Friday, June 28, 2002

Ric Williamson: "This is extremely limited access. We will not allow cities and villages to crop up along the route."

New details emergeon Perry's roads plan

State panel endorses project, which would start with four routes

June 28, 2002
Austin American-Statesman

Gov. Rick Perry's election-year plan for huge transportation corridors across Texas would start with four routes connecting Dallas, Houston, El Paso and the Valley and linking to Texas 130 in Central Texas .

Larger toll roads are now part of the plan, with three lanes of traffic in each direction and two separate lanes for trucks. The original idea, broached by Perry in January, didn't call for truck lanes.

And landowners who might lose the property needed for 4,000 miles of corridors 1,000 to 1,200 feet wide got a new offer from the state: They can collect royalty payments from tolls collected in the future if they give up a one-time lump sum for their land.

The new details are part of a kickoff plan for the corridors endorsed Thursday by the Texas Transportation Commission. The project, called the Trans Texas Corridors , combines toll roads, high-speed and conventional freight and passenger rail lines and utility and water pipelines.

Nothing of this scope has been proposed in Texas before, with the commissioners frequently drawing comparisons to the federal interstate highway system.

The 4,000 miles of corridors would criss-cross all of Texas and cost $145.2 billion to $183.5 billion, depending upon land costs.

The four starting routes total 2,188 miles, including the 90-mile Texas 130 toll road that would run east of Interstate 35 from Georgetown to Seguin. The corridors would parallel Interstates 35, 37, 10, 45 and the proposed Interstate 69 through South and East Texas .

But how the state, which can't afford more than 36 percent of the projects it now needs, will pay for all of it is not yet clear. Private money, bonds and some state money would drive the financial plan, as would money from drivers and rail passengers paying to use the corridors .

Toll roads would be built first and would probably begin with the special truck lanes, the state's report said. Roads would have fewer ramps than interstate highways to cut down on development near the corridors .

"This is extremely limited access," said Commissioner Ric Williamson. "We will not allow cities and villages to crop up along the route."

The 50-year plan would be built under an arrangement similar to how Texas 130 will be done, with a consortium of private firms doing most of the work while the state ultimately owns the product. There is no timetable for construction. The state hopes to attract interest in its four priority routes starting in September and begin environmental meetings in January.

"We are open for business," said Steve Simmons, the Transportation Department's deputy executive director.

Money generated by the corridors , through tolls, freight fees and so on, would be used to finish all 4,000 miles, pay for other projects and cover royalty payments to landowners.

Paying property owners royalties for their land has never been done on such a large scale in Texas , although some utility companies now offer those arrangements, Simmons said.

"So landowners in Texas for the first time. . . will be offered the option to own a piece of the ( corridor ) that goes across that land forever if they choose," Williamson said. "This commissioner fully endorses that as a modern approach to acquiring right of way."

Property owners who took that option would face a risk they now don't, said John Johnson, commission chairman.

If a toll road failed to attract enough traffic, the amount of money that landowners could earn would drop accordingly. But, Johnson said, "there's a potential for a huge upside, too."

State law requires a toll road to become a free highway once the debt is paid off. But state officials said Thursday that they do not intend to ever pay off the debt fully and will keep earning money from the roads.

That includes Central Texas ' toll roads, where Texas 130 revenues, for example, could be used to pay for more corridors , officials said.

"We doubt that this will ever stop entirely," Williamson said of charging drivers to use the roads.

But so much work must be done before commuters can start plotting new ways to get to work that the state's biggest battle might be convincing the public the corridors can become a reality. Freight railroad shippers, for example, have not embraced the idea, and Texas -based airlines fought hard against a high-speed rail proposal in the 1990s.

"There is always the side of the skeptic that this is the impossible dream," Johnson said. He argued that Texas can't afford not to try the corridors , given traffic problems felt border to border.

Perry, who has made transportation a prominent part of his campaign, lauded the Transportation Department's report and said it "provides a clear signal that we are moving toward making our roads safer, more efficient and better prepared to handle a growing population."

But Williamson, whom Perry appointed to the three-member commission, said scoring political points wasn't Perry's goal.

"The governor truly does not want this to be part of the campaign," Williamson said. "And you haven't heard any campaigning on this since he laid it out."

Perry's Democratic opponent, Tony Sanchez, spoke about the plan after a health-care summit Thursday, calling the corridors "a massive, massive suggestion."

Sanchez, who said he would have his people take charge of the plan if he is elected, said he'll hold a transportation summit in a few weeks to offer his own proposal.

Sanchez also brushed off the commission's approval, noting that its members are appointed by governors. "I don't know what would happen to them if they didn't endorse it," Sanchez said.

Only Williamson is a Perry appointee; Johnson and Commissioner Robert Nichols were appointed by then-Gov. George W. Bush.; 445-3618

(from box)

What the state proposes

Four priority routes

* Denison to Rio Grande Valley, paralleling Interstate 35 (using Texas 130 through Central Texas ), Interstate 37 and the proposed Interstate 69

* Texarkana to Houston to Laredo, paralleling proposed I-69

* Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston, paralleling Interstate 45

* El Paso to Orange, paralleling Interstate 10

Total: about 2,188 miles

Entire proposal

* 4,000 miles of corridors , 1,000 feet to 1,200 feet wide

* $145.2 billion to $183.5 billion

* 10-lane toll roads: Three lanes for passenger traffic and two lanes for truck traffic in each direction

* Six lines of rail: Two lines of high-speed freight and passenger rail, four lines of conventional freight and passenger rail

* Pipelines: Utility and water pipelines in 200-foot-wide strip; could be leased for agriculture needs initially

Source: Trans Texas Corridors plan, Texas Department of Transportation

Copyright (c) 2002 Austin American-Statesman

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