One hundred and seventy-one years after the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence, opponents of the Trans-Texas Corridor plan to send a message to lawmakers: Don’t Tag Texas.
A massive rally is planned for March 2 in Austin, with organizers hoping to see at least 100,000 - if not a half-million people - march up Congress Avenue beginning at 2 p.m. to the Capitol steps to stage a several-hour rally that will oppose not only Gov. Rick Perry’s signature project but also a federal animal identification program.
“Don’t Tag Texas covers both issues: toll tags and animal tags,” said former land commissioner candidate Hank Gilbert in an interview Monday evening. “We picked March 2 to hold the rally because that’s Texas Independence Day. I felt that was a fitting day to have the rally since this is an issue that affects all Texans.
“It’s time for us to stand up for our independence,” he said. “Whether you live in downtown Houston or Waxahachie, Texas, you’re going to be impacted by both of these programs. Anytime our major roadways become tollways and anytime our producers have to add more expense to their livestock operations, the cost of goods goes up. Whether you’re in agriculture or a dentist, you’re going to pay more for necessities.”
Gilbert said organizers plan a big, fun event.
“It’s going to be different, but it’s also going to leave a lasting impression with a loud and positive message we want heard: We want our state back,” said Gilbert, who expressed a number of concerns with the Trans-Texas Corridor, the first leg of a roadway that would stretch from Mexico across Texas to link up with roadways connecting across the United States to Canada.
Gilbert, who ran as the Democratic nominee for land commissioner, said his campaign had focused on both issues: the Trans-Texas Corridor and the federal animal identification program.
“Those are two issues I know my opponent had supported through legislation and voting, and prior to the election, he flip-flopped and said he was against them,” Gilbert said. “This whole thing is power-driven and both of these issues are inner-linked together.”
Economically, the Trans-Texas Corridor would aid foreign countries that could deliver their goods into Mexican ports so as to bypass tariffs and import fees into the United States, according to Gilbert.
“The TTC provides a gateway from Mexico into our country and all the way to Canada. It allows these major corporations that have begun shifting a large part of their manufacturing and business to third world countries to import back into Mexico,” he said. “Of course, China is a big player in this because so much manufacturing goes on in China and Taiwan. Those goods and services can come in through Mexican ports - and those ports are being upgraded by China now.”
The two issues of toll roads and animal identification tags are being fought in Texas for one reason, Gilbert believes: “It all has to start here. Whether you’re talking animal IDs or the TTC, the powers that be in this country know that if you can win in Texas, so goes the rest of the country.
“That’s why this rally is key and why we’re making appeals across the country to help support this thing. If we can stop it here, then we stop it for the rest of the country,” he said, saying other states involved in toll road fights include Indiana, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Gilbert’s background includes being an East Texas cattle rancher and small businessman for most of his life, along with serving as a high school educator.
“I’m not a politician. I got into the (land commissioner’s) race because somebody’s got to stand up for the people,” he said. “Clearly, the people in Austin and Washington, D.C. - on both sides of the aisle - aren’t doing that for us. They’re not standing up for 98 percent of the people they represent. They’re only standing up for the 2 percent that has the money - that’s who they’re listening to.”
He believes people are “sick and tired” and that they will show up in numbers in Austin on March 2.
“These are two issues the Legislature needs to go back and visit,” he said. “They need to repeal these and then come back to the people and say, ‘Help us work this out a better way.’ ”
At least 100,000 in attendance for the rally would bring national attention, Gilbert said, saying, “We need national attention to let the 47 contiguous states know we have the same problems. We also hope to spur similar protests on the steps of their capitols, culminating into one big protest at the nation’s capitol.
“We need to let these legislators know we’re tired of this,” he said. “We want to take our capitols back for the working men and women in our country.”
With less disposable income and the cost of goods and services on the rise, the working class is being squeezed, “and then you start throwing tolls on top of this … . You’re in the red until something changes,” Gilbert said. “Our government in this country has shown us for the last decade that they’re not interested in changing for the working people. The benefits are going to those in the higher level of income - but they’re not the ones funding the economy. It’s the people making a lot less than that.”
Gilbert points to both parents having to work now in the middle class - and many of those have more than one job.
“Texas is leading the nation in foreclosures, we’re leading the country in poverty and uninsured people, and there’s a reason for that,” he said. “There’s not enough money to go around, and the day of the stay-at-home mom or dad is gone. You don’t have that anymore for middle class America.”
The Trans-Texas Corridor is only part of what Gilbert describes as a potential 1 million-acre problem for Texas and its residents.
“Something else can be done without having to go into a private contract with a private entity, and without having to take 1 million acres of land in eight roadways for Texas. That 4,000 miles of toll road is going to consume approximately 1 million acres of rural Texas land,” Gilbert said. “It will turn out to be the largest eminent domain project in the history of this country.”
He said the eminent domain language in the bill creating the Texas-Trans Corridor is unlike any he’s seen before.
Affected property owners are given an appraisal price, which they then have the right to appeal to a three-member committee. The committee then sets a price, he said.
“In regular cases, if either party doesn’t agree, they can appeal it to a court and jury and nothing is done until a final determination,” Gilbert said. “In this instance, once that committee arrives at a figure, the landowner can still appeal to a court and jury, but TxDOT (the Texas Department of Transportation) can take that figure and go to the county clerk and file it and then send out a 60-day eviction notice. And that’s the law. You have 60 days to leave, and then they come in with a bulldozer, knock down your home and barn and they can build the roadway before your case gets to court.
“The likelihood of getting the decision turned over is slim to none,” he said.
“It’s a nice way of saying, ‘We want your property. This is what we’re going to pay and you’re going to take it.’ ”
TxDOT held 55 hearings in communities along the projected path of the Trans-Texas Corridor, with Gilbert attending and testifying at 21 of them.
He recalls hearing landowners’ stories about their properties and how they had been passed down from generation to generation - and how losing those properties would affect them.
“There was always the landowner, about the age of my parents, who would get up and say, with tears in their eyes that ‘My property is in that blue line and that land has been in our family for four generations,’ or ‘five generations,’ ‘and now we may lose it.’ And I also heard people say, ‘You come to take my land, your gun better be bigger than mine,’” said Gilbert, saying he also expressed the same sentiments to TxDOT. “We’re not going to stand for it. This project, if allowed to go to fruition, will cause a civil uprising in this state. One thing in this state is true: Texans value their property and their property rights. And you can tie sovereignty into that.
“We’re going to give this roadway to a foreign investment company for 50 years? There’s probably been more battles waged in this state over land - physical altercations - from the Alamo on over land in this state,” he said. “For our own state to now say, ‘We’re going to take it from you and give it to a Spanish company’ - I don’t think so.”
The impact of the Trans-Texas Corridor would be far-reaching, from removing irreplaceable farmland from its use to displacing farming families that would never be able to get back into agriculture, Gilbert fears.
“It’s virtually impossible for a person to decide, ‘I’m going into farming or ranching’ unless they have extremely good credit or a lot of money. The people in agriculture today in Texas are only there because that land has been passed down. You can’t pay $3,000, $4,000 or $5,000 an acre for land and expect to make it back in farming or ranching,” Gilbert said. “Most of your big, viable agriculture producers do it in this state because of family land - and when you take away that land from a family, you’re displacing a part of agriculture that will never come back. What’s more important? A big, wide, unpopulated highway you pay to drive on or wondering what you’re going to eat next or who you’re going to eat next? Or where it’s going to come from?”
Gilbert and the rally’s other organizers are setting up a Web site - www.dont-tagtexas.com - that is expected to go online any day.
“Hopefully, we’ll have some material up on it (Tuesday) to where people can start going to that site,” Gilbert said. “We’re setting it up so people can subscribe and receive automatic e-mails every time it updates. We’ll also have contact information and have a place where people can e-mail questions to me or one of the other event organizers.”
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