Tuesday, January 29, 2002

"Mr. Perry has emphasized transportation during his re-election campaign."

Road plan goes beyond pavement

Rails and pipelines accompany highways in governor's proposal

January 29, 2002

TONY HARTZEL Transportation Writer

The Dallas Morning News Copyright 2002

Gov. Rick Perry announced a $175 billion blueprint for Texas transportation Monday, calling for 4,000 miles of new toll roads, high-speed rail lines and pipelines to complement the state's aging and congested transportation network.

"This plan is as big as Texas. It's as ambitious as our people," Mr. Perry said, noting that without changes, Texas roads will choke as the state is expected to double its population in 20 years. "I say nothing is too big for Texas when economic security and quality of life are at stake."

His plan, the Trans Texas Corridor , would put an intrastate rail system alongside highways and underground pipelines.

Mr. Perry has emphasized transportation during his re-election campaign. The leading candidates for the Democratic nomination quickly criticized parts of the plan.

Former Attorney General Dan Morales said it could jeopardize the rights of private property owners. "Any concept that calls for using broad swaths of new land should be of concern to all Texans," he said.

Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez said that transportation is critical to Texas but that "we need to be careful not to build new roads over a mountain of debt."

Texas' transportation scenery would change dramatically within 50 years under Mr. Perry's plan, which has limited funding at this point.

The governor said Texas should use an array of recently approved funding methods to pay for the corridor - and not raise taxes. Those methods include public-private toll partnerships, exclusive development agreements and state bond revenue to cover the costs of building roads in undeveloped areas.

Perry aides said that current state plans call for $100 billion in road construction in the next 50 to 75 years. He wants to add $75 billion in new projects.

Texas voters in November approved a constitutional amendment creating the Texas Mobility Fund, which can issue bonds for road projects. That fund cannot be filled with existing federal highway money, so state legislators must dedicate money to it from elsewhere in the state's lean budget.

Transportation policymakers have hoped to be able to set aside $100 million from the state's general fund, an amount that would net $1 billion in bond revenue.

Another funding option allows the state to set aside about $500 million in federal highway funds to spend on joint toll road projects with regional agencies. That option, however, also has not been used. All federal funds for the next few years have been allocated for non-toll road projects.

"The most important angle to view this is not what it's going to cost us, but what is it going to cost us if we don't do it," said State Rep. Clyde Alexander, D-Athens, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "What we have now ain't working."

Priorities for the 2003 legislative session probably will include transportation funding, even in a lean budget cycle. After that debate, dirt could begin flying within three to four years, said State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano.

"The current system is in crisis," said Ms. Shapiro, who believes that the Legislature should look at redistributing its gasoline tax revenue from areas like the Texas Department of Public Safety so that more construction projects are funded. Progress could be seen as early as summer, when the Texas Department of Transportation must offer its initial assessment of the plan. The department also must offer details on how to design and finance the corridors. According to concept drawings, the state would buy 1,000-foot-wide swaths of land that parallel many major highways, offering relief routes around many congested urban areas.

Those swaths would feature three vehicle lanes in each direction, high-speed freight and passenger rail lines, regional commuter and freight lines, and underground pipelines that could carry water, electricity, fiber-optic cables, oil and natural gas.

The pipelines could boost economic development in the state's more rural areas by guaranteeing delivery of utilities to growing areas, according to some supporters.

Rail and pipeline operations could be built, operated and maintained by private groups, but the state would own the land and charge fees to pipeline companies.

Toll roads will be a featured component, but no estimated tolls have been announced. In general, toll roads are funded by investors who buy bonds based on traffic estimates showing the road will generate enough revenue.

Mr. Perry's plan calls for corridors to extend into sparsely populated West Texas and the Panhandle, where traffic is not as intense as in urban areas.

"The high-use corridors will subsidize expansion throughout the state," said Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson, who noted that contractors, bankers and road designers already have expressed an interest in Mr. Perry's initiative.

To many transportation experts, Mr. Perry's plan offers a chance for Texas to focus on more than rush-hour traffic in its urban areas.

"This, I think, is the first time Texas has developed an inter-city, statewide focus," said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. "Clearly, we can't have an incremental, piecemeal approach."

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