WOODBINE —About 450 people packed the cafetorium of the Rad Ware building of Callisburg Elementary School off FM 3164 for an informational meeting regarding the Trans-Texas Corridor. At the starting time of 7 p.m. a line of people stretched past the library’s door to sign in. As the meeting commenced it was standing-room-only, as visitors took to the cafetorium stage and steps for seating.

“Oh wow,” said Billy Baldwin, a Woodbine area rancher and one of the organizers of the meeting.

Baldwin led the opening and closing prayers for the gathering, then asking for each person in the audience to ask God if the Trans-Texas Corridor plan, as currently envisioned, is right or wrong.

In a show of hands, perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the audience raised their hands when asked how many in the audience were undecided on whether the Trans-Texas corridor should be built. The great majority of the audience cheered statements against the tollway system, with few in favor of the project scattered throughout the cafetorium.

Amy Klein, also one of the organizers, emceed the event. She asked that each person sign-in for a mailing list and register to vote. She said the only way change can be made is if Cooke County residents come together as a group to oppose the project.

Following Klein, Cooke County Judge Bill Freeman read a resolution passed by Cooke County voicing opposition to the Trans-Texas corridor project, including TTC-35, the arm of the vast network of toll roads proposed by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). TTC-35, a proposed four-to-10-lane highway which also could include six rails and utility lines, would be 400 to 1,200-feet wide spanning Texas from north to south.

Freeman’s reading of the ordinance met applause. He said it is possible to halt the project “if each person got together and let the Legislature know what you desire to happen.”

The “preferred route” for Trans-Texas Corridor 35 (TTC-35, the portion of the road which will run roughly parallel to Interstate Highway 35 in most places), cuts through southeastern Cooke County. TxDOT presented a map in March which included a 10-mile study area through Burns City, Callisburg, Collinsville, Gainesville, Lake Kiowa, Mountain Springs, Oak Ridge, Whitesboro, Woodbine and all points in between.

Freeman said though many are opposed to the possible taking of private property in eastern Cooke County, TxDOT is not the enemy.

“TxDOT maintains all these roads we have, and our bridges ...” Freeman said. “The Legislature is not our enemy. But we need to work with these people and hopefully use the Interstate 35 corridor where it exists.”

Chris Hammel, of the Blackland Coalition, headquarted in Bell County which is also along I-35 and the preferred route of TTC-35, followed Freeman.

“I could say ‘amen, you touched on all the issues, and you can go home now,’” Hammel said, meeting laughter.

He shared a brief history of the Blackland Coalition, and how it was formed in Holland, Texas, as news of the Trans-Texas Corridor plan was made known via a public meeting there.

“I was just kind of alarmed at what was happening,” Hammel said, noting he met a contractor from France. “I got the impression that the information was being controlled.”

He said future meetings grew in attendance until the Blackland Coalition was formed. He said Cooke County is experiencing a similar situation with hundreds gathered to learn more about the project.

“It hasn’t touched a nerve here, has it?” Hammel said.

Hammel reminded the audience of the importance of voting. He said in September 2001 68 percent of voters approved of unelected Regional Mobility Authorities which would have the authority to carry out projects like TTC-35.

Hammel said “I’m a rube — I didn’t know what I was voting for.”

He said Gov. Rick Perry told a group of people at TxDOT to come up with a plan in 90 days to implement the governor’s vision of a statewide network of toll roads, to be compatible with a larger plan known as the Crossroads Across America. The result, he said, was the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Hammel said his intent is not to “demonize” TxDOT or the governor, but to let the public know “it (TxDOT) is being held hostage by political opportunists.”

Hammel said a Houston Chronicle article dated Aug. 30, 2002, stated donations from companies involved in transportation projects were “a lucrative source of campaign contributions” to major candidates. (The information in the article could not be verified by press time.)

He said he fears the Trans-Texas Corridor may also be lining the pockets of officials seeking re-election.

“That fact is, Texas is going into the private property business, and is leasing it to a foreign business,” he said, noting Cintra-Zachry’s financing of the corridor.

Cintra-Zachry, a Spanish company based in Madrid, would own TTC-35 “50 years beyond economic feasibility.”

“What happens to a road after 50 years?” Hammel asked, meeting laughter. “... They’ll give it back just in time for us to rebuild it. Aren’t we fortunate.”

He continued later, “I have a hard time with foreign ownership of American infrastructure.”

Hammel said money will “flow out of the country” in the form of “concessions” to businesses who invested in the project.

Hammel said he supports Initiative and Referendum, a political proposal where voters could “initiate” bills in the Texas Legislature and also approve of them in a “referendum” election. He said having such a system in place would allow voters to overrule TxDOT.

Hammel later proposed term limits for Legislators.

Hammel said though his group is not supporting a candidate for Texas governor yet, he noted independent candidate Carole Keeton (Rylander) Strayhorn was the only one who attended a recent forum of candidates regarding the TTC-35 project at Seaton Hall near Temple. No one from Perry’s office attended, he said, though campaign officials from Democrat Chris Bell’s campaign and a campaign manager from independent Richard “Kinky” Friedman’s camp attended. Neither campaign officials knew about the Trans-Texas corridor at first, he said.

Hammel urged those in attendance to send in information, opinions and other items to Legislators and other state officials regarding TTC-35.

“My advice: Bury them. Bury them in information,” he said.

He said though the project may not be stopped in the near future, the immediate plan should be to “Make it wiggle ... slow it down a bit and push it into the next gubernatorial election.”

He said by property owners securing eminent domain lawyers, they will effectively raise the cost of TTC-35 by representing higher property values — assuming the values would be lower if an attorney was not hired. TxDOT is looking for the cheapest, simplest route, he said.

Following Hammel was Agnes Vogel, also of the Blackland Coalition. She said Texas transportation commissioner Ric Williamson noted a problem with privately funded road projects, such as TTC-35 — the government would have a hard time telling them where to put it.

“Folks, I don’t have a problem telling them where to put it,” she said, meeting applause.

Vogel announced a series of “Reroute Rick’s Road Rallies” across Texas, and urged those present to organize a similar rally.

Following Vogel, Christopher Swanson, an attorney with Barron, Adler and Anderson of Houston, who specialized in eminent domain property issues, spoke and answered questions.

“Quite honestly, I hope you never have to call me,” he said, noting that when state appraisers come in to make offers on private property it’s too late to do much to stop land acquisition.

He said the TTC-35 issue is the “only project I’ve ever seen where the land owners are this well organized.”

He said the audience, by being involved so early, have a “strategic advantage.”

Swanson answered a question from the audience they do not have to allow appraisers on their property (unless a judge says so) and they are never required to answer an appraiser’s questions about land.

“... You’re under no obligation to communicate with them whatsoever,” he said.

He said there is usually an offer made by the appraisers for “fair market value” of the land, and the property owner may make a counter-offer. He said sentimental value means nothing to an appraiser, so a property owner should do things to increase the value of his or her property, such as add access roads and work on infrastructure. He said “landlocked” property is the least expensive.

Answering another question from the audience, Swanson said a property owner may not recoup attorney’s fees from the state.

A gray-haired man in suspenders addressed the audience during the question and answer period saying, “If this gets to eminent domain, we’ve lost!”

One man took to the microphone to voice his reluctant support for the Trans-Texas corridor.

“It’s gonna happen,” said Rupert Hoenig of Muenster, meeting jeers from the crowd.

He told dissenters to “shut up” and let him speak. He called such gatherings “two hours of nothing happening.” He said previous projects, such as Interstate 35, were inevitable.

He could not be reached for further comment, as he left the meeting shouting that he was “forcefully dejected.”

By 8:45 p.m. the audience had thinned out to about half its original size.

Hammel, taking the podium to answer another question, said the 10-mile study area is not the width of the road, and will not be purchased. He added the length would be 4,000 miles if you count the lanes individually.

Following some other comments, Klein noted the Republican Party of Texas has a plank in its platform against the Trans-Texas corridor.

Klein encouraged the audience to return to next week’s meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. June 13 at the Rad Ware school.

Baldwin gave a closing remark, requesting “the same show of force” and just as many people for a TxDOT meeting July 10 at the Gainesville Civic Center.

The meeting adjourned around 9:15 p.m. with a closing prayer by Baldwin.

“Lord, help us save our land and our homes ...” he prayed.

Reporter Andy Hogue may be contacted at andyhoguegdr@ntin.net

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