Saturday, June 22, 2002

"I-35 relief route would probably be one of first pieces of the corridor."

State officials preparing for corridor project

June 22, 2002

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

A proposal to build a toll road and a high-speed rail line to relieve Interstate 35 congestion between the Metroplex and San Antonio could be unveiled within weeks, a transportation commission member said.

The Texas Transportation Commission plans to meet today to formally adopt ground rules for the Trans Texas Corridor , which Gov. Rick Perry presented in January as the answer to gridlock on the state's highways and rail lines. The plan calls for the construction of a 4,000-mile web of roads and rails across Texas over 50 years. Much of the estimated $175 billion needed for the project would come from private investment in government-backed debt.

An I-35 relief route would probably be one of first pieces of the corridor - if not the very first - to be built, commission member Ric William-son said. Even so, construction is probably several years away.

Engineers, construction companies and other businesses are forming a coalition to build a road that would connect Fort Worth and Dallas with San Antonio - in anticipation of today's commission meeting, Williamson said. He said he did not know the identities of the businesses, but had been told that they were setting the stage to take immediate advantage of the state's new transportation strategy.

In setting the ground rules, the commission is responding to Perry's directive to find a way to make the Trans Texas Corridor a reality by this summer.

"Generally, it's thought that a proposal will occur shortly after we adopt the rules," Williamson said. "After the governor gave us the charge, I think market forces started working right then."

The idea is to relieve congestion, improve the flow of goods from Mexico and get trucks hauling hazardous materials out of populated areas.

"We're not going to get the chemicals out of downtown Fort Worth and downtown Dallas until we get started," Williamson said.

Although the state may put up seed money and subsidize some components of the plan such as passenger rail, most of the money is expected to come from private investors.

"We're not ever going to get high-speed rail if we don't start now," Williamson said.

The I-35 reliever toll road could begin by incorporating a just-approved Central Texas toll road - Texas 130 - into the corridor plan, Williamson said. That $1 billion project will provide a 90-mile route from Seguin, near San Antonio, to Georgetown, north of Austin. The question would be how to extend the Texas 130 project north to the Fort Worth-Dallas area, then around the Metroplex either to the west or the east or both - similar to the way that I-35 splits to the east and west.

Also, the Texas 130 project would have to be altered to fit rail and utility lines into its design, spokesman Thomas Graham said. As currently designed, the tollway would be four to six lanes wide, without rail.

Graham said officials working on the Central Texas tollway project, which has a primary mission of relieving gridlock, were unfamiliar with the road's possible role in the Trans Texas Corridor .

The corridor would be about three times as wide as a typical freeway, with space for six toll lanes, six rail lines and multiple underground utility lines, according to drawings from the Texas Department of Transportation.

Questions about how to build the corridor are creating a buzz in Austin, where some transportation experts are saying that it will require political leaders statewide to change their philosophy about how state funds are used for highway projects. Additional attention - and highway funding - would have to be diverted from country roads toward urban highways, experts said.

"It begins with the development of a strategy that addresses unabashedly that transportation in the largest urban areas is its priority," David Laney, former commission chairman, told the Senate Committee on State Affairs last week.

By 2025, 60 percent of the state's population will reside in Houston and Fort Worth-Dallas, he told the committee. Those two urban areas account for half the state's population and 70 percent of its new jobs, Laney said. Therefore, fixing the state's clogged highways requires an investment of funds in those areas proportionate to their importance to the state's economy, he said.

Residents of rural areas will be more likely to go along with the concept if they do not have to pay the bill, said Wendell Cox, a consultant with Texas Public Policy Foundation, a watchdog group.

"I think the crucial thing is to make sure the plan remains a private plan, a commercial use plan. We've got to get away from using gas taxes to finance transportation improvements," he said. "If it fails, the people of Texas don't pay the bill.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram: