Tuesday, January 29, 2002

Perry Airs Transit Plan

Perry airs sweeping transit plan

January 29, 2002

BRYON OKADA Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Copyright 2002

Gov. Rick Perry wants Texas to build a $175 billion, 4,000-mile network of toll roads and rail corridors next to current interstates, a major shift in statewide transportation policy.

The proposed Trans Texas Corridor would roughly parallel major highways used for transporting influx of goods generated by the North American Free Trade Agreement. It would consist of six mostly toll lanes; high-speed passenger and freight rail; regional freight and commuter rail; and room underground for water, gas, electric, telecommunication and other utility lines.

Construction of such a network would refocus much of the state's transportation efforts toward travel between and around major cities. It could also be a unifying force between Perry and potential private users of the corridors , such as electric companies, pipeline companies, freight railroads and toll authorities.

"We need a transportation system that meets the needs of tomorrow, not one that struggles to keep up with the needs of yesterday," Perry said. "This plan is as big as Texas and as ambitious as our people, and I think Texans deserve nothing less."

But building a parallel transportation system is also a departure from earlier statements - by Perry and others - associated with new financial tools, such as the Texas Mobility Fund. The fund had been touted as a way to help close the gap between ongoing highway construction needs and funding shortfalls. Officials said they are unsure how much money placed in the Texas Mobility Fund would be devoted to the Trans Texas Corridor plan.

Democrats who are vying to face Perry in the November election suggested that his plan misses the mark.

"I support Gov. Perry's efforts to improve transportation in Texas ," said Democratic candidate Dan Morales, a former state attorney general. "However, any concept that calls for using broad swaths of new land should be of concern to all Texans. There are historic farms and ranches all across our state and any transportation plan should first respect the rights of property owners."

Glenn Smith, who heads the gubernatorial campaign of Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez, said, "His plan doesn't even address the potential $600 million shortfall in federal highway funds. We wish we had more faith that Mr. Perry fully understands his own $175 billion transportation proposal."

Regional transportation officials have been looking for some time at better NAFTA highways, including considering rail to as many routes as possible. At the same time, planners have been trying to devise a system of highways for transporting hazardous materials that avoided busy urban areas. But most of the discussion has focused on transporting freight, not people.

"I think it's a wakening of the state that they need to look out and pay as much attention to intercity travel as the metropolitan planning organizations have paid to urban centers," said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. "Skeptics will say there's too much intercity in the proposal and not enough attention paid to the urban. The only way that will be answered is to see how this is all implemented."

Perry has asked the Texas Transportation Commission to develop an action plan by this summer.

The proposal builds on philosophical shifts within the Texas Department of Transportation, including a plan to eliminate frontage roads from future highway projects. Illustrations of the proposed corridors depict wide highway lanes - minus frontage roads - with rail lines in between. The state would own the right of way.

The pictures suggest that the corridors may be as wide as 1,000 feet. By comparison, Airport Freeway from Northeast Loop 820 through the Texas 183/ Texas 121 split is 350 feet across.

State transportation officials acknowledged that the proposal does not include a method to ensure that a private operator will not simply walk away if the investment proves unprofitable.

"My sense is that this is a very entrepreneurial state and a very entrepreneurial country, and we're going to figure out a way to make commerce work," said Johnny Johnson, chairman of the three-member Texas Transportation Commission. "The operator is going to have funding, probably from private sources from debt or equity or whatever. They're going to be responsible to their investors, and they're going to be compelled to perform."

Republican legislators said Perry's proposal should be given a chance, particularly because it encompasses the entire state and offers details on specific corridors , something state highway plans have never done. Also, they say, the plan will be implemented over 25 years, maybe twice that.

"It's going to take us into the next century," said Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth. "We're going to be prepared to move commerce and move people to develop Texas for the future."

Staff Writer John Moritz contributed to this report

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