Hundreds of area property owners attended a town hall meeting in Robstown last week to learn more about proposed toll roads cutting through the Coastal Bend, and along U.S. Highways 44 and 77 in Robstown specifically.
Some of 215 or so regional residents wanted to know how the proposed Interstate 69/Trans-Texas Corridor might impact their properties. Others who attended the Feb. 6 town hall meeting at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds wanted to know if existing roadways would remain free of tolls.
Some attendees expressed environmental and/or cultural concerns, while others simply gave short statements in opposition to the project.
A panel of TxDOT representatives that included TxDOT's executive director and about 20 other TxDOT representatives were on hand to answer questions.
TxDOT has designated four priority corridors to address the state's transportation needs in the next decade.
The corridors generally parallel Interstate 35 from Oklahoma to Laredo, U.S. 59 from Texarkana to the Rio Grande Valley, Interstate 45 between Dallas and Houston, and Interstate 10 between El Paso and Louisiana.
The I-35 Trans-Texas Corridor is considered the highest priority because of the mounting level of traffic congestion on I-35 in Central and North Texas.
The I-69 Trans-Texas Corridor is envisioned to be part of Interstate 69, a planned multi-state highway running from Texas to the Midwest.
The I-69 project aims to ease traffic, enhance economic development and provide better emergency evacuation routes for residents of South and Coastal Texas.
Texas gains an average of 1,200 new residents each day, and the state's population is expected to grow 65 percent in the next 25 years and road usage is projected to increase 214 percent.
The Trans-Texas Corridor may incorporate toll roads, high-peed freight and commuter rail, water lines, oil and gas pipelines, electric transmission lines, and telecommunications infrastructure all in the same corridors.
TxDOT envisions that each corridor element will be built only when it is needed in the decades to come.
TxDOT says a key benefit of the Trans-Texas Corridor system is that as elements are added, they will enhance safety and air quality and reduce congestion on existing parallel roadways and rail lines, allowing those existing facilities to better handle growth in local areas.
A primary goal of the Trans-Texas Corridor concept is to deal with freight traffic moving by trucks and rail lines in a way that will improve efficiency and reliability, potentially moving more cargo from highways to rail lines.
TxDOT says the corridor concept is necessary because it is not realistic or economically feasible to acquire rights-of-way and expand existing highways surrounded by dense commercial, industrial and residential developments.
Officials said Texas is in a money crunch to finance much-needed new roads. That state's current 20-cent gas tax per gallon is an inadequate funding source for the maintenance of existing roads, let alone the construction of new ones.
The Trans-Texas Corridor master plan and environmental review process has been underway for several years and a draft environmental impact statement was published in mid-November.
The statement shows that a large portion of Nueces and neighboring counties are part of the I-69 study area.
The study areas show several proposed routes along existing regional roadways, including U.S. 77, US. 281, U.S. 59 and State Highway 44.
In Nueces County, TxDOT has proposed expanding U.S. 77 and State Highway 44 as part of the I-69 TTC/Corridor.
"Robstown is sitting there at a fantastic economic point at the crossroads of two railroads, State Highway 44, and U.S. highway 77," said TxDOT public information officer Cliff Bost. "It's looking very much to be in a very good point for economic development."
Recommended study areas outlining the general vicinities of the proposed toll roads in the region are available on maps and were in the hands of nearly everyone in the conference center at the Robstown town hall.
The maps show that TxDOT is studying building new lanes along U.S. Highways 77 and 281 through Nueces County and Jim Wells counties, respectively, with separate lanes for trucks.
The maps show TxDOT is also studying enhancing Highway 44 between highways 77 and 59.
The Highway 44 enhancement is intended to provide a port-to-port route principally for trucking between the Port of Laredo and the Port of Corpus Christi.
Bost said TxDOT proposes a Highway 44 relief route around Robstown.
"It's not going to go through a town. We will be buying some agricultural land," Bost said. "It's not going to come right through the middle of town, because we can't afford to buy a town."
Extensive areas in San Patricio County are also being studied in the vicinity of U.S. 77.
"These enhancements of 44 and 77 are included in the I-69 corridor," Bost said. "The public needs to come in and give us their opinion of where they would like to see these routes go. The reason for the public hearings is for the pubic to provide input to the route of the I-69."
TxDOT will hold 46 public hearings in February and March in towns along the proposed I-69/Trans-Texas Corridor to gather public input. For schedules, go to www.keeptexasmoving.org.
Nueces County Judge Loyd Neal asked the first question at the Feb. 6 town hall meeting. Neal said he understood that new roads in Trans-Texas Corridor would be toll roads and he asked if existing roadways would also become toll roads.
"As you can see from the turnout, this is a very important issue," Neal said.
TxDOT executive director of Amadeo Saenz said that any roads that are free today would be free of tolls in the future. Saenz said, for example, that the existing four lanes of Highway 77 would be free, but any additional lanes would be tolled.
One man asked if resurfaced existing roads would be considered new roads.
"Whether they're resurfaced or not, they will not be tolled," Saenz said. "The number of free lanes that you have now would be free lanes after the project."
Saenz later discussed the current stage of the I-69/TTC concept. He said the first phase was establishing study areas.
Federal highway officials might sign off on the concept in a year, and the whole process would begin again, with at least another four to six years before construction would begin in any of the corridors.
"The project is in the very early stages," Saenz said.
State Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, said he wanted to ensure property rights were respected and he said he supported procedures and policies to ensure as much public input as possible.
"We don't want people's private property used in toll roads," Herrero said. "Bottom line, in my opinion, TxDOT wasn't being respective to citizens or the input of legislators."
"I implore you to continue to come to these meetings," he added as turned to face the audience.
Robbie Peterson of Waller County said the only way to stop the project was to get Gov. Rick Perry out of office and she encouraged the large crowd to contact their state legislators in opposition.
"The no-action alternative is a viable choice," Peterson said. "We don't have to say 'Where is it going to go?' We can say 'We don't need this.'"
Sister Martha Ann Snapka of Incarnate Word Academy said she was worried expanding Highway 77 would disturb the academy's 150-acre Bluntzer homestead along FM 666.
She said the original homestead has historic value and archeological importance as an area for Native American studies. She said it's also a place of renewal and retreat, with floral, wildlife, and bird migration.
"Much of the property is pristine," she said. "Building a corridor, we fear, would interfere with the balance of the eco-system, moving of earth, steel, asphalt, air and noise pollution."
"How much weight and consideration are being given to the promotion of physical and spiritual health?" she added.
Phillip Russell, assistant executive director for innovative project development for TxDOT, said walls could be built to contain noise and that any new roads would in compliance with state and federal environmental, historic, and wildlife laws.
Robstown-area farmer Kenneth Ahlrich said the corridors would "uproot" the countryside.
"I'm very much against it," he said. "We live out there because we love it. We went out there by choice. I'm very disappointed that you guys brought this up. You are going to uproot a lot of people, uproot a lot of towns. We absolutely are not going to take it."