• Judge Emmett: Completing I-69 is Critical to the Future of Texas
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett believes that Interstate 69 stretching across Texas is critically important to the future of Texas.
"I am a big believer in I-69 for a lot of reasons. It is not parochial," he said. "It really is the most important economic engine that we have going in the state of Texas."
Judge Emmett, who is chairman of the Texas Freight Advisory Committee, has spent his career dealing with transportation policy issues and is a highly regarded transportation expert.
He led a series of speakers at the Alliance for I-69 Texas annual luncheon in Houston on Dec. 2. He was joined by Senator Sylvia Garcia of Houston, a member of the Texas Senate Transportation Committee, and Laura Ryan, also of Houston, a new member of the Texas Transportation Commission.
Emmett said he thinks long-term development in Texas is going to be in East Texas because that part of the state has available water to support industry and population growth. Dry conditions to the west are just a fact of life.
He said decisions to build projects that continue to upgrade existing highways to I-69 are going to be critical to the continued viability of the entire state because growth is going to be taking place along the I-69 corridor running from the Rio Grande to Houston and on through East Texas.
"A lot of people not necessarily going to like that growth but it is going to be a factor. New facilities are going to come in. Where are they going to locate? They are going to locate where they can get water, they are going to locate in East Texas. You are not going to see big industrial plants moving out into West Texas. It is just not going to happen. So that makes what you (in the I-69 Alliance) are doing that much more important," Judge Emmett said.
TRAFFIC CONGESTION IN HOUSTON AREA
The Harris County judge voiced concern about the fact that I-69/US 59 in the Houston area is becoming a very congested commuter route. He noted that people 100 miles to the south are commuting to work in Houston and he sees more such growth on the horizon.
Emmett drew strong applause when he said, "But the real thing is freight. No matter what you are hearing about how terrible NAFTA is -- it's not." He said he has always been a supporter of NAFTA and its importance to Texas and the U.S. economy. Part of that is freight moving by truck to the Midwest that needs to come right up the I-69 corridor. "That makes all the sense in the world."
He spoke in favor of development of an eastern bypass of Houston for truck traffic moving in and out of the Port of Houston, the Port of Freeport, the Port of Galveston and Texas City. He envisions a route that would leave the I-69/US 59 corridor at some point south of El Campo and swing east before curving up to run near Alvin,, LaPorte and Baytown before heading north to tie back in to I-69/US 59 in the vicinity of Cleveland. He said advancing planning for the freight bypass is a top priority for him.
Emmett fears that without the truck relief route the I-69 corridor through Houston will someday grind to halt as capacity is maxed out by the combination of commuters and freight traffic.
PLANNING FOR FREIGHT
Emmett reported that the TxDOT staff has been so far ahead of the rest of the country in stepping up and doing what needs to be done to get Texas ready for whatever federal funding is available and for whatever rules are put in place.
The state has adopted a Freight Mobility Plan but Congress has changed the rules and the plan is now being revised. "TxDOT is making sure we are ready."
He noted that the Freight Advisory Committee is tasked with deciding what additional miles will be added to the 3,400 miles of Primary Freight System designated in Texas. That will include 745 miles of critical rural freight corridors and 372 miles of critical urban freight corridors not already designated. Being included in the system makes projects eligible for federal FAST Act funding.
Noting that all of those miles could be used on the I-69 corridor, Chairman Emmett said, "I don't think they are going to let us do that, but logic would say a whole lot of it needs to go on this corridor because this is where the state is going to grow. And so by all means participate with us, work with us, make sure that when we go back to the feds we have designated the right thing."
STATE BUDGET STRESSED
Senator Garcia began her remarks by reminding that for the upcoming two years the Texas state budget is going to be very stressed as lawmakers deal with lower than expected revenues and growing demands. He predicted there will be no new state funding for highways but that she does not believe the Legislature will not reverse any of the additional funding previously approved. "We will stay the course," she said.
She said she has been a supporter of I-69 from the time it was first discussed. She was a Harris County commissioner for eight years representing a precinct that included all of the Houston port area and its massive industrial complex. She represents much of the same area in the Texas Senate. Those area are the economic life blood of the southeast Texas region and highly dependent on efficient transportation. "A lot of dollars are lost when trucks are stopped," she said.
Commissioner Ryan joined the Transportation Commission in July. She is vice president of market representation and dealer development for Gulf States Toyota which covers five states and 157 dealers.
She said she was intrigued to learn about I-69 and its history and that she is energized by the challenges the Transportation Commission is dealing with. She encouraged advocates of Interstate 69 projects to consider her as a resource. "I am here to help," she said.