Friday, June 28, 2002

"We're open for business."

Corridor plan gets go-ahead

June 28, 2002

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Copyright 2002

Proclaiming the Trans Texas Corridor open for business, state officials on Thursday outlined a plan to build toll roads and high-speed rail lines that would bypass the Metroplex and other major Texas cities - possibly within 10 years.

A pair of bypasses - to alleviate traffic on Interstates 35 and 45 - were two of four routes identified as priorities for the plan. Other corridors receiving top priority would go from Texarkana to Laredo, and from El Paso to Orange.

The corridor plan, endorsed by the Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday, calls for the construction of privately funded toll roads with separate lanes for trucks and passenger vehicles. The corridors , which would be about three times as wide as a typical freeway, would also include rail lines capable of carrying trains 200 mph, and an abundance of underground space for water pipes, electrical lines, fiber-optics and other utilities.

Texas Department of Transportation officials said they hope to have proposals within weeks from businesses willing to develop portions of the corridor .

An environmental review of the four priority roads will begin in January.

"We're open for business, and we'll accept any of your ideas," said Steve Simmons, deputy executive director of the department.

The corridor plan would cost an estimated $183.5 billion over 50 years, with much of the money coming from investors who buy government-backed bonds. An unspecified amount of seed money for the plan is also expected to be part of Gov. Rick Perry's proposed budget in the 2003 legislative session.

From Fort Worth, access to the futuristic corridor most likely would be near Weatherford and Hillsboro, according to conceptual drawings on file with the state. However, officials said the corridor paths would not be established until public hearings could be held in the affected communities.

Once on the corridor , motorists could travel possibly up to 80 mph unimpeded to the U.S.-Mexican border or the Gulf Coast shipping channel, according to design plans. They would stop only to pay tolls, but even that wouldn't be necessary if they had toll readers affixed to their windshields, officials said.

For the most part, rural land would be purchased by the state for right of way. Property owners would be encouraged to accept royalties from toll booths in lieu of cash for their land, and farmers would be allowed to continue to use the land until it was needed for the corridor .

The plan depends largely upon private investors to pay for the roads, rail lines and utility lines. A coalition of engineers, construction companies and other private interests is expected to make the Metroplex-to-San Antonio portion of the corridor one of the first pieces to be built.

The portion of the corridor designed to relieve traffic congestion on Interstate 45 essentially would cut across the state from north Houston to Weatherford. The portion designed to alleviate congestion on I-35 would essentially connect Denison with Brownsville.

Those roads would form an X shape intersecting between Hillsboro and Corsicana, creating a ring around the Metroplex similar to the I-35E/I-35W split - but much wider.

The plan calls for the state Department of Transportation to create a central office overseeing the Trans Texas Corridor by August, so the state can begin marketing the plan to affected communities by September.

After the environmental review in January, the state would begin acquiring right of way.

Despite the state's aggressive timetable for getting started on the corridor , several legal hurdles would have to be addressed in the 2003 legislative session. Among the issues:

* Start-up funding is needed in the Texas Mobility Fund. Officials have not said how much initial investment is needed, but they have said that the corridor plan could take up resources that had been earmarked for future construction. Highways already funded would not be affected by the plan.

* The Transportation Department has authority to acquire right of way for new highways, but not rail lines or utilities. The department's powers will have to be expanded so the corridor can be built as advertised.

Despite the obstacles, getting the commission to adopt the corridor plan and get to work on it before the legislative session helps make it less of a political issue, Commissioner Ric Williamson said.

Perry, a Republican who faces Democrat Tony Sanchez in the governor's race, has made transportation a high-profile issue in his campaign, but he does not want the Trans Texas Corridor to be viewed as a partisan plan, Williamson said.

"He wanted it to become policy as opposed to politics, and that's one of the reasons he asked us to move so fast," said Williamson, who is a close associate of the governor.

Sanchez, who is working on his own transportation plan, has vowed to scrutinize Perry's plan if elected. Sanchez said he would take a close look at plan "to make sure we're headed down the right road."

"It is a massive, massive suggestion. I have no idea what the details are here," Sanchez said. "Before I make any substantive comments on that plan, I want to know all the details and how it would impact the state."

Commission members applauded the flexibility of the plan, which also encourages local governments to form regional mobility authorities to raise money for local portions of the corridor .

"In my five years on the commission, this is the most exciting long-term issue for the state," Commissioner Robert Nichols said. "The only thing I can compare to this is the interstate highway system conceived 50 years ago."

Staff writer Jay Root contributed to this report.

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