Thursday, December 16, 2004

"Designing a highway with a meat cleaver."

Toll corridor vote is set for today

Texas panel poised to strike a deal to begin Interstate 35 parallel.

December 16, 2004

Patrick Driscoll and W. Gardner Selby, Staff Writers
Copyright 2004

It could be a landmark day for the Trans Texas Corridor - a 50-year project hailed by some as a cutting-edge transportation vision and criticized by others as a meat-cleaver approach to traffic woes.

The Texas Transportation Commission is poised to strike a deal today with a consortium that will build and operate the toll corridor 's first segment, an 800-mile stretch paralleling Interstate 35 from Mexico to Oklahoma.

The decision is shadowed by questions and opposition that has swelled in recent months, while companies linked to two of the three consortiums competing for the project are dealing with controversies outside Texas .

"Right now you've got the majority of the central part of Texas up in arms because they woke up to what was going on," said Bill Blaydes, a Dallas city councilman who's helping lead a coalition of cities worried about traffic being siphoned off I-35.

But highway commissioners are ready to push forward with Gov. Rick Perry's futuristic plan to crisscross the state with 4,000 miles of superhighways and railroad lines to speed up traffic, skirt congested urban areas and pump more money into the economy.

"It could be the most important economic development decision the department will make in its history," Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said of the vote.

The statewide network would be built in pieces over the next half-century as warranted by traffic, using $184 billion in private and public funds, officials say. Each corridor would have six car lanes, four truck lanes, six rail lines for freight and passengers, and a utility zone for water and gas lines.

As much of the rest of the world twiddles with traffic problems, the Trans Texas Corridor has helped put the state at the forefront of transportation efforts, said Wendell Cox, a St. Louis-based consultant known for his advocacy of roads and attacks against passenger rail.

"You people have an awful lot to be proud of," he said. "It is only in Texas where they are not fiddling while Rome burns."

But a disparate collection of critics, from tree lovers to cotton farmers, hold various opinions about Perry's plan. Many say it's ambitious but flawed, while others see little merit.

"It's hare-brained," said Dick Kallerman, an Austin resident who serves as the transportation point man for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. "It's designing a highway with a meat cleaver."

Environmentalists suspect rising gas prices and a peak in world oil production would thin the traffic needed to support so many toll lanes. Also, the nearly quarter-mile-wide corridors likely would run through sensitive natural areas.

Texas Farm Bureau members voted last week to oppose the corridor project, fearing the loss of crop and grazing lands, damage to wildlife and hunting areas, the slicing up of farms and a lack of highway exits to keep traffic and money flowing to rural towns.

Even Perry's Texas Republican Party came out against the plan over concerns about property rights and state sovereignty.

San Antonio leaders, with KellyUSA and the planned Toyota plant in mind, don't want to be left withering too far from the newest vine.

They've asked the state to wrap the corridor 's lanes into Interstate 10 on the East Side and into Loop 1604 and I-35 on the South Side.

"We want to make sure it's built to be the most user friendly to San Antonio," said Vic Boyer, director of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition.

Precise routes haven't been chosen, but there's plenty of time to work out details, state officials say.

Meanwhile, supporters say the fact that three groups are vying to build and operate the toll lanes and rail lines for the leg alongside I-35 helps prove the plan is feasible.

"The need exists," Commissioner Robert Nichols said. "It will be built."

All the bidders pulled together well-balanced groups of international companies, said Peter Samuel, editor of Maryland-based Tollroads News.

"All three of them could do the job," he said. "The selection is going to revolve around the price and what they're offering to do."

Companies linked to two of the groups have been criticized on other projects.

Cintra, based in Spain, is under investigation in Ontario for its management of the 67-mile 407 Electronic Toll Road.

Motorists complained of overbilling and slow responses to concerns. Also, the province's government failed this year in a court attempt to roll back toll rates.

"Most of these complaints are from years ago," 407 spokesman Dale Albers said.

Albers, noting the group paid $3.1 billion in Canadian dollars for the concession in 1999, said tolls have increased along with growing use of the road.

"It's absurd we would price ourselves out of the market and charge more than customers are willing to bear," he said.

Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas Inc., part of a group led by Fluor Enterprises Inc. of Sugar Land, is under fire in Boston for its role as the lead contractor with the Bechtel Group in the Big Dig highway project.

Since September, authorities there have complained of hundreds of leaks in a highway tunnel connecting a turnpike to Logan International Airport.

The other consortium competing for the I-35 parallel corridor is led by Dallas-based Trans Texas Express, which incorporated last year.

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