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Texas farmers outraged over megahighway plans

Project may imperil governor's reelection

Leroy Walters owns a 120-year-old farm near Hillsboro, Texas. His grandchildren, 5-year-old Tristen Walters and 9-year-old Laura Walters, might not inherit the farm if a road and rail system go through it.
Leroy Walters owns a 120-year-old farm near Hillsboro, Texas. His grandchildren, 5-year-old Tristen Walters and 9-year-old Laura Walters, might not inherit the farm if a road and rail system go through it. (AP Photo / Donna McWilliams)

HILLSBORO, Texas -- Leroy Walters has survived many a threat on the farm that has been in his family for 120 years: droughts, hailstorms, tornadoes, grasshopper attacks.

But now he sees a man-made danger on the horizon: a colossal, 600-mile superhighway that will plow across the state of Texas, perhaps cutting through his sorghum fields and cornfields, obliterating the family's houses and robbing his grandchildren of their land.

``I don't think they're going to want to pay a toll to go across this land," he said. ``They want to enjoy it free, as Texans should enjoy it."

That kind of fear and anger among farmers and other landowners across the Texas countryside could become a problem for Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, as he runs for reelection in November.

It was Perry who proposed the Trans-Texas Corridor in 2002, envisioning a combined toll road and rail system that would whisk traffic along a megahighway stretching from the Oklahoma line to Mexico.

That stretch would be the first link in a 4,000-mile, $184 billion network. The corridors would be up to a quarter-mile across, consisting of as many as six lanes for cars and four for trucks, plus railroad tracks, oil and gas pipelines, water and other utility lines, and broadband cables.

The exact route for the cross-Texas corridor has not been drawn up, though it probably will be somewhere within a 10-mile-wide swath running parallel to Interstate 35. Whatever course it takes, it is clear many farmers and property owners will lose their land, though they will be compensated by the state. Construction could begin by 2010.

The opposition comes in several forms: Some see it as an assault on private property rights; some object to putting the project in foreign hands (it will be built and operated by a US-Spanish consortium); and some see it as an affront to open government because part of the contract with Cintra-Zachry is secret.

Of Perry's major opponents in the race -- Democrat Chris Bell and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman -- Strayhorn has stirred the most fury.

At campaign stops she calls the plan the ``Trans-Texas Catastrophe," a ``$184 billion boondoggle," and a ``land grab" of historic proportions. She refers to Perry's appointees on the transportation commission as ``highway henchmen." She lets loose with Texas-twanged jabs at the contract with the ``foreign" Cintra-Zachry.

``Texans want the Texas Department of Transportation, not the European Department of Transportation," she said, often to loud applause .

Cintra-Zachry is paying $7.2 billion to develop the first segment. For that, it will get to operate the road and collect tolls for years to come. It is part of a growing privatization trend in the United States.

A week ago, Strayhorn picked up a $6,500 campaign donation and endorsement from the Blackland Coalition, a group of anticorridor farmers from central Texas.

Chris Hammel, coalition chairman, said Texas needs a new governor who will halt the corridor project, start over, and do it right. ``One man started it with a pen. One person with a different pen could stop it," he said.

Perry's spokesman, Robert Black, dismissed suggestions that the toll road will hurt the governor's reelection campaign.

``The governor recognizes the concerns that rural Texans have. Remember, he's from rural Texas," Black said. ``But he also believes that you have people out there who are spreading bad information."

Supporters say the corridors are needed to handle the expected boom driven by the North American Free Trade Agreement in the flow of goods to and from Mexico and to handle the growing population of Texas.

Despite a state attorney general's ruling that the Cintra-Zachry contract be made public, the Perry administration has gone to court to prevent the disclosure of what it says is proprietary information.

``We don't know for sure whether this is a concept that we can endorse or not because we have not seen it," said Mayor Will Lowrance of Hillsboro, a town of 8,200 people 55 miles south of Dallas. ``I happen to still believe in the open records law in Texas."

Hill County Judge Kenneth Davis, who, like Lowrance, is a conservative Democrat supporting Strayhorn, agreed and added, ``If we're going to build a highway in Texas, let's build it with Texas money, not a foreign company's money."

Both local leaders dislike the rural location under consideration for the corridor route because it bypasses Hillsboro.

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