Friday, February 01, 2002

"What Perry was up to was not only big, but was achieved virtually under the radar at the time."

Transportation, Texas-style: Perry lays out super-corridors plan


by James A. Cooley

The Lone Star Report
Volume 6, Issue 20
Copyright 2002

Gov. Rick Perry had a rookie legislative session characterized by critics as lackluster and leaderless. Texas Monthly deemed the governor to have been mere “furniture” regarding his apparent lack of involvement.

However, Perry may have been a bit busier than was recognized at the time. It seems he was quietly and methodically pushing through the separate pieces of a package that – when assembled later – represented a fundamental shift in Texas transportation policy.

What Perry was up to was not only big, but was achieved virtually under the radar at the time. More significantly, the full details of the plan were not released as an election-year trial balloon by Perry, but presented as a done deal already moving towards implementation by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and its commissioners.

What Perry unveiled at a well-attended Jan. 28 press conference was the creation of a statewide system of what can best be described as super-corridors for transporting everything from vehicles to electricity.

These corridors would include six lanes of traffic; six rail lines carrying long and short-haul freight, as well as high-speed passenger traffic; and everything from petroleum pipelines to high-voltage power lines, thanks to utility easements.

The routes would connect all the state’s major metropolitan areas, but would not be constructed through them. The goal is to move the truck traffic, pollution, and hazardous materials out of Texas’ downtowns and densely populated areas.

Everything about the plan is massive. The right-of-ways needed would be anywhere from 1,000-1,200 feet wide. The cost of the entire system is projected to be $175 billion over the next 50 years. Once completed, roughly 4,000 miles of new corridors will be in place. The long-range plans call for being able to expand the corridors both into Mexico and neighboring states.

The key to the Perry plan is for the creation of public-private ventures that would construct these corridors as toll roads. The state would own the right-of-ways and might contribute a portion of the project’s costs under the new “toll equity” authorization approved by Texas voters last November. In exchange for putting up some money, limited to $500 million annually, the state would receive a percentage of the toll revenues.

Priority in construction would likely go to those corridors with the best cash-flow potential. One likely candidate for conversion is the SH 130 project in Central Texas.

Local government units would probably form partnerships as Regional Mobility Authorities (RMAs) to construct these projects. These RMAs would be modeled after the successful Houston and Dallas toll road authorities.

Perry stressed that those constructing the projects would hold all of the debt for these project and the state would not expose itself in any way.

Despite this, both Texas Democratic Party Chairman Molly Beth Malcolm and gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez issued statements warning of higher taxes and huge debt.

Malcolm further said Perry was actually recycling ideas originally proposed by former Democratic Comptroller John Sharp . The hidden impetus for Perry’s corridors plan was, to Malcolm, “that Perry has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from contractors lobbying for highway contracts in Texas.”

Perry and the plan’s supporters counter that a higher long-term cost would be exacted from either doing nothing or merely doing more of the same. There was simply not enough room to expand existing roadbeds through the heart of densely populated areas.

TxDOT Commissioner Ric Williamson said that he just couldn’t do a 10 lane-wide IH-35 running through downtown Austin. “Do I tear up the State Cemetery or the Drum (Frank Erwin Center)?” he asked reporters.

More important, the corridor supporters argue that the state will be unable to attain compliance with federal clean air laws by continuing to funnel ever-growing traffic through urban areas. The long haul traffic needed to be kept separate as much as possible, especially the heavy trucks that came with the NAFTA treaty.

Williamson saw other environmental benefits. Pointing to Austin’s Longhorn pipeline controversy, he saw a time when these private pipelines through neighborhoods would be replaced by the safer alternative of the super-corridors.

The larger goal was eventually combining as much as possible of the scattered public and private right-of-ways and easements together into the new state-owned super-corridors right-of-ways.

Perry and the plan’s supporters were prepared with responses for the critics. While acknowledging that toll roads would be greatly expanded, Perry said the existing free alternatives would remain and be improved. Williamson pointed to motor fuels taxes as a revenue source facing long-term decline, thus making it imperative that the state move to other funding methods.

Team Perry noted that the corridors would be built only if those moving people and goods decided that having these express transportation routes was worth paying for directly via tolls. As such, it was a voluntary system.

Yes, rural landowners would face an intrusion. But, the tradeoff was the economic opportunities that improved access to transportation and other commodities moving through the corridors would bring. It was pointed out that water – a rural necessity – could also be moved along these same routes.

Perry urged the airline industry to look at partnering on the ground transportation options, such as high-speed rail, and making some money on it. However, his invitation received a cool response.

“It’s a losing proposition,” Southwest Airlines spokesman Ed Stewart told the Austin American-Statesman .

While critics got in their licks, the plan drew quick praise from others. The Texas Public Policy Foundation hailed it as both “ambitious and visionary.” Meanwhile, Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano), who authored much of the plan’s enabling legislation, endorsed it as something that “meets the needs of tomorrow” through a “dynamic shift” in policy.

TxDOT will be releasing a report within 90 days that will contain a detailed action plan for implementing the super-corridors plan. This report is likely to be a popular read at the Capitol. O

The Lone Star Report:

For more on Perry's 2001 stealth Propositions [CLICK HERE]