Friday, June 28, 2002

Ric Williamson: "I'm pretty sure Mr. Zachry is interested in building some roads."

Trans Texas plan is mapped out

Trans Texas plan set

June 28, 2002

Bob Richter, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2002

San Antonio and South Texas are slated to be on the "priority" routes of an ambitious 4,000-mile statewide network of highway-rail-utility line corridors adopted Thursday by the Texas Transportation Commission.

If Texas ' present transportation system is marked by clogged highways and dirty air, its future could be high-speed rail service or the option of driving 80 mph down a three-lane, truck-free, controlled-access toll road.

The Trans Texas Corridor system, which Gov. Rick Perry unveiled in January, is expected to be largely privately funded at a cost of between $145 billion and $183 billion, and could take 50 years to complete.

Private investors will build the corridors and users will pay for them, according to the plan.

Transportation Commission Chairman John Johnson called it "the most significant thing since the Interstate (highway) system" in the 1950s, and a testament to Perry's vision.

Commissioner Ric Williamson called it "the most entrepreneurial project in the history of the state government."

Conceptual maps of the first four "priority" corridors show an east-west, Orange-to-El Paso corridor running north of San Antonio, one running north and southeast of the city that extends from Denison to Brownsville, and another linking Laredo to Houston.

"The heart of the corridor right now is Denton-San Antonio-Beaumont - that triangle - because that's where the highway congestion and hazardous material is," Williamson told reporters after the commission unanimously approved the plan.

The plan utilizes existing corridors for its four priority routes.

They parallel or incorporate parts of Interstates 35, 37, 10 and 45, and the proposed I-69 routes, one from Denison to Brownsville, the other from Laredo to Texarkana via Houston.

During the layout of the plan, Williamson suggested that the Camino Colombia Toll Road west of Laredo could be extended from there to Corpus Christi and on to Houston.

Because the corridors are massive in size, making land acquisition expensive and troublesome, and because the goal is to get hazardous materials away from population centers while improving urban air quality, the proposed routes largely circumnavigate the state's biggest cities.

Each corridor will be 1,000 feet wide and include:

Separate lanes for passenger vehicles (three in each direction) and trucks (two in each direction).

Six rail lines (three in each direction), one for high-speed passenger rail between cities, one for high-speed freight rail and one for conventional commuter and freight.

A 200-foot-wide utility zone to accommodate large water lines, natural gas and petroleum pipelines and electric and fiber-optic cable lines.

Williamson said the timetable for the four priority corridors is "immediate," adding that the state "absolutely" can turn the proposed I-69 into a toll road if the federal government doesn't provide the $10 billion needed for the 955-mile Texas leg of the project.

"The fact is we have to deal with traffic coming out of Matamoros, Monterrey and Chihuahua and we just can't wait for the federal government."

And, Williamson added, Texas is "woefully unprepared" to deal with Mexican trucks crossing the border at Presidio.

"We're open for business," he said, urging contractors such as the H.B. Zachry Co. of San Antonio to bid on projects.

"I'm pretty sure Mr. Zachry is interested in building some roads," Williamson said. "He's been doing it for 100 years."

While it has "no unsolicited proposals" on the Department of Transportation's table, Zachry will be studying the Trans Texas Corridor plan, the firm's public affairs manager Vicky Waddy said.

Not everyone was uncritical.

Brian Sybert, natural resources director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said environmentalists are concerned about the massive corridors ' impact on wildlife habitat, endangered species and the quality of life in places such as the Hill Country.

"Look at I-35 now. That's not the kind of thing we want spreading throughout the Hill Country," Sybert said.

Perry's opponent in the governor's race, Democrat Tony Sanchez of Laredo, said there was little surprise that three Republican appointees approved Perry's plan. But Sanchez was hesitant to malign a plan he knew little about.

"Before I make any substantive comments about that plan, I want to know all the details and how it will impact the state," he said.

Sanchez said he will have a transportation summit "within two to three weeks," after which he will lay out his own policy.

Williamson, a Perry appointee, addressed other concerns, such as:

Local commuters could receive free toll passes on now-free roadways that are incorporated as corridor toll roads .

Landowners whose land is condemned for corridors could be compensated by receiving a percentage of future toll receipts.

Landowners whose land is split by a corridor would be assured access to both parcels of land by bridges over or tunnels under the corridor .

Multi-modal centers outside cities will link rail and highway passengers from the corridors to the inner cities.

Some changes in state law would be necessary. For example, state law presently would not allow the Texas Department of Transportation or other entities to acquire property by condemnation and then lease it back to private entities for a profit.

© 2002 San Antonio Express-News: