part one of a two-part look at what the project means for Texas
by Jason Gaskamp, Contributing Writer
The Texas Transportation Commission, through the Texas Department of Transportation, is paving the way for the Trans-Texas Corridor, a network of freeways and rail lines that will expand Texas’ existing transportation network. Environmental and business groups are each taking sides, pitting issues of development and economics against a myriad of environmental concerns.
The project will connect most of Texas in an attempt to make it more adaptable to transportation and more accessible, especially in rural areas. Aspects of the project also include congestion relief, reducing the risk of transporting hazardous materials, and eliminating air pollution found in the larger cities by bypassing them instead of running through them.
According to CorridorWatch.org, an independent group of citizens and officials who are challenging the claims and benefits of the Trans-Texas Corridor, the width of each corridor will reach between 1,000 and 1,200-feet wide. They estimate the project will consume roughly one-half million acres of land before it is finished and reach 4,000 miles in total length, with only 49 percent of those miles being counted for by the four main corridors. Figures for the total cost range from $125 billion, a sum that does not include right-of-way and miscellaneous costs, to $185 billion.
Currently the project includes four priority corridors. Each corridor either parallels an existing freeway by adding onto the structure, or will accompany a proposed freeway. One will run from Denison to the Rio Grande Valley along Interstate 35, 37 and a proposed Interstate 69. Another will stretch from Texarkana to Houston and then back up to Laredo, along the proposed Interstate 69. Another follows Interstate 45 from Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston, and the last follows Interstate 10 from El Paso to Orange.
The proposed Trans-Texas Corridor will incorporate a series of additional elements, making it unlike any other previous freeway expansion projects. Each corridor will feature separate passenger vehicle lanes and truck lanes, a freight/cargo rail, a commuter rail, and another high-speed passenger rail, with the purpose of safe travel for people and goods. A safety zone, an operational maintenance zone, and a utility zone that will house underground water lines, natural gas and petroleum pipelines, telecommunication cables, and overhead electrical lines will also accompany the corridors.
Frank Blake, the Conservation Chair of Sierra Club’s Houston Group, said the project will “create wildlife barriers through much of the land and initially divide the state into separate segments.” Like a giant wall, the corridors could block wildlife from migrating and limit the habitat of other species. There is equal concern about the possibility of damage or destruction to sensitive ecosystems from the construction and development of the corridors.
According to TxDOT, however, steps and precautions are being taken to protect the environment. “There are misconceptions that we short-change the environmental concerns in our plans for development. We can have both development and environmental protection, and we make sure we do that,” said TxDOT spokesperson Gaby Garcia.
Referring to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, Garcia said they have followed the required steps in planning for the Texas-Trans Corridor. “The act only allows for federal approval once a thorough study of the environmental impact has been completed, including documenting, analyzing, and reviewing all possible impacts to assess their threat. Until that process is completed, a department is hindered from obtaining right-of-ways, purchasing land, and beginning construction.” Opponents like Blake feel that although the intentions of the TxDOT are good, “any environmentalists who are familiar with the TxDOT’s planning process and history know how those [environmental] concerns are either not taken seriously or are overruled by special interest with political connections.”
Regional Representative of the Houston Sierra Club Christine Sagstetter, who has done extensive research on the Trans-Texas Corridor, believes these crucial steps of documenting and analyzing are either not being done properly or are being grossly sidestepped.
In two instances given by Sagstetter, both occurring in Spring in North Harris County, a member’s complaint from the local community about how one route of the corridor would cut through a cemetery was repeatedly omitted from documentation. Another route calls for the removal of homes because it runs through one of the subdivisions. This too was neglected by the department in the documentation, said Sagstetter.
Sagstetter responded to these examples as “direct economic hits to the local community, and are consequences that are not being identified by documentation. The state considers the process completed once they produce a document, even though that document may fail to follow the complete process and show the real impacts.”
While opponents argue the effects of the projects could be environmentally devastating, Garcia claims not building the multi-use transportation system could be equally devastating for the future economy of Texas.
She said, “planning the project means meeting the needs for the future and preparing for population growth and travel. We need to address that growth, and if the infrastructure is not there, then businesses will go elsewhere.”
Garcia said that the potential of the Trans-Texas corridor becomes an economic asset for Texas because it will bring accessibility to the rural areas and provide economic growth in the form of jobs and markets, making Texas a more competitive state for business. The construction of the future corridor will bring increased activity and expansion along its routes, especially in the form of business ventures that could pop up along the freeways, she said.
Such business ventures include gas stations, garages, restaurants, hotels, stores, and warehouses along with passenger train stations, bus stations, and parking facilities for travel along the corridors.
Sagstetter questions such intentions. It will “instead disturb rural open spaces and operating farms, ranches, and country communities, and remove land from local government and school tax revenues without giving anything back to the community,” she said. “Private-citizens will be robbed of the opportunity to participate in revenue-producing ventures along the corridor once their land is acquired.”
Other concerns include air pollution in communities as sections of the corridor run through farmland and small towns. TxDOT claims a priority of the corridor will be to eliminate the pollution in large cities since the corridor is designed to bypass them, but opponents argue the corridor will only bring the pollution out into the country, shifting vehicle fumes and exhaust from one location to another. They argue the same for congestion relief and the transportation of hazardous materials, and that attempting to move the problem out of the larger cities will only increase the problem across Texas instead of eliminating it.
The congestion in larger cities is another of Blake’s main concerns. Even though the project intends to bypass cities and thereby re-route the congestion, it will be left up to the major cities to connect themselves to the corridors. “The issue of tying into metropolitan areas is still unclear, and any attempt will only increase the congestion as more access structures are crammed into the cities and new traffic situations will be created,” he said.
Since the larger cities are left to contend with their own solution to connecting to the corridors, they are also left to deal with the financial burden of doing so, meaning they will not receive any of the funding that will be going to the corridor project.
Meetings and public hearing are constantly planned as opponent groups like corridorwatch.org, the Sierra Club, and individual citizens continue to challenge the project. For a more visit www.corridorwatch.org
Jason Gaskamp is an English student at the University of Houston and has written for the Daily Cougar.