In western Hunt County, a nearby railroad right-of-way is now an ominous presence to some.
Haslett: If you just look around here, there’s nothing to indicate that you’re an hour away from Dallas. It’s out in the country – you have houses, fields, little county roads, a few trees, not much else. This is western Hunt County. Over here there’s a dense patch of scrub forest. You might just glance past it, but if you look, you’ll see that it’s actually a perfect strip of trees, running diagonally across this field. The strip of trees jumps a small road and continues its diagonal path across the next field. That belt of trees marks a path where a railroad used to run – the old Cotton Belt line. The tracks are gone now. But the land itself is still owned by the Northeast Texas Rural Rail Transportation District. That group, usually known as NETEX, is a governmental body that administers the railroad. From Greenville going east through Sulphur Springs to Titus County, it’s still a functioning railroad. But west of Greenville, the right-of-way, which goes down to the edge of Dallas, is just an overgrown path. Because it’s the old rail line, lots of properties border the old NETEX right-of-way. Most of these properties are homes, owned by people like William Holland.
Holland: We moved in about two years ago and there were – you know, eight to ten homes, just in, just in this little area here that were for sale. Now, I know of one house that’s for sale.
Haslett: Holland’s neighborhood is an unincorporated area about two miles west of Caddo Mills. It’s a neighborhood that looks peaceful enough, but there’s more than a little anxiety brewing behind the walls of these quiet country homes. There’s talk of a toll road – the proposed Blacklands Turnpike – being built along the right-of-way where the railroad once ran.
Holland: I’ve got 25 acres. My wife and I are – you know, we have horses – and we’re raising show goats and chickens and - if the toll road is built on the north side or even the south side – you know, our property is within 400 feet. If it’s built on the north side, it would be within a couple hundred feet. It would dramatically impact our land, our animals - quality of life.
Haslett: Holland describes a diverse neighborhood. Some, like his wife, commute to Collin County or Dallas for work. Some are retired.
Holland: Most of these people are in their 30s, low 40s. Some of them – especially the ones up here over in the north or over here in the west - are in their 50s and 60s.
Haslett: The homes and lots in the area are a mix of new and old, big and small. It’s hard to generalize about this part of Hunt County except to say that it is definitely rural, definitely eclectic and generally upper-middle class. There aren’t many sprawling, suburban-style McMansions. There aren’t too many rusty shacks or trailers, either. Most of the homes are somewhere in between. Oh and yes, it is quiet. Ask people why they moved here, and they’ll tell you it was for the rural living. Robert Burt says he moved to the area for that reason.
Burt: I currently live on two acres. I’m within 50-60 feet of the NETEX right-of-way. My home would cease to exist if they put it on the south side of the right-of-way. And then obviously if they put on the right side, I would be within a hundred feet of a toll road. Obviously my quality of life is completely gone if they put it in either location. We’ve lived there eight years, me and my wife. We don’t want to move, but I sure don’t want to live near a toll road.
Haslett: If you have a basic familiarity with the region, you know that to the south, Interstate 30 runs west into Dallas. North of here, U.S. 380 runs west into McKinney. If you want to go into Dallas, you take I-30. To get to shopping and sporting events around Allen and Frisco, you take 380. The proposed toll road would go to neither Dallas nor McKinney. It would go to Lavon, a town in far southeastern Collin County. Lavon sits on the small patch of land between Lake Ray Hubbard and Lake Lavon. Go west from there and you get to Wylie. From Wylie, you can go to Plano, Richardson, Garland – or Dallas. Chris Kurinec is one of many around Caddo Mills who don’t see the point of a toll road from west of Greenville to Lavon. Kurinec is a frequent air traveler. He says he can get to either Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport or Dallas Love Field in reasonably good time on the roads that exist already.
Kurinec: Leaving from here, taking the current roads, using 635 and not the Bush tollway, even with construction on 635, I can be at the gate in an hour and a half. Not Love Field – DFW. Love Field, add an extra 20 minutes.
Haslett: There are some people around Caddo Mills who do go into southeastern Collin County a lot. William Holland’s wife works in Wylie.
Holland: From here, it takes about 25 minutes to get to Wylie.
Haslett: The Blacklands Turnpike has been presented as a limited access toll road, meaning just a few entry and exit points. Because of this, Holland suspects that his wife wouldn’t be able to just jump onto the road and zip down to Wylie.
Holland: If there’s a tollway put here, it wouldn’t shorten her time to get in to Wylie. Because of the limited access of the tollway - she would have to go over to 36 and 2720, which is a few miles away, hop on that and then turn around and, and - head back - the opposite direction. So, it would actually lengthen her commute.
Haslett: Holland is basing that estimation on where some have said the obvious access points would be. No one actually knows for certain where the access points would be because all that’s known about the Blacklands Turnpike at this point is the general route – NETEX right-of-way, west side of Greenville to Lavon. It’s not even certain that if it were built it would be a limited-access tollway. That’s a problem with discussing the proposal – the ambiguity. Those who oppose the plan tend to project their fears, those who favor the plan tend to project their hopes. But it’s hard to dismiss the concerns of those who say that a limited-access tollway would mean trouble for the little county roads in its path.
Kurinec: There’s nine county roads in Hunt County alone that are going to get cut by this toll road.
Haslett: If those roads are bisected by the turnpike, they become rural dead-end streets. Chris Kurinec says the implications of that are all bad – school buses having to run circuitous routes, through roads crowded with detouring cars and worst of all, increased travel time for emergency vehicles like police cars, ambulances and fire trucks. Increased fire risk could drive up insurance rates, he says. His neighbor Robert Burt has another concern.
Burt: A lot of these roads also, they prone to flood multiple times a year. I’ve seen flooding going on at least two to three times a year, where it’s limited access out of these county roads.
Haslett: More concrete means more runoff, though depending on the engineering, that runoff could be either a nuisance or a resource. Kurinec says that he doesn’t want development of the transportation infrastructure to impair the county’s ability to develop its water infrastructure. One of the few things that all parties agree on in this matter is that major population growth in Hunt County is inevitable.
Kurinec: The real biggest concern that Hunt County has for future growth is providing enough water for all the future population and all the needs associated with that. No one has yet done a detailed water reclamation study for how can we take all the water that stands on the surface here and floods, reclaim that water for future use - by cisterns or lake or whatever the case may be – for when the population does explode out here in about 10 to 20 years.
Haslett: Environmental concerns, money, safety, quality of life issues – it’s a long catalog of worries and grievances. So, let’s play devil’s advocate. Here you have landowners – not exactly society’s dispossessed, otherwise they wouldn’t own land. They live in one of the few areas within an hour of Dallas that hasn’t been totally suburbanized. They bought homes in western Hunt County so they could live in the country and still be close to Dallas. They purchased property bordering an abandoned railroad right-of-way. And now they’re surprised that someone wants to build a road there? Well?
Kurinec: When I saw the house, talked to the realtor, asked who owned the rail line – if they own that right-of-way and they have the funds to put a railroad in there, that’s the land they own, they can do with it what they want. I’d probably ask my precinct commissioner to make them slow down. But that’s their right-of-way and that’s their God-given right to use that land they own. But what I’m trying to say is it’s my God-given right to use the land that I own – just like it is for Bill and my neighbors to north and south of me - not to be kicked off so that somebody else can take advantage of what’s properly mine.
Holland: I wouldn’t have any issue them putting a railroad back in here. And if they wanted to use it for, you know, commuter – to meet up with DART and take people from Greenville or Commerce and, you know, run them back and forth into Dallas – that’d be fine. I’d have no issue with that.
Burt: Me, on the other hand, I wouldn’t really want a railroad there. I don’t think it’s even feasible because I don’t think the federal government or anybody would put a railroad back in there. When I talked to commissioners – it was a million dollars a mile, excluding the bridges. And I can tell you, within 3211 and where I live, there’s four bridges that’d have to be put in. Obviously, like Chris says, it is their property, so I couldn’t stop that. I’d probably sell.
Haslett: Which brings us back to the prime mover in this whole chain of contingencies – NETEX and the right-of-way. NETEX needs money. NETEX does get some income from its one customer, the Blacklands Railroad, which runs freight along the line from Titus County to Greenville. But it’s far from a lucrative operation. The track itself is so old and decrepit that the trains must chug along at slow speeds, which means less value and therefore less income from freight customers. Like many people, NETEX is obliged to spend everything it earns and can’t seem to get ahead. Clearly, NETEX would like to do something to get a return from the right-of-way west of Greenville. But any kind of development would cost money. What to do?
Kurinec: If this was all about the public good and the need for transportation, that would be one thing, because then it would equate for the public good. But this entire endeavor is predicated upon NETEX’s desire to raise funds to put a commercial railroad back on their right-of-way.
Haslett: Dallas-based Public Werks, Inc., is leading the team of private development interests that want to build the toll road. The developers say that if the Blacklands Turnpike were built, that most people in the region would win. NETEX would get the money it needs to do what it wants to do, naturally the developers themselves would enjoy some coin, and people from Greenville and points east would have another way to get into metro Dallas. The only losers would be a few landowners along the way. But the skeptics say the list of losers would be longer. The NETEX board approved a preliminary agreement with the developers by just a 6 to 5 margin in January. Both of the Collin County board members voted against the agreement. Kurinec says there were concerns about the terms of the lease as well as a reluctance to bring more traffic into southeastern Collin County, which already has plenty of cars on the road. He also says that if NETEX used eminent domain to boot people out of the way, the compensation offered wouldn’t cover the loss.
Kurinec: I could never get that again if I’m given a check at fair-market value for Hunt County – I would never be able to get the land and home that I have now again. It’d just be impossible. It would significantly impact me. Everything I’ve got’s invested into that land. Median age of this precinct is 58 years old. Those people get told to get off of their land that’s been in their families for generations - where are they going to go? Where are people in their 60s going to go move to – by Texas law, 50-mile radius – take that money, go relocate yourselves now, get a loan and go live your happy life?
Haslett: Everyone involved is waiting to see what the North Central Texas Regional Council of Governments has to say about the Blacklands Turnpike. The updated draft of the region’s transportation plan will be made public on April 11. For KETR News, I’m Mark Haslett.