• Celebrating Sign Unveiling on I-69/US 59 in Central Houston
The Alliance for I-69 Texas was joined by federal, state and local leaders on August 20th in celebrating the official designation of 12 miles in Central Houston as part of the national Interstate Highway System.
An I-69 sign unveiling ceremony along the Southwest Freeway near Greenway Plaza went off with high spirits despite heavy rains that left everyone wet even as they worked to share a flock of umbrellas. Congressman Blake Farenthold, a member of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, and Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin, III, shared the sign holding duties in the wet festivities.
Designation of the 12 miles of US 59 between the north and south portions of the IH-610 loop creates a 75-mile seamless section of I-69 through Montgomery, Harris and Fort Bend Counties. A total of 200 miles of existing highways are now designated as I-69 system in Texas.
The signing event was followed by a luncheon where Houston Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzalez made the point that the City of Houston was an early champion of the I-69 project more than 20 years ago because of the strategic connections it provides in Texas. "The City of Houston is proud to be a partner in this progress that will benefit generations to come," he said.
Congressman Farenthold provided an update on the pending federal transportation authorization bill and funding for the Highway Trust Fund. He noted that members of the House Transportation Committee are generally in agreement on what should be in the bill but that the problem is finding the $120 to $180 billion needed to pay for the shortfall in the amount generated from motor fuels taxes. He expects a couple of more short term extensions of highway funding before a proposed six-year bill is passed.
He noted that Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has said the Congress will find the funding for highways as part of a major tax reform effort. "That means it is going to be a longer wait than a lot of us want," said Farenthold who represents a district stretching from Corpus Christi to Bay City and west to Bastrop.
He painted a gloomy picture for highway funding in the decades ahead. He said that many people interested in transportation funding are watching the Oregon experiment with a vehicle miles traveled tax. "The current mechanism of the motor fules tax -- which I like to refer to as the highway user fee because that is what it really is -- it is in trouble. Cars getting 30 miles per gallon, electric vehicles paying nothing. We are going to have to find a new solution," he said.
Farenthold pointed to three measures related to I-69 that he and others have been working to see are addressed at the federal level. These include adding State Highway 44 west of Corpus Christi to the I-69 corridor, dealing with access to I-69 from seldom used ranch gates in South Texas and dealing with maintaining certain existing weight limits.
TxDOT Commissioner Austin said that he anticipates that the state will be able to slowly increase the number of I-69 lane miles with the passage of Proposition 7 on the November ballot. "Texas and the rest of the country needs the I-69 route to maintain and even enhance the quality of life for our growing population," he said.
He pointed out that according to the Texas State Data Center the counties along the I-69 system in Texas grew by 23% from 2000 to 2010. They are expected to grow by more than 71% over the next 25 years.
Austin praised members of the Texas Legislature for presenting voters the opportunity to put billions of new dollars into transportation by passing Prop 7. Passage will mean that TxDOT will be allowed to plan systematically for highway system preservation and expansion.
"We need to continue to try to find additional state resources and tools in the next legislative session," he said, noting that there are triggers both Prop 1 and Prop 7 funding that allow highway funds to be reduced under certain conditions.
He said that I-69 will be a priority part of the Transportation Commission's state and federal initiatives in the coming years.
Austin, who has been closely involved as a champion of I-69 since joining the commission in 2011, noted that I-69 has been a great example and a beacon for other projects on how grassroots involvement can solve issues on major projects.
Alliance Chairman Loyd Neal hit a high note in closing the day's festivities reminding I-69 advocates of the meaning of their decades of effort.
"Very few people in their lifetime can say that my legacy was building an interstate highway system in Texas," Judge Neal said. "We were told from the very beginning that it could never happen. It is happening because of the uniqueness of the way it is being done, by the way it is capturing the existing roads and turning them into an interstate system."
"As we support i69 and as we ask our congressional delegation and our state delegation to support it, it will be a legacy. We are building something that no other generation will ever get an opportunity to do in Texas, and that is to connect Mexico, from Laredo and Brownsville, all the way through Texarkana in Texas for over 1,000 miles. Remember that -- that's what we are doing. We're building a legacy of transportation. Port to port and then a freight corridor that takes these goods across the United States," he said.
(L-R) Ben Zeller, Victoria County Judge; Judy Hawley, Port of Corpus Christi Authority Commission Chair; Jeff Austin, Transportation Commission Member; Linda Thomas, NETRMA Chair; Charles Thomas, Carthage Economic Improvement Corp.; Loyd Neal, Alliance Chair and Nueces County Judge; Ed Gonzalez, Houston Mayor Pro-Tem; Congressman Blake Farenthold; Janiece Longoria, Chairman, Port of Houston Authority; Nelda Martinez, Mayor of Corpus Christi; James Carlow, Bowie County Judge; and State Rep. Phil Stephenson.
(L-R) Alliance Chair Loyd Neal, Transportation Commissioner Jeff Austin, Julian Alvarez, Charles Thomas, Congressman Blake Farenthold, Corpus Christi Port Commission Chair Judy Hawley, Houston Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzalez and Corpus Christi Mayor Nelda Martinez celebrate the signing of the 200th mile of the I-69 system in Texas.