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:

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