The proposed I-69 superhighway may come through Bee County after all.
The Texas Department of Transportation announced Wednesday that it will recommend that the I-69/Trans-Texas Corridor Project be developed using existing highway facilities wherever possible.
If additional travel lanes are added to existing highways, only the new lanes would have tolls.
"After a dozen town hall meetings, nearly 50 public hearings, and countless one-on-one conversations, it is clear to us that Texans want us to use existing roadways to start building the Texas portion of Interstate 69," said Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton.
"TxDOT's recommendation would effectively shrink our environmental study down to roads such as U.S. Highways 77 and 281 in South Texas, State Highway 44 and U.S. Highway 59 along the Coastal Bend and U.S. Highways 84 and 59 in East Texas. We are dropping consideration of new corridors that would run west of Houston in addition to other proposals for new highway footprint in other parts of the state."
TxDOT spokesman Cliff Bost, who serves the Coastal Bend region of TxDOT, said townsfolk rejected the idea of a huge highway cutting a swath through the state for the super corridor that will link Mexico with Canada.
Earlier this spring, TxDOT executives announced plans to build the superhighway along Highway 77 south of Victoria, which would have taken it around Bee County and through Refugio.
Under that proposal, U.S. Highway 59 through Bee County was to be widened to a four-lane expressway with off and on ramps and frontage roads.
“The new location corridors proposed and presented during the public hearings earlier this year are no longer under consideration,” said Amadeo Saenz, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation.
TxDOT officials did not specify on Wednesday whether U.S Highway 59 through Bee County or U.S. Highway 77 through Refugio is to become the I-69/Trans-Texas Corridor.
Bost said the statement was left ambiguous because TxDOT hasn’t decided if I-69 will follow US 77 through Refugio County or US 59 through Bee County.
“That is something to be determined. US 77 or US 281 could end up being another leg of the corridor like I-35 east and west, but it is something to be determined,” he explained in an e-mail to the Bee-Picayune on Thursday.
Bee County Judge David Silva said he took part in a telephone conference call with TxDOT and other county judges and community administrators on Thursday regarding Wednesday’s announcement.
He said he was led to believe that the superhighway would follow US 59 through Bee County.
But Wednesday’s news conference left him wondering if he’d heard correctly.
“It was my understanding that it was going to come through Bee County, but now I’m not so sure,” he said Thursday.
Whether it comes through Bee County or through Refugio County, Bee County residents are going to benefit because TxDOT is going to improve both highways to support the increased traffic, Silva said.
Saenz explained the change in plans in a letter to the Federal Highway Administration.
“The preliminary basis for this decision centers on the review of nearly 28,000 public comments made on the Tier One (Draft Environmental Impact statement),” he said. “The overwhelming sentiment of these comments focused on the need to improve the existing transportation network rather than building a new corridor for the project.”
TxDOT's stated intention has been to focus on making needed improvements to existing and planned transportation facilities within the I-69/TTC study area, Saenz explained. “Such upgrades may fully satisfy the project's need to improve the international, interstate and intrastate movement of people and goods for many decades.”
In May, the Texas Transportation Commission adopted guiding principles and policies that will govern the development, construction and operation of toll road projects on the state highway system and the Trans-Texas Corridor. In addition to reaffirming that only new lanes added to an existing highway will be tolled and that there will be no reduction in the number of non-tolled lanes, the commission stated that wherever possible, existing right-of-way would be considered for the development of new projects.
"The commission made it clear that they wanted their newly adopted principles applied to the development of important projects like I-69 and a parallel corridor to I-35," Saenz said. "We are closer than ever to realizing the promise and the potential of I-69, and we will move forward with this important Transportation Commission policy in the front of our minds."
Saenz said that TxDOT would continue to talk to the public about I-69/TTC, and he encouraged Texans to ask questions and share their ideas at the department's “Keep Texas Moving” website: www.keeptexasmoving.com.
The recently named I-69 Corridor Advisory Committee will help guide TxDOT's work on the project and the appointment of Segment Advisory Committees comprised of local leaders who will help further develop I-69/TTC.