Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Trans Texas Corridor is Our Issue Too

Many people will remember the I-27 or Ports to Plains TXDOT hearing in the mid-90s. The hearing here in San Angelo was packed, a a good many of us rode a chartered bus from here to Lubbock for another hearing before the same panel. City leaders, business owners and just plain concerned citizens such as myself attended because we understood how critical it was to our future that San Angelo not be left out of any such project.

In my remarks to the hearing here I pointed out the lovely, but abandoned courthouse in Sherwood. Everyone knew Sherwood, located on a year round flowing stream, was going to be the county seat of Irion County. Then some enterprising souls discovered the line manager of the railroad then pushing westward was a man named Mertz. The town of Mertzon was platted out northwest of Sherwood, the railroad went through Mertzon and Sherwood is now a scenic, but largely forgotten backwater.

Too little attention has been paid to two huge projects which can do for most of West Texas what the railroad did to Sherwood. The Trans-Texas Corridor is the 800 pound gorilla, and the one with the big political support. As proposed, it will be a quarter-mile wide collection of superhighway with truck-only lanes, non-commercial lanes and eventually aggregate oil pipelines and railways in the same wide corridor, the current model starting in McAllen, going north through San Antonio, Austin, Dallas/Metroplex connecting north to Kansas City. The other is an I-69 project from Laredo and going along the Texas coast and up our eastern border.

Did I mention Kansas City? That is to be the new Customs Port of Entry. A truck entering at Laredo could be sealed, and then processed by Customs in KC. Plans and funding for that facility are already moving through Congress as TTC comes closer to a done deal. The eventual intent of this project, accompanied by Mexican match-ups, is to provide a cheaper alternative for Asian goods to enter the US than San Diego. Much of this freight will simply transship through Texas. I-70 could become the most important east-west Interstate in America.

Are you getting a picture of what this mega-corridor could do to all of West Texas? Sherwood could bloom without a railroad, but with one bypassing it, the town withered on the vine. This could happen, long-term, to everything west and north of San Antonio.

The TTC is to be built by a Spanish company, Cintas, which plans to invest at least $7 Billion in the project. They also plan to make big bucks on the 50 year deal. Based on their Canadian tolls, estimates of a Dallas to Austin fare are about $60. The deal includes a sort of “non-compete clause”, under which the state agrees to make no substantial improvements to existing I-35. Maybe the state will at least adequately maintain what we have, but maybe they will claim budget shortfalls (when do they not?) and encourage users to get with the TTC program.

So far, this has been a much bigger issue in East Texas, where people are concerned with the land grab aspects and mostly the local costs and inconvenience of constructing this monster. Genuine concerns, but focused on the short term. The term “I-35 divide” already has political and demographic meaning due to the way prosperity tends to follow transportation routes. This I-35 squared will make Ross Perot's “great sucking sound” in reference to Mexican maquiladoras sound like a whisper to West Texas as commerce rearranges itself along the path of least resistance. The TTC may not be in our back yard, but it will have a huge long term effect on our economic prospects.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Pay Da Man

Wednesday's headline story on Kenneth Landon's request for more money reminded me I had not been the Lily Park in a long time, not since the improvements had been completed. I made the time and spent an hour or so there.

When I first tripped over the park, pre-improvement, I thought it was a little noticed treasure, just the thing to set one's mind in a contemplative mode. The new version is a real jewel.

I recommend a visitor pause, as I did, about halfway down the entrance ramp. On my right, a beautiful floral border, to the left the ponds themselves from an elevated position that lets one view the entire collection.. In fact about the only improvement I would suggest would be to label the flower names as is done for the lilies. I spent several minutes here, leaning over the rail and taking it in. Then one goes to the ground level to take in each pond in turn. Many of the plants are in bloom, and the variations are simply delightful. I left feeling as if I had shed a weight of tensions that had been preoccupying my mind.

I doubt that San Angelo could match the six-figure sums mentioned in the article, but fortunately Mr. Landon's love of San Angelo is such we won't need to. If Mr. Landon is actually dipping into his money to keep up this work of art, surely we can scrounge up enough money to repay some of that and provide him a bit of positive cash flow. I doubt the park would maintain its current level of beauty without his loving ministrations to it.

If you doubt it, go visit the park one nice day. You will not have wasted your time.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

We Ride Again

This week, Mr. Turner and I showed up at the CVCOG hearing on the transit system. With one exception, we were received well, as one fellow told us, we were the first public comment the board had ever received. As I related in a comment to this Blog last week, I went for a bus ride then. I may be mistaken, but I got the sense at the hearing that I was likely the only person in the room to have actually ridden a bus in recent memory.

I was told that my experience, all of a week old,was out of date, improvements had been made. Well, seeing is believing, so I climbed aboard another bus this Thursday. My first question to the driver had to do with buying a weekly or monthly ticket book. No, the drivers still can't offer that, but this fellow got on the radio and assured me the guy selling tickets would be at the transfer point, the old depot. He did show up, I could have bought passes without physically going to CVCOG. Seems the drivers don't have that capability, which at least one person at the hearing was sure they did, but at least a rider can get tickets from someone along the route. By the way, my advice concerning a strong bladder still stands, the depot building is locked, no rest rooms available to the traveling public.

It happened I sat behind a young lady who was not riding for fun, she is disabled and very much needs the service. She told me of her experience with the system, and she allowed that she would have been at the hearing had she known about it. Now that she brings it up, it does seem we could have managed the 7 cents a page copying cost to have posted notice of the hearing on each bus and at the terminal itself.

I want to make plain, I am not out to make anyone look bad. Had someone asked me about bus service two months ago, my response would have been, roughly, “Huh?” We got involved with this topic because people started calling us. The people who ride the bus are not on it because the Beemer is in the shop. This is the scuffling, scrambling, make from today to tomorrow class. The management folk we talked to at the hearing appeared to me to be really trying, and I heard some good ideas. Problem is, these ideas should have been kicked around and some concrete decisions made before this transition of ownership. From the point of view of the rider, not to mention the employees, the transition should have been effectively invisible.

The people at the bottom of the food chain don't really care if San Angelo, the CVCOG, or Ross Perot in a fit of madness owns the bus, they need the bus to run on time and possibly get them from point A to point B in something under two hours. Let me stress, the employees I have dealt with have been unfailingly polite, they have gone out of their way to get my questions answered, and I have seen them go out of their way to help the “challenged” riders.

Let me put it this way; next hearing I attend, I expect to be talking to more people who have put their butts in a bus seat and hear less noise about what has and has not changed from people who have not “been there, done that”.