Big Thicket National Preserve threatened by proposed 105 Toll Road

Published 12:29 pm Wednesday, December 2, 2015

By Jan Ruppel

A private toll road company is proposing construction of a four-lane, 10 mile toll road that would stretch from the intersection of US 69 and TX 105 in north Beaumont to Interstate 10 in Vidor. The 105 Toll Road would begin and end in established neighborhoods and cross the Neches River near Collier’s Ferry Park.

The proposed route would go through 1.8 miles of the Beaumont Unit of the Big Thicket National Preserve, across ecologically sensitive wetland areas. The Preserve was established to protect this remarkable habitat from just such development and to prevent the inevitable habitat fragmentation that would result.

The developers have made dramatic revenue projections of nine billion dollars over the next 75 years. At the suggested toll prices of $2.50 one way, commuters who use it daily, 5 days a week, would pay $25 per week, or more than $1,200 per year. To meet the revenue projections, as many vehicles would have to use the toll road every day as now use Interstate 10. Expecting the public to pay a toll to use a highway that is as congested as the freeway is unrealistic.

According to Randy Saltzman, associate editor of Thinking Highways North America, it is common for privately financed roads to go bankrupt. Saltzman reports that firms acquiring infrastructure typically provide very little of their own cash, but because of a complicated mix of fees and tax breaks, those companies may benefit financially even when the deals go sour. This outcome would stick Texans with a failed project to finance.

Last spring, the Texas Legislature stripped toll road corporations of their power of eminent domain, which is the power to compel citizens to sell property, if it is needed to complete such projects. The developer of this project, Texas Turnpike Corporation, is asking Southeast Texas County Commissioners and City Councils to enter into interlocal cooperation agreements for the 105 Toll Road. It would be left to the counties and cities to condemn property and exercise their powers of eminent domain to benefit this private corporation.

Earlier this year, vigorous protests by residents northeast of Dallas defeated a private toll road project proposed by the same company. Citizens in Southeast Texas need to do the same, because this project threatens our National Preserve, neighborhoods, and businesses. A recent study by the National Park Service shows that visitors spent $6,743,000 in communities near the park and that jobs in the local area had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $8,632,900.

We need to ask hard questions about this project: Who will reap the financial benefits? Who is being asked to take the risks? Are the revenue projections realistic? What will our neighborhoods be like with a toll road through them? What will be the real environmental impacts? What happens if the project fails?

Tell your county commissioners and city council members you want answers to these and other questions. Tell them that Southeast Texans care about protecting the Big Thicket National Preserve from investors who want to profit from the destruction of our signature resource.

Jan Ruppel is president of the Big Thicket Association