Like citizens in Indiana, Hal Suter has been fighting I-69 for more than two decades. He is the chair of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, which covers all of Texas but El Paso, and says widespread opposition has Texas highway advocates “scheming undercover.”
Furthermore, as in Indiana, I-69 in Texas is being constructed incrementally, according to a county official who so stated in an op-ed in the local paper a few days ago. The official provided no timeline for completion of the sections.
Suter says I-69 has been “a gleam in the eye of planners and businesspeople” in Texas since NAFTA went into effect, on Jan. 1, 1994. They envisioned it operating as a private-public partnership and a toll road.
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) wants to turn U.S. 59 and 77 into an Interstate called the Trans Texas Corridor (TCC), stretching from south Texas to Port Huron, Mich. Via Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Indiana. (The portion from Indianapolis to Michigan is already I-69.)
For at least a decade and a half I-69 signs have appeared along U.S. 59 and 77 in Texas, according to Suter.
“It’s a planner’s wet dream,” Suter says. The project entails raising 59 and 77 to interstate standards. That’s why building bypasses in northeast Texas toward Arkansas and raising U.S. 59 and 77 to interstate standards are in progress now.
During the last few days of the Texas legislative session in 2002, the legislators pushed through what they called a comprehensive development agreement pertaining to I-69. The parties that signed the agreement -- a partnership between Zachary Construction, a Texas company, and Centra, a Spanish firm -- have the right of eminent domain and could condemn land for the highway.
The TCC passed in this fashion, when nobody was paying attention, Suter says. “Afterwards people realized what it was and got very upset about it.”
"Among the reasons people oppose the highway are suspicions it would be used for drug running. ...That it would be a toll road is another factor that aroused opposition. People also objected that a foreign company was involved."
As is the case with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Texas governor Rick Perry is a highway booster. "The highways of Texas are built and paved in part by paths of gold leading to the Texas Governor's Mansion," political reporter R.G. Ratcliffe wrote in the Aug. 30, 2002, edition of the Houston Chronicle, in “Highway plans bring money to politicians.”
However, Suter says, “tremendous opposition emerged.”
Among the reasons people oppose the highway are suspicions it would be used for drug running. “That type of thing is quite a problem down here,” Suter says. That it would be a toll road is another factor that aroused opposition. People also objected that a foreign company was involved.
In February and March 2008, TxDOT began a series of public hearings about the highway from the Rio Grande valley to the various other sites it would affect. “The opposition to it was just absolutely incredible," Suter says. "… Everywhere [the highway boosters] were bombarded by people who did not want it.”
The hearings resulted, Suter says, in 28,000 written comments from the general public, and “virtually all of them were negative.”
Farmers and ranchers didn’t want their land seized by the state under eminent domain. The Texas Farm Bureau came out against the highway, as did the Southwest Texas Cattle Ranchers’ Association and Sierra Club. “The opposition was so intense,” Suter says, “that the Chamber of Commerce ran for cover.”
“In 2009 TxDOT announced that the TCC was dead, but nobody particularly believed them,” according to Suter. Right now the highway is “in limbo, but nobody expects it to stay there. The stake hasn’t been driven through its heart yet. … Who knows what [the highway boosters] are going to come up with next?”
But TxDOT is in trouble: as with the Indiana Department of Transportation (InDOT), it doesn’t have the funding for I-69.
Two grass roots organizations in Texas have been opposing the highway CorridorWatch, which Suter says “is dormant but still around,” and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF). Citizens have held rallies against the highway in Austin and elsewhere.
"The opposition was so intense that the Chamber of Commerce ran for cover."
Suter suggests Texas and Indiana organizations opposing the highway, Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads and the I-69 Accountability Project, exchange information and seek ways to collaborate in stopping the road.
Suter wonders whether opposition in the other states is vocal and organized. If so, he suggests, all the states affected by I-69 should find ways to combine their efforts to halt the highway.
Suter insists that InDOT and TxDOT must be communicating with each other and know that I-69 isn’t going very well inside or outside Indiana.
“Are they going to build it in Indiana,” he asks, “and hope the rest of the states go along, or what?”
Linda Greene can be reached at .