Pat Hensen spent a good part of his 35-year career with the Soil Conservation Service (now Natural Resource Conservation Service) helping Texas Blacklands farmers improve their land.
And he's invested considerable time, effort and money the last 20 years doing the same on his own or leased acreage.
And it may all end up under yards of concrete and asphalt if the Trans Texas Corridor passes muster and follows the latest proposed route.
“My farm would be in the middle of it,” Hensen says from his Bell County living room where he and wife Loretta participate in a grassroots campaign to stop what they believe is no more than a land grab and an unconscionable destruction of some of the best farm land in the Southwest.
“Regardless of where it goes, it will take out about 150 acres per mile through the heart of the Blacklands,” Hensen says.
Ultimately, the corridor would link with the NAFTA highway and stretch from Canada into the heart of Mexico and take a chunk of farmland out of the Midwest. When completed, the Trans Texas Corridor would include more than 4,000 miles of intersecting highways across the state.
“They plan to take the best land we have to build a road and once it's paved it's gone forever,” Hensen says. “The corridor will take acreage equal to one county out of Texas.”
He says a lot of Texans are not aware of the corridor and certainly not cognizant of the lost acreage and disruption it will create.
The road, which supporters tout as a multi-use corridor with a passenger highway, a roadway for trucking, a rail line and utility lines, takes a 1200-foot swath out of the rural areas it crosses. The roadway may claim another 200-foot right-of-way.
“It does not have to be that wide,” Hensen says.
He's convinced that the road cuts through farmland instead of following Interstate 35 because of business and environmentalist interest.
“We're giving up all this good farm land to protect some kind of sparrow,” he says. “No one seems interested in protecting farmers.”
The corridor is supposed to be a toll road but opponents question if tolls will pay the freight and point out that the contractor has already lobbied the Texas legislature for funds. Construction could begin within the next few years with a completion target of 2017. “They could break ground next year (near Laredo),” Loretta says.
“It would include six train tracks,” Hensen says. “I didn't know that taxpayers were responsible for paying for rail and utility lines.” That chore usually goes to private enterprise, he says.
“We're developing a grassroots opposition,” Loretta says. A Web site, www.corridorwatch.org, offers updates on opposition efforts.
“It's been so secretive it's scary,” Hensen says. He's also concerned about the waterlines that will run alongside the roadway and railroad tracks. He fears large cities will pull water out of rural areas into municipalities, leaving farmers without adequate water for crop irrigation or livestock production.
They say plans have moved quickly to get the corridor on a fast track. “First we heard was in 2002,” Hensen says. “The people of Texas should be concerned about the loss of 100,000 acres of prime Blackland farm acreage. It's wrong to take that much farmland out of production without adequate compensation. They could take less valuable acreage.”
The Hensens say the corridor still needs federal approval.
The Texas Farm Bureau opposes the corridor. Bureau President Kenneth Dierschke and members of the organization's state board of directors have voiced their opposition at public forums. Their concern includes a fear that the proposed corridor will eventually swallow up many thousands of acres of Texas' best farmland.
Dierschke says the corridor jeopardizes the region's continued farming heritage. The Texas Farm Bureau also expresses concern over access to and from the different communities in the area and foreign country dealings in the crafting of the superhighway contracts.
A company from Spain, Cintra, has been awarded a contract to build the corridor.
“The Texas Farm Bureau is on record as being opposed to the Trans Texas Corridor,” Dierschke says. “Our voting delegates at our annual meetings have expressed their continued opposition to its construction.”
The Texas chapter of the National Farmers' Union also opposes the corridor.
“We passed a resolution at our convention opposing it,” says Texas NFU President Wes Sims.
He has seen “a lot of anger” from Texas landowners who believe the corridor is a big land grab. He says the farm group has several concerns with the corridor.
The method of acquiring land tops the list. “They're using eminent domain to take property,” he says, “with no consideration of the effects on the livelihood of property owners. It's mostly agricultural acreage, away from cities, but farms will not be the only businesses affected.
“What happens to those small towns along the corridor route?” Sims says access along the corridor will be limited to major highways, leaving a lot of rural communities and the businesses they count on for their economic bases without access from the highways that funneled business into them for decades.
He said the corridor's limited access also will affect farmers' ability to get to stores, services, churches and schools. In some cases, the roadway will prevent reasonable access from one side of a farm to another. Potential to disrupt water availability also concerns land owners.
Sims says a lot of Texans are angry at the way the corridor came about. Texas voters approved an amendment to the state constitution allowing the legislature to alleviate traffic congestion along Interstate 35.
“But there were no details about how they would do it,” Sims says. “I voted against it and encouraged my members to do the same. Voters thought they were voting to improve traffic problems on I-35.
“I think the majority of Texas landowners opposed this corridor. It was done in a deceitful, tricky way.”
Sims says Texans still have options. “It's not too late to stop it,” he says. “The legislature can do it.”
He says the citizens of Texas need to exert enough pressure on the legislature to force them to rescind the action.