Road ahead for building Interstate 69 filled with potholes
May 25, 2010 at 12:25 a.m.
Updated May 26, 2010 at 12:26 a.m.
Interstate 69 in Texas is barely closer to completion now than it was when business leaders proposed it almost 20 years ago.
Monumental costs, mind-numbing leg work and 1,100 miles of Texas real estate keep construction of the interstate here planted on the drawing board.
The region's economic development leaders, meanwhile, say the Crossroads is missing out on opportunities lost down the road.
Lacking an interstate for moving goods, the region struggles to attract many outside industries, which could boost the Crossroads' economy.
"It would mean a great deal to the economy," said Victoria County Judge Don Pozzi. "We support it as long as we use as much of the existing route as possible."
A BIG DEAL FOR THE ECONOMY?
I-69 is a a planned 2,000-mile national highway that would stretch from Mexico's border to Canada's. The route in Texas would start in Laredo and Brownsville, converge near Victoria, veer to Houston and then north to beyond Detroit.
Planners say this is the shortest route between South Texas and the industrial northeast, and will better the flow of international goods. Portions of the project - from Canada to Indianapolis - are in place.
In the Crossroads, the interstate would, as planned, follow the footprints of U.S. Highway 59 and U.S. Highway 77 South.
If built, I-69 is expected to create more than 27,000 new jobs by 2025 and $11 billion in additional wages, the Alliance for I-69 Texas estimates.
Dale Fowler, the Victoria Economic Development Corp. president, said the county loses tax base and jobs because it lacks an interstate.
"That can preclude us from being considered by some of your largest industrial projects," he said. "While we understand that U.S. Highway 59 is a very significant, four-lane, divided transportation corridor, if someone outside the state looks at it on a map, they don't understand that. We have talked to companies that do not give us initial consideration because we lack an interstate."
WHAT WILL IT TAKE?
Some who point to exorbitant costs and stagnant population growth say interstate construction in the Crossroads is at least 20 years away. U.S. Highways 59 and 77 take care of current and near-future transportation needs, they say.
Others say the interstate will be built sooner rather than later. Gary Bushell is a lawyer and consultant for the Alliance for I-69 Texas.
In March 2008, Zachry American Infrastructure and ACS Infrastructure Development submitted a detailed proposal for developing I-69 in Texas, Bushell said.
"They've cleared all of the planning hurdles and we think they can start building significant pieces of I-69 within five years," Bushell said. "They propose in their master plan cutting I-69 into segments."
Each segment would be developed using available state and federal funds or via innovative financing. The companies suggest, for example, first upgrading U.S. Highway 77 between Brownsville and Corpus Christi, and paying for development with a separate toll road built near but away from the interstate.
If developers can upgrade U.S. Highways 77 and 59 from Corpus Christi, through Victoria and to Houston - and connect both ends to an interstate - organizers feel confident they can earn special designation.
"That way, you wouldn't have to have the interstate in place from Canada to Mexico to get the interstate shield," Bushell said.
He predicts the interstate, which requires controlled access, frontage roads, on and off ramps, could be built through the Crossroads within 10 years.
Last week, area planners met in Victoria to discuss the I-69 corridor segment between Houston and Refugio. The state created segment committees, each that represents specific areas along the proposed interstate.
Corridor Segment Committee 3 first met in August and is now seven months from submitting its final plans to the state.
During meetings, planners from each county between Houston and Refugio review conceptual interstate plans and document deficiencies and needs.
Discussions during the past 10 months included transportation problems in specific areas, as well as routes and facilities between Refugio and Houston that should connect to I-69. Last week, the group discussed relief routes, minor shifts in the conceptual layout and locations for access roads and interchanges.
Stephen Gertson is an East Bernard farmer and rancher who represents landowners during planning here. Gertson notes he is the only committee member who does not have a government job or who was not elected.
"My livelihood is made off the ground," Gertson said. "Growth for the sake of growth is not always good in my mind. At some point, enough is enough."
While Gertson said he is not yet for or against the proposed interstate route, he demands fair compensation for landowners during rights-of-way purchases and opposes big land grabs to make roads wider.
"If we can stay relatively close to the U.S. 59 footprint, then I'm not opposed to it," he said. "It's the connecting-type facilities I have a problem with."
To prepare for future population growth and to stem clogs on highways during natural disasters, the I-69 plan includes upgraded evacuation routes. Gertson worries about a proposed connecting road west of Houston that connects U.S. Highway 59 to Interstate 10. Examples in the Crossroads include connectors from Port Lavaca to Victoria and Point Comfort to Edna.
"Linking stuff that would cut across virgin property is what I'm concerned about," Gertson said. "Land is cheaper in the country and rural areas have fewer voters, so they're easily stepped on. The state doesn't have enough money to maintain the roads we have now. We should use existing roads, upgrade and keep maintenance in one spot."
Plans for connecting roads in the Crossroads fall on existing U.S. Highway 87 and State Highway 111.
Because plans are conceptual, no route or tweak to existing roadway is final. Environmental and engineering studies might later trump the plan area organizers devise.
HISTORY AND ROADBLOCKS
In the late 1980s, the Mid-Continent Coalition for I-69 developed the idea for the interstate. The Tennessee-based group pushed for a better highway flow of goods from Mexico to Canada.
The idea sparked in the early 1990s the formation of the Alliance for I-69 Texas, a state group with similar wishes. Victoria County entered into the alliance in April 1993, said Helen Walker, former Victoria County judge and past alliance chairwoman.
The Texas alliance grew to include representatives from dozens of counties - from Texarkana to Laredo. While alliance members agreed on a wish to improve commerce flow, talks also included concerns about safety.
"From Victoria to Laredo was and still is a horrendous route," Walker said.
In 1994, the United States, Canada and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which increased trade between the countries. The deal also prompted predictions of increased truck traffic and intensified interstate planning.
While planning for the project in Texas continues, road work here never began. Money remains the biggest hurdle, organizers say.
"It's the sheer magnitude of the Texas project," Walker said. "We're talking costs of at least $7 billion, and that was four years ago."
Most of the 2,000-mile U.S. interstate would fall in Texas, prompting many in state to demand more federal money.
The Texas Department of Transportation estimates the costs to upgrade current roadways to interstate standards at $5 million to $10 million per rural mile, and $15 million to $20 million per urban mile.
Costs include road work, interchange construction, right-of-way purchases, utility relocations and environmental and engineering studies, for starters.
Consider Texas this year faces an $11 billion budget deficit.
"Without federal funding, I don't see how it will ever happen," said Joe Hermes, the mayor of Edna and an interstate planner.
Passionate and political opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor also likely hindered progress of I-69, many interviewed for this story said - even though I-69 is a different beast.
Plans for the Trans-Texas Corridor, which fizzled last year, included a 4,000-mile stretch of new highway, costs upward of $183 billion and thousands of infuriated Texas landowners. The corridor would have gobbled up vast amounts of virgin private land; I-69 largely follows the footprint of existing roadways.
The negative sentiment toward the Trans-Texas Corridor created widespread property rights concerns and lessened political support for I-69, many said.
Ground has yet to break on the proposed Texas interstate, and transportation department officials point repeatedly to costs. Chris Lippincott is spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation.
"We've had signs on Texas roads for years: 'Future I-69 Corridor,'" Lippincott said. "But because of funding challenges, it's been promised for years but remains unfulfilled. We hope to change that."