Thursday, October 10, 2002

"Central Texas Transportation Corridor" Chilled by Publicity

Bidders say publicity chills toll highway plan

$10 billion project stalls

October 10, 2002
W. Gardner Selby Austin Bureau
Copyright 2002

Contractors who bid this summer to build and operate an unprecedented $10 billion transportation project with a toll road linking Dallas to San Antonio say the project has stalled because the proposal became public.

"We understood the program was to be kept confidential," said Michael Lawson, a California spokesman for Granite Construction Company, lead bidder on the project.

A Granite representative told the Texas Department of Transportation this week it would not answer follow-up questions on its proposal unless secrecy can be assured.

Steven Simmons, the agency's deputy executive director, said the proposal's release to the Express-News also chilled contractors drafting other unsolicited proposals to build transportation projects in keeping with a 50-year plan unveiled by Gov. Rick Perry early this year.

The agency publicized the proposal's scope in July, but did not disclose bidding firms or details.

At the time, Perry and Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson called the proposal encouraging proof that private interests would fulfill Perry's Trans Texas Corridor plan.

Perry's plan envisions contractors building 4,000 miles of toll roads and rail lines across Texas at an estimated cost of $145 billion to $183 billion.

Williamson predicted additional unsolicited bids to connect northern Harris County to Fort Worth and Laredo to Corpus Christi and Houston.

Simmons said none have been submitted.

"We truly expected to have three or four more proposals to come in until the open records ruling came in," Simmons said.

The bids are subject to release under the Texas Public Information Act, according to agency rules. But the rules, adopted in June, also permit a bidder who has concerns about information it considers a "trade secret, proprietary information or other information excepted from disclosure to specifically and conspicuously designate that information as such in its proposal."

The Express-News, which requested a copy of the Dallas-to-San Antonio bid July 9, received the 49-page proposal from the department late Tuesday after Attorney General John Cornyn's office ruled it a public record Sept. 30.

The proposal identifies the bidders as Granite Construction; Williams Brothers Construction Co., the state's largest highway contractor; and J.D. Abrams. The firms proposed the 340-mile project on behalf of a joint venture dubbed the Texas Mobility Alliance.

The so-called Central Texas Transportation Corridor would extend north to Dallas and south to Pearsall in Frio County from Texas 130, a project already planned parallel to I-35 from north of Georgetown to Seguin. A 49-mile segment of Texas 130 extending from Georgetown to Mustang Ridge southeast of Austin is slated for completion by the end of 2007.

The proposed corridor , which the alliance suggests building in eight segments, would cross I-37 south of San Antonio and include a 20-mile link to KellyUSA, an industrial park on the site of the now-closed Kelly AFB.

According to the proposal, two to three tolled highway lanes would run in each direction, with two rail lines within the median and two 100-foot wide utility corridors on each side. The alliance proposes to run the completed corridor for 40 years, after which it would negotiate another contract or turn it over to the agency.

The proposal does not specify how the alliance would come up with design and construction dollars except to estimate tolls would cover 12.5 percent of the total. A timeline for completing the work also is not included.

On Aug. 8, the agency asked for a more detailed description of the project and staffing and financial plans before potentially opening the bidding to other firms. The alliance replied that without assured confidentiality, it will provide no information.

In seeking Cornyn's ruling on the Express-News' request to make the proposal public, the agency said doing so would restrict the agency's ability to field other unsolicited transportation proposals. The department also said bidding firms would be giving up a "trade secret" if the proposal became public.

Mark Cannan, a San Antonio lawyer for the newspaper, replied that nothing in the agency's request for the open records ruling "would justify complete secrecy and anonymity."

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