April 22, 2008

County tables resolution to organize panel

April 22, 2008

By Holly Green
The Hunstsville Item
Copyriht 2008

It has been roughly three months since residents of Huntsville and Walker County attended town hall meetings to voice their opinion on the Trans-Texas Corridor/I-69 project to the Texas Department of Transportation.

There was no question then that there was strong opposition to the proposed 1,600-mile national highway, and it seems as though residents’ efforts to stop it has not lost any of its momentum.

Several residents attended the Walker County Commissioners Court on Monday morning, expressing concerns about the project and encouraged the court to take another step of action.

The five-member court agrees with the majority of the county, signing an “I-69 Opposition” resolution on Feb. 11 that officially stated their position.

With the absence of Precinct 3 Commissioner Buddy Reynolds, the court considered another resolution to create a sub-regional planning commission within Region 16 — the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

The commissioners and Walker County Judge Danny Pierce tabled the approval of Resolution 2008-18 “Southeast Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission” in order to further research its purpose and potential benefits to the county.

According to the resolution, the goal of the commission is “to coordinate with governmental units sharing similar needs to plan for the rapidly expanding population of the state and the unique needs of governmental units herein.

“Municipalities of less than 20,000 population in this region have a culture carrying forward the rural values of the state of Texas which requires consideration in planning for development ...”

The commission would “make recommendations concerning major thoroughfares, streets, traffic and transportation studies, bridges, parks, recreation sites, public utilities, land use, water supply, sanitation facilities, drainage, public buildings, population density, open spaces and other items ... ”

The commission would be under Chapter 391 of the Texas Local Government Code.

If created, the commission would include the cities of Huntsville, New Waverly and Riverside, requiring that two partner together.

The court consulted county district attorney David Weeks on the issue and he said from a legal standpoint, creating the commission would only add an extra level of bureaucracy and may not give the county any other advantages for stopping the TTC/I-69 project.

“I’m not sure this commission gives the county any greater voice than it already has,” Weeks said. “I could maybe see it for smaller towns that have a limited voice but the Commissioners Court already has the authority to request more oversight (from TxDOT).”

Precinct 4 Commissioner Tim Paulsel said creating the commission may be taking on an overwhelming amount of additional responsibilities.

“If we form this commission, we’re going to be busy,” he said. “It’s not just related to the I-69 project. It covers streets, traffic control, transportation, drainage and other things.

“I’m not against it, but we need to understand what we’re getting into.”

The commissioners discussed narrowing the resolution to focus on the TTC/I-69 project specifically.

“This is a ‘shall’ document,” Weeks said. “It’s all very specific. I don’t see any way to limit it to the TTC or it giving us any more bargaining chip than we already have.

“We need to think long and hard before adopting this commission. There’s a lot more at stake than the TTC.”

Weeks said that Gov. Rick Perry could also play a role in the commission, having the authority to oversee the rules and regulations.

According to Pierce, Waller County adopted the resolution and Austin County decided against it.

“We plan on meeting with the judge from Waller County and go over advice he received and how they interpreted (the commission) — whether it has to encompass all these other issues. If it does, we would not have the time to do this. If we could shrink it to focus on I-69, we’re ready to do this.”

Pierce said in a short conversation with Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, he was advised to think carefully about the decision.

“Rep. Lois Kolkhorst advised me to speak with Austin County,” he said. “The county did not pass this resolution, but a group of smaller cities in that area did.

“We’re not in opposition to the commission, we just want to make sure what we do doesn’t impact the involvement with other issues that we already have.

“We’re going to research it further and if it will help us stop (I-69), then that’s what we’re going to do.”

Pierce said he has had several meetings with TxDOT representatives, expressing his concerning issues on why the county cannot support the TTC/I-69 project.

Both the commissioners and residents expressed their frustration with TxDOT, never receiving “direct answers.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner B.J. Gaines Jr. said the county must continue to fight until the project is dead.

“I’ve spoken with TxDOT representatives who have said the project will probably go forward using the existing footprints which would be (highway) 59,” he said. “I have also spoken with state legislators who have said they believe it’s a dead issue because it won’t pay out as a toll road.

“But it’s not officially dead. We need to take every step possible until it is officially dead.”

According to the TTC’s Web site, Keep Texas Moving, I-69 is a planned highway “connecting Mexico, the United States and Canada. Eight states are involved in the project.

“The proposed I-69/TTC extends from Texarkana/Shreveport to Mexico — possibly the Rio Grande Valley or Laredo.”

The initial study area is roughly 650 miles long.

TxDOT held a total of 46 public hearings for the formal environmental study that took place in February and March.

Public comments for tier one (or phase one of the project) closed April 18.

There were more than 17,500 comments submitted.

Keep Texas Moving said “(TxDOT) will evaluate the comments in order to prepare a final environmental impact statement. The report will then be sent to the Federal Highway Administration for approval.

This work could be completed in early 2009.”

The TTC/I-69 project, according to Doug Booher, TxDOT environmental manager for the Texas Turnpike Authority Division, may never reach tier two.

“There’s no guarantee,” he said at Walker County’s second town hall meeting in January. “The project might not make it to tier two. There has to be a need and we have to know where the funding will come from before we can move forward.”

© 2008 The Huntsville Item: www.itemonline.com

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