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TRANSPORTATION officials designate Ports-to-Plains route

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LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) _ Texas transportation officials Thursday unanimously approved the Ports-to-Plains Trade Corridor, a route supporters say will inject vitality into West Texas' economy.

Transportation commissioners voted 3-0 to go ahead with the 830-mile project, which could take as long as 20 years to complete.

Although no money has been set aside, the designation makes the route eligible to compete for federal funding and use state highway funds. Federal highway officials have designated the corridor a high-priority international route, similar to Interstate 35.

``As mayor of Lubbock, I think today is a very historic day for all of us in West Texas. I think it will probably be as beneficial to West Texas as maybe our getting the medical school or our getting Texas Tech University because what this does is it allows West Texas to develop all the way up and down, even to the south,'' Lubbock Mayor Windy Sitton said.

The Ports-to-Plains route, which is estimated to cost $1.2 billion for the Texas section, will connect deep-water ports in Mexico to Laredo before heading north through West Texas and the Panhandle, ending up in Denver.

Initially, the cost was projected to be $800 million. But commissioners Thursday also approved an additional 130 miles to the original recommendation. The additional section forks west from Sterling City to Midland and then north to Lamesa.

Randy Neugebauer, a chairman of the Ports-to-Plains Trade Corridor Coalition, a group of business leaders and elected officials in more than 30 cities and counties in West Texas that support the route, said the commissioners' action could help accelerate funding.

``It's a milestone, but it's not the end of the road,'' said the Lubbock businessman. ``This helps us move forward and give additional credibility to our cause.''

The corridor ties together various Texas roadways, ending north of Dumas at the Oklahoma border. It also could be diverted through New Mexico.

Much like Interstate 35 has done in the eastern half of the state, the corridor has the potential to serve international trade traffic and promote economic development, said John Elliott, chairman of the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce.

``It will be a huge boost for us,'' he said. ``We are a size city enough now that when businesses look to expand along the corridor, we feel like we'll be a pin in the map.''

Sitton has said that the commission is ``thinking outside the box'' because they typically look at safety and traffic congestion issues in making a decision about highways.

But commissioners said they are looking 20 years down the road in selecting the route's alignment.

``This route is an investment in our future,'' said state Transportation Commissioner John Johnson. ``It has a regional impact to the state's infrastructure and has the potential to serve as a crucial trade corridor for Texas and the rest of the country.''

Nearly 700,000 people in Texas will be served by the corridor and more than 5 million for the entire corridor, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

The northern segment of the corridor _ Dumas to Denver _ will be mutually selected by transportation officials in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado. That decision must be made by Sept. 30 or federal officials will pick it.

When completed, the route will be a four-lane divided highway.
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