By Matthew Jackson
Nearly 150 people, including state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, Walker County Judge Danny Pierce, Walker County Sheriff Clint McRae and Riverside Mayor Frank Rich, packed into the meeting room at Riverside Baptist Church Tuesday night for a public meeting on a proposed Texas Department of Transportation project to construct an overpass on state Highway 19 at the intersection of Farm-to-Market road 980 in Riverside.
In the few weeks since the public became aware of the project, massive opposition has built among residents of Riverside and Walker County, including a petition that now includes more than 1,000 signatures.
For Rich, who has been mayor of Riverside since 2003, the concern is largely an economic one, as the proposed overpass would cut direct access to Riverside’s principle intersection, and many of its businesses.
“I’m complaining about this because of what it’s going to do to our businesses,” Rich said. “If our businesses that are here can’t make it because of that overpass, we won’t get any new businesses here.”
As residents filed into the meeting room, they found numerous drawings placed on easels, representations of preliminary plans and data compiled by TxDOT on the project, which was submitted and selected as part of TxDOT’s Safety Bond Program earlier this year. Every person in attendance was offered a form on which they could write their feelings on the project.
Everywhere residents began writing their thoughts on the comment forms, which ranged from paragraph long statements on why the overpass was a bad idea, to simple declarations of “Thanks but no thanks” and one which read simply “NO” across the entire sheet.
Numerous residents settled into chairs, expecting to be addressed by a TxDOT representative when the meeting began at 6 p.m. At first, they were told that wouldn’t happen.
Representatives from TxDOT explained that they had planned the meeting as an “open house” in which residents could walk in and out, view the plans, and speak with TxDOT officials briefly.
Those in attendance quickly reacted with outrage to this format.
“DOT will not talk to us,” said Riverside resident Chuck Firnkoess. “All they want to do is show pictures. They brought in all their little lackies to show us pictures, but they won’t speak to us. I think they’re cowards.”
As opposition to the meeting’s format began to build, TxDOT personnel opted to change the meeting style. Bob Appleton, of TxDOT’s Bryan District office, addressed the crowd.
“We have not decided to do this project,” Appleton said, to applause from the group. “That’s why we have these meetings. All the money that we’ve spent is the money to draw up these drawings, put them on these easels and drive out to Riverside for this meeting.”
Appleton then began taking questions and comments from residents. As residents began to speak, the most prevalent question seemed to be “Why?”
Appleton explained that the project was submitted based on accident data collected over several years at the intersection, and that the project was part of a TxDOT safety program.
This prompted several comments from residents that the crash data submitted by TxDOT was wrong. Numerous people in attendance informed Appleton that at least one fatality accident attributed to the intersection of FM 980 and SH 19 did not actually occur there, but instead occurred on FM 405, slightly further south. Appleton acknowledged these concerns and said he would be re-checking the data in the coming days.
Residents also began expressing concern that the intersection of FM 980 and stat Highway 19 had been chosen as a project area based on safety concerns when so many other areas of Walker County, most notably state Highway 19 near Huntsville, were considered unsafe.
Appleton and TxDOT District Engineer Bryan Wood addressed each of these suggestions by saying that funding was not available for every project needed, and that the projects were selected based on a rating that was determined from the number of accidents in the areas and the amount of money the project would cost.
Residents then began to question the economic impact of the project, and asked if TxDOT had studied the impact the overpass would have on local businesses.
“We don’t have a lot of industry,” Firknoess said. “What we do have is loyalty to the vendors we buy from. This is a community. It’s not Houston and it’s not Huntsville. We’re a close-knit group, and we don’t want to see a project done that impacts the people we deal with. We love these people. This is a community. It’s a family, and I don’t think DOT understands that.”
Nearly every person in attendance took the opportunity to address the TxDOT officials, many of them speaking twice, and all of them opposing the overpass.
Elected officials in attendance also addressed the meeting.
“One of the things I’ve asked is, if they (the residents) don’t want it, why would we spend precious taxpayer dollars?” Kolkhorst said, and then thanked the TxDOT officials for facilitating the meeting. “They’re pros at this, and they have heard you, and I know we have other areas where we could spend this money.”
McRae also addressed the meeting, and voiced his support for the people of Riverside.
“I will have to say that I will support my community based on their desires and their needs,” he said.
Walker County Precinct Three Commissioner Bobby Warren also came forward, passing along a resolution adopted unanimously by the Walker County Commissioner’s Court on Monday expressing support for the people of Riverside in the matter.
Walker County Judge Danny Pierce echoed his support, then thanked TxDOT for holding the meeting to gain public input.
After the public officials spoke, residents continued to offer suggestions for other safety concerns in the county, including other areas of state Highway 19 and FM 980, and areas of state Highway 30 near the Grimes County line.
Residents also asked if the money could possibly be used on another project. Appleton and Wood said it could not due to the regulations on the funding, but said the money would go back into the Safety Bond Program fund and could be applied for again during the next funding period for a different project.
As the meeting began to wind down, the question every resident wanted an answer to seemed to be when they would know if they’re opposition had made an impact. When would they know if the project was going ahead or not?
“We’re going to make the decision on whether or not to pursue this project as quickly as we can,” Appleton said, and added that the decisions would likely come in a matter of weeks.
The decision to pursue the project or not, Wood said, is largely handled by the district office, with some input from TxDOT’s Austin office. He also said that the input from the meeting would play a large part in the decision.
“We’ve always said we keep a no build option in every advance planning project,” Wood said. “If we come to a community that is opposed to a project, we usually side with the community unless there’s overwhelming reason not to, and that would usually mean if there was support for the project outside the community.”