Tight money situation causes debate over roads in South Texas

| Thursday, December 26, 2002

Community leaders in Texas' Rio Grande valley are asking the state to pony up money for interstate highways in the region, The Dallas Morning News reported recently, but a state official said recently that the region's best bet for highway improvements is to build toll roads.

Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson's suggestion to build toll roads has some fans, but isn't finding an entirely friendly audience with area leaders. Harlingen Mayor Connie de la Garza told The News the valley is the only region with a population of 1 million people and no basic interstate system. She suggested the state build its first interstate highway in the area, and then talk toll roads.

Of particular concern is money to build the long-awaited I-69 project. Congress had said the South Texas portion of the highway - called the "NAFTA Superhighway" because it will link Mexico and Canada - should be the first part of that highway built, Former Harlingen Mayor Bill Card told the newspaper. However, Williamson said federal aid for the project was not likely.

Texas isn't the only place where the I-69 project is running into holdups. Little has been done to construct the new interstate, which is designed to ease truck congestion and speed the flow of goods, according to media reports.

In 1997, Congress authorized the construction of I-69, expected to cost at least $8.5 billion. Little pavement has been laid since because of state-level disputes about where to locate sections of the highway, The Washington Times reported. The highway, which already exists from Canada, through Michigan, to Indianapolis, would eventually go through Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

The new route is expected to cut four hours in travel time between Indianapolis and the Mexican border and help ease an increase in truck flow caused by the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement.

The portion of the route in southern Indiana has been a point of recent contention. In November, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed an alternative route for the southward extension of I-69 from Indianapolis, according to a report from The Associated Press, in part because of concern over the road's effect on wetlands in the southern part of the state. Another federal agency - The Interior Department - weighed in a short time later, backing the use of current highway routes for I-69 south of Indianapolis.

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