Wednesday, March 17, 2004

"Streamlining the process and leaving us out, I don't think is in the best interests of Texas."

U.S. agency to speed up corridor plan

March 16, 2004

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2004

The federal government wants to help Texas speed up construction of a toll road and high-speed rail line connecting the Metroplex to San Antonio.

The Interstate 35 bypass is being selected as a special, experimental project, a federal designation that clears the way for the segment of the Trans Texas Corridor to be built without the usual environmental or bidding restrictions that often add years to a project, officials said Monday.

Critics say those shortcuts could endanger Texas ' ecology and give the public less opportunity to have a say in the project. But supporters say the usual regulations are unnecessarily cumbersome and outdated.

Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters will formally announce the federal designation during a news conference this morning in Austin.

The North Texas -to-San Antonio segment of the corridor would ultimately be expanded from Oklahoma to the Mexico border. It would offer freight movers and other travelers the ability to move at top speeds via automobile or train, without fear of traffic congestion -- as long as they were willing to pay a little extra.

"With the Trans Texas Corridor plan, Texas offers a bold concept for surface transportation that can provide a model for other states to follow," Peters said Monday during a state Senate committee hearing.

She said the federal agency's goal is to encourage other states to look at alternative methods of paying for roads, including toll roads, and to enter into road-building partnerships with private companies.

The corridor plan includes the construction of 4,000 miles of toll roads, huge utility lines and bullet-style train tracks over the next 50 years. The estimated cost is at least $175 billion, most of which would be funded by bonds sold to private investors.

Sections of the North Texas -to-Mexico road that would run just southeast of Fort Worth would be the first part of the corridor built. They could be completed 10 to 12 years sooner than originally projected because of the new federal designation, said Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford.

Three consortiums of construction companies have submitted secret bids to build the first leg of the corridor , roughly paralleling I-35 from east of San Antonio to just south of Hillsboro. The precise route will not be known until the proposals are unveiled later this year or in early 2005, Williamson said.

The commission is expected to select a winner by late 2005, and construction could begin shortly thereafter, with different segments of the corridor being simultaneously built, designed or under environmental study. Those phases typically had to be performed separately -- for example, construction of a highway could not begin until after an environmental study of the entire stretch of road was completed.

Under the streamlined process, public hearings would still be conducted, but they would not have to be completed before work started.

Critics say speeding up the review process would be dangerous to Texas ' ecology and make it more difficult for the public to comment on a project until it's too late to stop it.

"Taxpayers are going to be put into billions of dollars of debt," said Linda Stall, who lives in the southeast Texas city of Fayetteville and has begun an anti- Trans Texas Corridor campaign known as

"Streamlining the process and leaving us out, I don't think is in the best interests of Texas ," she said.

Staff Writer John Moritz Contributed to This Report.

ONLINE: Federal Highway Administration,

Texas Department of Transportation,

Anti- Trans Texas Corridor forum,

Gordon Dickson, (817) 685-3816

Fort Worth Star-Telegram: