Friday, March 19, 2004

Bush throws support to tolling interstates and "environmental streamlining."

ISSUES IN-DEPTH: Texas lawmakers pay attention to federal transportation debate

March 19, 2004

by James A. Cooley

The Lone Star Report
Volume 8, Issue 28
Copyright 2004

Chairman Steve Ogden’s (R-College Station) Senate Finance Committee got an inside peek March 15 at congressional negotiations over the federal transportation bill.

Both U.S. Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-TX) and Federal Highway Administrator Mary E. Peters came by to testify.

Burgess, sole Texas Republican member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is deeply involved in discussions to reconcile the differences between House and Senate versions of the bill. Time is of the essence, as the existing Transportation Equity Act for the 21 st Century (TEA-21) expired last Sept. 30.

The single biggest problem, Burgess said, is the billions of dollars in differences between the various versions of the bills. The Senate called for $318 billion in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003 (SAFETEA), which passed 76-21. Texas senators split, John Cornyn voted for the bill and Kay Bailey Hutchison opposing it due to concerns over whether Texas was receiving an equitable return of federal transportation funds.

Meanwhile, the latest House version still in committee calls for $279.5 billion (the introduced version was $375 billion).

The biggest barrier to both bills is a veto threat from President George W. Bush for any transportation spending package that exceeds $259 billion.

Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Lewisville) raised the funding equity issue that prompted Hutchison’s opposition. Texas pays more in federal motor fuel taxes than it receives in highway funds.

Burgess said he strongly supported legislation (H.R. 2208) introduced by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) that would raise to 95 percent the minimum amount of money each state gets back out of the taxes paid in. Current law sets a floor of 90.5 percent.

Smaller-state senators beat back efforts to include the 95 percent requirement in the bill that left their chamber. Burgess said he is going to fight for the higher rate-of-return in the final version.

Another policy initiative Burgess says he and Hutchison want to push is returning the $400 million in annual federal “Border and Corridors” funding back to its original intent, which was to help states that actually have border with other countries. He noted that states without international borders were getting large sums of funding.

Burgess’ coauthor on this bill (H.R. 2220) is Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson , (D-TX), a fellow member of the Transportation and Infrastructure committee.

Another Burgess initiative (HR 2864) is the Reforming, Accelerating, and Protecting Interstate Design Act of 2003 (RAPID), which would make several changes to streamline the transportation planning and environmental review process. One major change is that it would allow states to have the environmental reviews on projects occur concurrently, instead of sequentially.

The measure drew praise from Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands), who told of a bridge widening project in his district that had already been delayed for almost three years. Though approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, the project was later halted by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Burgess stated the bill also allows for a “rolling environmental process” under which needed reviews may be done for smaller increments of larger projects, as opposed to the current requirement that everything be done up front. This could shave years off of the amount of time needed to build projects by allowing a project’s design to move forward while the environmental reviews were underway.

The RAPID Act also incorporated more flexibility for states to use the same “design-build” approach that Texas was employing on the SH-130 project and more freedom for states to use tolling as a way to pay for added capacity. Burgess said the expedited methods being used to build SH-130 were cutting 13 years off the standard time line.

Burgess also favors streamlining the process for fixing roads identified as dangerous to have the environmental reviews take place after the ongoing safety problems have been addressed. He said he views such an approach as common sense approach, inasmuch as safety improvements now deal with rehabilitating roads already built. Reviews would still take place, said Burgess, but “let’s save lives first.”

Burgess sees a “reasonable chance” that the streamlining sought in the RAPID Act would end up in the final version of the transportation bill.

Noting federal fondness for calling the state-federal relationship a “partnership” on funding, Ogden said a better phrase was “cram-down.”

“You will do it our way or literally the highway is not coming,” Ogden said. “Texas deserves better treatment than that. If we are going to be a partner, there ought to be a presumption that we are going to comply with the rules and regulations, instead of a presumption that we are always guilty until the last federal agency says it’s OK.”

Ogden said he appreciated Burgess’ efforts to change this working relationship.

Peters said the Bush administration supports the policy initiatives that Burgess had already discussed and had some other ideas as well. Peters’ testimony and written submission detailed several of the Bush Administration’s priorities for the new transportation bill.

First, Peters offered a wholehearted endorsement of the Trans-Texas Corridors initiative as a “bold concept for surface transportation that can provide a model for other states to follow.”

Central to the Bush administration’s transportation planning, Peters said, is recognition that the traditional funding model based on motor fuels taxes will never keep pace with growing demands as greater fuel efficiency and alternative-fueled vehicles entered the picture. She said it was time to move to a “utility model” in transportation planning that created market incentives for private-sector involvement in creating new capacity and a pricing structure that encouraged more efficient use of that capacity.

One Bush proposal grants states broad authority to establish variable toll pricing programs that allow, for instance, the addition of toll lanes to existing freeways. The Katy Freeway expansion in Houston is the naton’s first such project.

“The federal government should not be an obstacle to innovation in the area of toll road pricing,” Peters said.

The administration also favors expanding state authority over High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes so as to allow single-occupant vehicles to pay to access the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on a highway.

States would also be given more flexibility regarding the use of tolls to finance the reconstruction and rehabilitation of existing freeways.

Peters said one way of achieving this end is to make it easier for projects to qualify for funding under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program. She cited the use of $917 million in TIFIA loans for the SH-130 project as one example of how this new funding can expand capacity.

The idea of streamlining the current set of sequential “mouse in a maze” environmental reviews also found favor with Peters, as did tightening the use of Borders and Corridors funding.

However, one proposal in the environmental streamlining package might draw environmentalists’ ire. The administration proposes to change from six years to six months the current statute of limitations for filing lawsuits seeking to overturn the federal environmental approval of a project. The rationale is that projects under construction have been shut down because of litigation over issues that could have been resolved far earlier.

However, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) questioned the proposed change. O

The Lone Star Report:


Thursday, March 18, 2004

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters signs off on environmental clearance waiver for TTC-35

Trans-Texas Corridor Project Benefits From Federal Waiver


Texas Government Insider
Stratgic Partnerships Inc.
Copyright 2004

Prospects for a speedy beginning to the Trans-Texas Corridor improved this week, due to a decision by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) to make regulatory exceptions for the large-scale project. Mary Peters, an administrator for the federal agency, announced that the FHA would allow Texas to hire a contractor and begin the design and construction of certain portions of highway before receiving the environmental clearance usually required for such undertakings.

Late last year, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) requested that an exception be made for the I-35 High Priority Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposed 600 mile stretch of highway that would begin in Denison, near the Oklahoma border, and extend down to San Antonio, where it would fork and head to both Brownsville and Laredo. Working through the mandated environmental studies for such a huge project would severely slow the project's development. With the waiver granted by the FHA, the construction planning process and the environmental approval process will progress in concert and the contractor will assist the state in preparation of those documents. Furthermore, the arrangement will allow the state to access formidable amounts of federal funding before the environmental analysis in complete.

Promoted by Gov. Rick Perry, the Trans-Texas Corridor, currently in its conceptual stages, is a plan to create a 4,000 mile transportation network in Texas, including high-speed passenger, commuter and freight rail, more highways, and dedicated utility zones for commercial purposes. The price tag for the project is estimated at $180 billion. The state hopes to hire a contractor by early 2005.

© 2004 Strategic Partnerships:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Feds agree to "streamline" environmental study for Trans-Texas Corridor

Trans-Texas Corridor boosted with ruling on environment


Peggy Fikac Chief, Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2004

AUSTIN — Federal highway officials agreed to a streamlined environmental study process for the Trans-Texas Corridor that could speed progress on the Mexico-to-Oklahoma portion of the ambitious proposed web of highway, rail and utility zones.

State and federal officials said Tuesday the designation as a special experimental project won't impair environmental safeguards.

It's the second such designation to be granted in the United States, following a project in Virginia.

But the Sierra Club voiced concern over the action, which could allow right of way to be bought more quickly along the project's 600-mile strip meant to parallel Interstate 35.

It will allow the purchase of right of way for a particular road segment after an environmental study is completed on that segment — but before environmental studies are finished on the entire length of the road.

The action also will allow federal money to be spent on project planning before the environmental analysis is complete.

"We are not going to take any chances on harming the environment, and we're not going to change the process by which the environment is protected," Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said of the designation.

"I speak not only of plants and animals, but I speak of the social environment of our citizens as well," he said at a Capitol news conference.

"That process will be honored and followed to the letter — not because somebody makes us, but because it's what we want to do," he said.

Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said looking at the massive project in pieces rather than as a whole could miss some environmental effects.

"I think definitely the Trans-Texas Corridor project as a whole, and even any one corridor ... potentially has enormous environmental impacts," he said.

"Probably the biggest is the loss of open space and wildlife habitat, not just associated with the construction and operation of the corridor itself, but the indirect and cumulative impacts of the development that will occur as a result of the corridor being constructed," he said.

Williamson said allowing environmental, design and construction-related processes to proceed simultaneously could shave three to five years off the time needed for completion.

"Some have suggested as soon as 12 years, you'll see the largest portion of this corridor open and collecting tolls," he said.

That assumes the envisioned public-private partnership falls into place for the project, which has been championed by Gov. Rick Perry.

Three private partnerships are submitting proposals on developing and financing the Oklahoma-Mexico segment.

The overall project is envisioned as a 4,000-mile network including separate highway lanes for passenger cars and trucks, high-speed passenger rail, freight rail, commuter rail and a zone for utility lines. Its estimated cost is $180 billion.

San Antonio Express-News:


"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:


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."; 445-3698

Copyright (c) 2004 Austin American-Statesman: