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.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram:


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

Austin American-Statesman:


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: