Friday, December 17, 2004

Perry: "This is powerful, powerful stuff."

State is on road to new highway era
San Antonio's Zachry Construction tapped for Trans Texas Corridor.

December 17, 2004

Patrick Driscoll, Staff Writer
Copyright 2004

The Texas Transportation Commission selected a construction consortium that includes a San Antonio firm Thursday to build the first leg of the Trans Texas Corridor - launching what officials called the nation's most important highway project since the 1950s.

The group, led by Cintra of Spain, will build and operate the corridor 's first segment of toll roads from Dallas to San Antonio.

Zachry Construction Corp. will partner with Cintra on the 10-year project, the first phase of a 50-year venture promising greater mobility for drivers and profits for the operator.

Cintra will invest $6 billion over the next decade to construct the four-lane toll road and relocate some Union Pacific tracks to the east of San Antonio and Austin.

Toll lanes to the border, high-speed passenger rail between San Antonio and Dallas and new freight tracks from Austin to Dallas are expected to follow sometime after 2025.

"Today's action by the Texas Department of Transportation will go down as one of the most significant days in the history of transportation," said Gov. Rick Perry, who compared the project to the interstate highway system launched during the Eisenhower administration.

The highway department, after signing a contract with Cintra within the next two months, will pay $3.5 million to refine plans over the next year or two - but not a penny more.

In fact, Cintra will pay the state $1.2 billion by 2014 for the right to operate the toll system. And the firm will shoulder the risk of bonds to fund the work.

Perry, who unveiled his dream of the Trans Texas Corridor almost three years ago, joined commissioners as they listened to Cintra officials lay out the terms of the deal.

"We've just seen the future and it is here," he said. "This is powerful, powerful stuff."

But there will be a price to pay for the massive project.

The Trans Texas Corridor is huge and costly. The $184 billion endeavor is eventually supposed to crisscross the state with 4,000 miles of 10-lane highways and rail lines in swaths up to a quarter-mile wide.

Officials will have to charge tolls to finance bonds and pay for operations and maintenance. They'll also have to confiscate farmlands and wildlife areas.

"This is just one of those things that is painful and there's not an awful lot we can do about it," said commission Chairman Ric Williamson.

Motorists now pay from 10 cents to 20 cents a mile to use toll roads in Houston and Dallas, and Cintra says that will be a starting point to decide its fees on the route it will build along Interstate 35.

Cintra will have to rely on traffic congestion on I-35 to drive frustrated motorists to its toll lanes.

As a result, Texas will likely limit expansion of the interstate - probably to six lanes - to ensure a lucrative market for the company.

"They need to have an expectation that they can get a profit," Williamson said. "And we shouldn't be ashamed of that."

Besides, Williamson added, the Transportation Department couldn't afford to do much more on I-35 anyway.

However, the state can use the $1.2 billion rent from Cintra for other projects on or near I-35. Ideas include passenger and freight rail lines, and truck routes to connect the Port of Corpus Christi, the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo.

The first segment of the corridor would link to Texas 130, now under construction, extending it from Lockhart to Seguin east of Austin. Work could start in about a year.

"Get it done so that the people of San Antonio can hook up and get going," Perry said.

Toll lanes along Interstate 10 east of San Antonio and along Southeast Loop 1604 could be completed in 15 years.

The local Alamo Regional Mobility Authority may consider picking up parts of those sections.

"It is something we're gong to have to look at," said Tom Griebel, director of the authority.

Cintra, which competed against Fluor Enterprises Inc. of Sugar Land and Trans Texas Express of Dallas to win the project, is one of the largest toll-road construction companies in the world, currently involved with 17 jobs.

Zachry Construction is a 15 percent partner on the project.

Family-owned Zachry was founded in 1924 in Laredo to build highways but later diversified and moved to San Antonio. Recent work includes Dallas' light-rail system, power plants in Puerto Rico and the rebuilt U.S. embassy in Moscow.

Transportation Commissioner Hope Andrade of San Antonio said a new age has dawned in Texas .

"We've certainly proven that TxDOT has a new way of doing business," she said. "The governor has made Texas proud, and we appreciate his vision."
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