Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Waiver allows contractor to begin designing and building sections of TTC I-35 before getting environmental clearance

A green light for Perry's I-35 corridor

Federal agency likely to waive regulations today to speed project planning, construction

Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

Uncle Sam is expected to clear a significant regulatory roadblock for Gov. Rick's Perry dream of 4,000 new miles of Texas roads and rail today, granting a state request to waive a number of federal regulations for the Interstate 35 corridor .

Mary Peters, administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, will join Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, at a midday Capitol news conference where she is expected to grant the waivers requested late last year by the Texas Department of Transportation.

The state, in its Dec. 5 letter to the federal agency, asked for seven highly technical deviations from federal rules for what it called the I-35 High Priority Trans Texas Corridor .

Essentially, this 1,200-foot-wide mix of 10-lane turnpikes, railroad tracks and utilities would run from Denison, near the Oklahoma border, to both Laredo and Brownsville after a fork south of San Antonio.

That road is the farthest along in planning; several other corridors crisscrossing the state have been proposed.

The waiver would allow the state to hire a contractor to design and build sections of the project before completing the process of getting environmental clearance or even setting the specific route.

The contractor would help prepare those environmental documents and become a partner with the state from the beginning of the corridor project.

Federal rules require the state to complete the environmental review of an entire project and get federal approval before hiring someone.

For the corridor project, and in this case a segment more than 600 miles long, following the rules would mean extensive delay, state officials said Monday.

"If we have to do the environmental review from point A to point B before you can start the rest, it's going to take too long," said Amadeo Saenz, assistant executive director for engineering operations at the state Transportation Department. "This will give us some flexibility to develop the corridor ."

Perry proposed the massive network of transportation alleys during the 2002 election campaign.

The price tag is estimated at more than $180 billion, more than 30 years of the state Transportation Department's current budget.

The corridor plan has moved through its early stages mostly below the radar. But spurred by an unsolicited proposal in late 2002 by a consortium led by Fluor Corp., the state has sought preliminary bids.

Three partnerships, including the Fluor group, are ready to begin the next stage of the bidding process.

With the waiver in hand, the state probably will solicit more detailed proposals and hopes to hire a contractor by a year from now.

It's unclear when, or even if, this process will lead to actual earth-moving and new roads.

But state officials say they are committed to the decades-long project and will find a way to combine federal, state and private money to get it built.

Although Peters stopped short of confirming her intentions Monday -- "I would prefer to talk to the members of the (Transportation) Commission and give them the news first," she said -- she made it clear in testimony Monday before the Texas Senate Finance Committee that she's here from Washington to help.

"Texas ' vision for a new approach to infrastructure construction and finance has challenged our traditional oversight methods," Peters told the senators, "and we are in the process of re-examining how we manage large public-private projects. Because we do want to encourage such great dreams and bold risk-taking."

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

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