Friday, June 29, 2001

Ports-to-Plains Trade Corridor approved by Texas Highway Commission

Loop 410 now is a hazmat route

Castle Hills' concerns aired in vain

June 29, 2001

Bob Richter Austin, Bureau
San Antonio Express-News,
Copyright 2001

The Texas Highway Commission on Thursday overrode objections from Castle Hills residents and unanimously approved Loop 410 as the designated Bexar County nonradioactive hazardous materials route.

The designation becomes effective immediately.

The panel also designated two potential trans -Texas trade routes from Mexico through Texas , each designed to relieve the clogged Interstate 35 corridor .

However, the consideration of Bexar County's hazardous materials route was the most controversial item on the docket Thursday.

The plan was supported by governmental entities that represent 99 percent of the population of Bexar County, said Deputy San Antonio Fire Chief Steve Worley, but it didn't have approval of a vocal minority in Castle Hills, a North Side suburb that is dissected by 410.

Former Castle Hills Mayor Bob Anderson and present Mayor Dave Seyfarth both testified against the plan.

Noting that 210,000 vehicles a day travel 410 North, and arguing that stretch of highway is the city's most accident-prone, Anderson sought approval of an alternative route until construction now under way on 410 North is completed.

Bob Weddington, president of a Castle Hills homeowners' association, noting 8,500 students attend schools within a mile of 410, told commissioners that approval of the plan would be "one of the most serious mistakes you could make."

However, the commission was persuaded by testimony from a variety of others - including city and county officials and suburban elected officials, such as Leon Valley Mayor Marcy Meffert and Universal City Councilman Dan Whealan - to adopt the plan.

"This is the fairest plan," said Carl Mixon, Bexar County's fire marshal and hazardous material coordinator.

He said items covered by the plan include gasoline, propane, diesel fuel, biomedical waste and military materiel.

Worley said other routes were considered, but rejected: Loop 1604, because it traverses the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone; downtown freeways, because they are elevated and curvaceous; and U.S. 90 because it does not meet federal regulations.

Noting that nonradioactive hazardous materials now can be transported on any roadway in Bexar County, Commissioner Robert Nichols, said: "The world we live in today is those materials can flow through on any route."

Nichols moved to accept the proposed plan, noting it presents a "minimum potential" for a spill in the downtown San Antonio or over the recharge zone. Commissioner Ric Williamson "reluctantly" seconded the motion.

John Kelly, the transportation department's chief engineer for Bexar County, later said the route would be designated by signs which will be erected "by this fall."

In response to Anderson's call for an alternative route, Kelly said most truckers would stay off the cluttered, under-construction 410 North anyway "as a logical business decision," and use 410 South.

Carlos Lopez, director of traffic operations for the transportation department, said the plan goes into effect immediately, and may be enforced by the Department of Public Safety.

However, Worley said cities traversed by the hazardous materials route must pass ordinances to empower their police to enforce the new routing plan.

Ed Fanick, who owns a nursery and described himself as "an environmentalist, not an extremist," said he supported the plan, which, he said, has been in the works since the 1980s.

"We all want the good life," he said, "and along with this good life comes hazardous products. Is it better to have no route, and just let the truckers use their discretion?"

The commission also approved the so-called Ports-to-Plains Trade Corridor , which will extend from deep-water ports in Mexico, through Texas to Canada.

The route enters Texas at Laredo, then veers west to Del Rio before proceeding north through West Texas and the Panhandle to Denver, en route to Canada.

Texas cities along the route include Sonora, San Angelo, Midland, Big Spring, Lubbock and Amarillo.

And the panel designated U.S. 281 between San Antonio and Stephenville as part of the Texas Trunk System, a highway system that eventually will be improved to four lanes, generally in rural areas.

U.S. 281 from McAllen to San Antonio earlier had been designated as part of the trunk system.

Members of a delegation from Wichita Falls urged the commission to extend the designation to their city, where it could meet Interstate 44, advancing the movement of goods and commodities from Mexico and its ports to the U.S. Midwest and ports on the Great Lakes.

No action was taken, though.

Both trade routes now go into the state's long-range transportation plan - prioritized, but not funded.

The Ports-to-Plains route already has been designated by federal highway officials as a high-priority international route, meaning it's eligible for federal funds.

Jorge Ortiz, from Mexico's Ciudad Acua, across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, called the corridor "the shortest route to unite three countries."

Among those testifying for it Thursday were Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, Del Rio Mayor Dora Alcala and JoAnn Hernandez, mayor of Sonora.

The U.S. 281 route was called a "greater reliever to I-35 than any other state route" by Arnold Oliver, the former executive director of the transportation department.

Oliver wanted the designation extended to Wichita Falls, and said U.S. 281 could be expanded at "significantly less cost" than I-35.

An earlier presentation, by the transportation department's Waco engineers, said expansion of I-35 to six lanes in rural areas will cost about $8 million a mile and expansion to eight lanes in urban areas will cost $20 million a mile.

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