Sunday, July 14, 2002

First segment of Trans-Texas Corridor gets secret bid

Is this plan on road to nowhere?

July 14, 2002

Lynnell Burkett
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2002

Sometimes it's difficult to decide whether an idea is cockeyed crazy or visionary. That's exactly my dilemma with Gov. Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor plan.

Perry announced the plan for a $175 billion, 4,000-mile network of toll roads and rail corridors in January; not surprisingly, the Texas Transportation Commission, with its three Republican appointees, approved it. Touted as the largest public works project ever proposed for Texas , it's even more ambitious than Texas ' share of the Interstate Highway System.

Obviously, the project is timed to make a major campaign splash as Perry seeks election to the seat that he inherited from Gov. George W. Bush. His opponent, Tony Sanchez, is scrambling, promising an upcoming transportation summit to settle on a plan of his own. He's also promising a critique of Perry's plan when he understands it better.

By the time the plan got to the state's transportation commission, it had grown. Instead of three lanes of highways in each direction along the corridors , it would have five - three for cars, two for trucks - although the cost had not increased proportionally. That's along with six rail lines, for high speed and conventional passenger and freight trains.

The plan also includes underground space for water pipes, electrical lines, fiber-optics and other utilities.

So, how would it be financed, given that the state already has more highway projects than it can afford - and nothing allocated for rail?

These are to be toll roads, privately financed, then paid for by those who travel them. We've heard of toll roads for cars, but I'm not sure exactly how that works for the rail lines.

Just last week, Perry announced that the Texas Department of Transportation has received its first bid to build a segment of the project - a 250-mile section to connect the Dallas-Fort Worth area with San Antonio.

But, the consortium submitting the bid is a secret - yep, that's right.

No one will know who the bidders are until a bid is selected by the TxDOT commissioners, Perry said, to avoid the appearance of political favoritism. The commissioners will learn who has received the bid only after they have made their decision.

But the award is not based on low bid; it's based on best value. I'm not clear how a bid worth millions (and using government-backed debt for construction money) can be awarded blindly.

What really caught my eye in the map this newspaper ran showing the four corridors across the state was that none of them ran anywhere near the state's urban centers.

In other words, they didn't end up anywhere anyone might want to go - except outside the state. If the purpose is to enable people passing through Texas to escape its metro areas, this works. If the purpose is to help reach Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin or San Antonio, then how?

That's to avoid traffic congestion and air pollution. Well, it appears to succeed.

But the whole point of rail travel, and much highway travel, is to move swiftly from one urban center to the next. It wouldn't be that helpful to travel 30 miles from San Antonio to hop a train or toll road to Dallas, then repeat the process near Dallas.

And what about sprawl? If the corridors don't connect with major cities, won't areas grow up around their connectors to major urban areas?

I'm told there will be few exits - not at all like current freeways, where you can hop off at a Wendy's or Burger King every few miles.

But is that a good thing? It might help with sprawl. But do we want people whipping through the state rather than stopping along the way? Yes, that would avoid sprawl but at what cost?

Am I the only one with these questions? I'll try to get some answers in the coming weeks.

I hope this is visionary - but my hunch says otherwise.

© 2002 San Antonio Express-News: