Tuesday, January 29, 2002

"Plan is skewed toward 'special-interest contributors' in the road-building business."

Toll roads, rail drive Perry's transportation plan

Ken Herman American-Statesman Staff

January 29, 2002
Austin American-Statesman Copyright 2002

Gov. Rick Perry, eager to find a signature issue to ride into the November election, on Monday proposed a massive statewide transportation project that would use a network of toll roads, rails and utility lines to keep Texas moving over the next 50 years.

The " Trans -Texas Corridor " plan, which includes state acquisition of more than 4,000 miles of right of way as wide as 1,200 feet -- or four football fields -- carries a projected price tag of about $175 billion.

Current, more traditional plans -- for highways only -- call for spending as much as $100 billion over the next 75 years.

One of the first corridors would be Texas 130, the planned $1 billion alternative route to Interstate 35 in Central Texas .

Perry insisted the corridor plan, leaning heavily on private investment and tolls, could be completed without tax increases.

"The more important question for all of us in this state is how much it is going to cost us if we do nothing and we continue to build on the same corridors and expand those same corridors and continue to transport hazardous materials through our city centers," he said.

Perry, who became governor in 2000 when George W. Bush resigned to become president, faces election to a full four-year term in November. In focusing on transportation, Perry believes he is hitting an issue that touches all Texans.

The ambitious plan would ride on financing through a variety of public-private partnership options already approved by lawmakers, including public or private entities that want to develop portions of the corridor system, state money leveraged by tolls and regional authorities. Perry also said money from the newly created Texas Mobility Fund could be used. The Legislature and voters approved that concept last year, but lawmakers put no money into it, something Perry hopes they will take care of in 2003.

Perry gave the Texas Department of Transportation until this summer to flesh out specific proposals.

The governor offered the financing options as bullet-proof, leaning heavily on private investment from companies that see potentially profitable ventures in which they would operate highways, rail lines and pipelines and other utility lines on state-owned land.

But Perry quickly drew political fire. Texas Democratic Party Chairwoman Molly Beth Malcolm said the plan is skewed toward "special-interest contributors" in the road-building business.

"Perry's intentions sound good on the surface, but the road he's paving could lead to more fiscal troubles, higher taxes and runaway debt," she said.

Perry said the financial risks would be borne by the private entities that get involved in the projects. He said the state would not back any debt incurred by private developers.

The major Democratic gubernatorial candidates moved quickly to cast doubt on the plan. Former Attorney General Dan Morales said it's a worthy effort gone bad.

"Any concept that calls for using broad swaths of new land should be of concern to all Texans," he said. "There are historic farms and ranches all across our state, and any transportation plan should first respect the rights of property owners."

Morales said the first effort should be to "increase the capacity of existing roadbeds" and build high-speed rail along interstate highway corridors .

Perry said he is "always sensitive to the concerns of rural property owners" but said the corridor system would be welcomed as "a new lifeline for our more rural communities." Under the plan, the state could use its eminent-domain power to acquire land needed for the projects. Private entities involved in the projects would not have that power, Perry said.

Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez, the other major Democratic gubernatorial contender, raised a red flag about building new roads "over a mountain of debt."

"We wish we had more faith that Mr. Perry fully understands his own $175 billion transportation proposal," said Glenn Smith, Sanchez's campaign manager.

A key part of Perry's plan -- intercity and commuter rail along the corridor -- got an immediate thumbs-down from Southwest Airlines, which mounted a courthouse battle in the early 1990s against a previous high-speed rail plan that could have competed with the Dallas-based airline.

Perry said Texas -based airlines might be interested in getting into the rail business.

"These are business people who understand how to make money," he said. "I think they will seize the opportunity to come and be a partner. They are in the people-moving business."

But Southwest Airlines spokesman Ed Stewart said the plan is a non-starter for his company.

"It's a losing proposition," he said, adding that Southwest would battle any plan that offers government money to a competitor. "We just don't want to compete against the government." Ric Williamson, a Perry appointee to the Texas Transportation Commission, defied opponents to come up with another way to meet the state's mobility needs.

"How many more 10-lane (highways) do you want in downtown Austin? What do you want me to tear up, the State Cemetery or the (Erwin Center)?" he said.

You may contact Ken Herman at kherman@statesman.com or (512) 445-1718.

Trans -Texas Corrdor plan

Gov. Rick Perryis proposing building 4,000 miles of roads, rails and utility lines in Texas . The plan, estimated to cost $175 million, would take up a wide swath of land to allow for construction of the highway as well as high-speed freight and passengre rail and a regional commuter rail. Land would be set aside in the corridor for utility lines to carry anything from telecommunications infrastructure to gas and oil pipelines.

Financing options:

* Exclusive development agreements:

Private companies would contract with the state to construct, operate, maintain and/or finance a project. Competing groups would submit proposals to the Texas Transportation Commission.

* Toll equity

State highway money can be combined with other services to construct toll roads. The state would get a negotiated portion of the toll payments.

* Regional mobility authorities:

Entities initiated on the local level could build, operate and maintain toll projects.

*Texas Mobility Fund:

Approved last year by Texas lawmakers and voters. The fund allows the Texas Transportation Commission to issue bonds. The Legislature has not appropriated any money for the fund.

Source: Texas Department of Transportation

Copyright (c) 2002 Austin American-Statesman

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