Pictured: Local land developer Newell Atkinson III reviews the environmental impact study maps that were on display at the public hearing for the I-69/Trans Texas Corridor held at the Alice High School cafeteria Thursday. Photo by MAURICIO JULIAN CUELLAR JR.
Public hearing held Thursday night
Mauricio Julian Cuellar Jr., Alice Echo-News Journal
Alice area residents voiced their disapproval Thursday night for the I-69/Trans Texas Corridor, as it was presented in a public hearing at the Alice High School Cafeteria.
More than 100 people attended the event. An open house was held before the public hearing, to give residents a chance to speak with Texas Department of Transportation officials about the Tier One Draft Environmental Impact Study and the proposed route of the I-69/TTC.
The route for the I-69/TTC as described during the public hearing, would follow existing Highway 44 heading from east to west. It would start in the Texarkana region and work its way around Houston, heading southwest, to Corpus Christi and on toward Laredo.
U.S. Highway 77 and Highway 281 will be looked at in the Tier Two study, should the Tier One study be approved.
During the public hearing, several residents brought up issues concerning the effect of the roadway on local wildlife, property rights, tollway business dealings and overall funding for the project. Many residents living on the west side of Highway 281 also expressed their frustrations with the possibility of their property being used as part of the I-69/TTC project, while King Ranch property on the east side of Highway 281 would remain untouched because of its national historical designation.
Many of the ranching families on the west side have had their properties in their family since the 19th century, and are just as attached to the historical significance of their property as the owners of the King Ranch, speakers said.
Edwin Goldapp, with the Jim Wells County Farm Bureau, said there was plenty of land that could be used in the rights-of-way of existing roadways, instead of carving into precious farm and ranch land near the roadways. As part of the I-69/TTC project, TxDOT has claimed that it may need as much as 1,200 feet for the proposed roadway, which at times, according to the maps provided, may move through existing properties, dividing up farm and ranch land for several property owners.
Goldapp asked if there would be enough crossings for traffic of vehicles and animals, since the cost of moving goods across the I-69/TTC at a small number of crossings would make legitimate farming and ranching businesses in the area almost cost prohibitive.
Also a concern is the crossing of game animals, which is a vital necessity in this wildlife rich South Texas area.
He also brought up the question of providing services on the tollway, asking if the cities along I-69/TTC would be able to participate in those businesses, or would they be gobbled up by foreign businesses, which would reap the profit and pass out a few minimum wage jobs to the local population.
He also expressed concern over the issue of the use of eminent domain.
"No more (land) should be taken than is adequately needed at this time," Goldapp said.
Goldapp said he felt that if the fuel tax had been raised incrementally since its inception, then TxDOT would not be in the financial position it is now. He also that the use of tollways is a form of double taxation.
Since this was a public hearing, TxDOT was recording all of the audience comments, but could not answer the questions the members of the public brought up.
Lindsey Koenig, with the South Texas Property Rights Association, said TxDOT should stick to the existing easements as much as possible. Also, he said the historical significance of the property north of Agua Dulce was not being considered. The areas hold historical battle artifacts, he said.
"You don't need to take virgin farm and ranch land," Koenig said, "when there is an alternate, cheaper route. You have massive existing watersheds in this area. The people who drafted Highway 44 knew what they were doing…You don't need something that's a quarter mile wide."
Alice City Manager Albert Uresti said the I-69/TTC would divert a lot of traffic away from the city of Alice. The roadway would move traffic anywhere from one to six miles away from town, which could be devastating to the local economy. Uresti also said the money spent on such a project could be spent better in other ways, such as education, for senior citizens or cancer research.
"It's a lot of money that could be used for better things than what we're looking at," Uresti said.
"If it's two choices, speaking for myself, my recommendation would be to go for no action. If we have three choices, then I think we ought to make use of existing roadways."
"We have no idea how this will impact us," Orange Grove Mayor Seale Brand said. "We support our government, and then we turn around and everything has changed up. I don't think anyone here is against the corridor, as it was understood in the beginning, but it's changed. We have major concerns."
Brand asked if the issue of taxation had been looked at. Also, he understands the need to plan for the future, but he said, it comes down to openness and trust. He said there was no openness in this decision.
"I think when it's all said and done, the politicians need to come back and let us decide on what needs to be done, by voting. I think that would be power to the people, we the people, instead of the government," Brand said, which was followed by applause.
Local landowner John Tesmelis was adamantly against the I-69/TTC project. He said the TxDOT board is appointed and not elected by the people.
"This project is being rammed down out throat whether we like it or not. This money is going to Spain," Tesmelis said. "This is wrong. Governor Rick Perry should not try to ram this down our throat like he's doing, thank you." The crowd again applauded the comments.
Dean Nesloney also garnered applause when he went to the microphone and said that with a lack of customs checks for traffic coming up from Mexico through the I-69/TTC, the route would be a drug dealer's dream.
John Huerta, a landowner on the west side of Highway 281 near Encino said that unlike the long stretch of empty ranch land on the east side of Highway 281 owned by the King Ranch in his area, the west side of the highway at that point has 16 different families that would be affected by the taking of land by TxDOT.
"They would take land from 16 different landowners with homes, and cemeteries and habitats filled with native wildlife, while on the east side, it remains untouched by the King Ranch. It's just fenced in brush," Huerta said.
"They already cut into our land as part of a project in 1982 for construction on Highway 281, now TxDOT says they need more of our land for I-69."
One speaker towards the end of the hearing stood up to the microphone and made her voice heard clearly on this issue saying that if LBJ were alive, he wouldn't let this happen. She said she thought Gov. Perry must have been born somewhere else.
Written comments on the I-69/TTC study must be received by March 19 to be included in the final impact statement. They can be mailed to I-69/TTC, P.O. Box 14428, Austin Texas 78761 or by going through the TTC Web site at www.keeptexasmoving.com/comments-questions/comments-i69.aspx.