Tuesday, July 09, 2002

"We can build this, and you are going to see some of it pretty quick."

Statewide corridor plan picks up speed

First building proposal arrives for Perry's transportation network


July 9, 2002
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2002

The state has its first customers for a program to build toll road, railroad and pipeline corridors from border to border.

A group of private firms on Monday submitted the first proposal to build one of the so-called Trans Texas Corridors , a planned 4,000-mile network 1,000 to 1,200 feet wide across the state.

The consortium proposes building a 250-mile corridor paralleling Interstate 35 from the Texas -Oklahoma border east of Dallas into Central Texas via the planned Texas 130 toll road east of I-35. The corridor would end south of San Antonio.

That roughly matches one of the state's four priority routes sketched out two weeks ago, although it ends shy of Laredo or the Rio Grande Valley, where state officials want corridors built.

Special highway lanes for trucks, passenger and freight rail lines and pipelines would need to be added near Texas 130 for the Dallas-San Antonio corridor to match the state's vision. Construction of the first 50 miles of Texas 130 is expected to begin in early 2003 and finish by December 2007.

The corridors would follow Texas 130's model, with private firms building a project the state will own, but how the state will pay for the corridors has not been specified.

Gov. Rick Perry, who proposed the corridors while campaigning for election this fall, announced the construction plan in a cargo warehouse at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, near the planned Texas 130 route. He was joined by several Central Texas politicians and Robert Nichols, one of three Transportation Commission members.

"We can build this, and you are going to see some of it pretty quick," Nichols said.

The governor also announced that the state will set aside $10 million in discretionary transportation money to help start regional mobility authorities, bodies that eventually could issue bonds to build toll roads.

The first authority is expected to form in Williamson and Travis counties, which would receive an unspecified amount of money for environmental, traffic and other studies needed for construction to start on a project.

"We are going to help them and make sure they get off to a good start because it is going to be a model for elsewhere," Nichols said.

Regional mobility authorities would be in charge of such projects as a toll road segment of U.S. 183 but not the statewide corridors . Those would mirror Texas 130's contract, which allows firms to begin work while engineers are finishing designs on the remainder of a project, thereby speeding up construction.

The identity of the consortium behind Monday's proposal is being kept secret by the state until the transportation commissioners decide whether to pursue the proposal. Other firms could compete to build the same corridor if the state pursues the idea, leaving the state to pick the winning team.

The consortium "includes three major, well-recognized highway constructors, two very large engineering firms and a recognized financial team," Nichols said.

Sources familiar with the proposal said two of the firms are Granite Construction Inc. and J.D. Abrams Inc., which were part of a consortium that narrowly lost the Texas 130 contract this year. Austin-based J.D. Abrams already holds the most expensive contract in Central Texas , for the $88 million interchange at I-35 and Ben White Boulevard.

The state is expecting proposals soon to build some of the other corridors , Perry said.

All 4,000 miles would cost between $145.2 billion and $183.5 billion and take 50 years to complete. The four priority routes parallel Interstates 35, 37, 10, 45 and the proposed Interstate 69 through South and East Texas .

Perry said he expects that private firms will help pay for the corridors . State money, bonds and tolls also would factor in.

The state also plans to use a statewide mobility fund that voters approved in November, although it doesn't have any money in it, as campaign officials for Perry's Democratic opponent, Tony Sanchez, noted.

"This monster proposal is either going to be paid for by brand-new toll fees or old-fashioned tax hikes, and Rick owes Texans a detailed explanation -- no smoke, no mirrors," Sanchez spokesman Mark Sanders said.

kdaniel@statesman.com; 445-3618

Copyright (c) 2002 Austin American-Statesman

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