Saturday, December 25, 2004

"Nobody's laughing now. "

Giant toll network is Perry's vision

Texas opens talks with Spanish consortium on plan for roads, railways

Associated Press
Copyright 2004

AUSTIN - In a state that likes to brag that it's bigger than France, just about everyone agrees plentiful highways are key to commerce and commuting in Texas . Where to build new roads and how to pay for them is another matter.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry announced his vision in 2002 with his Trans -Texas Corridor proposal: build 4,000-plus miles of tollways and railways that would incorporate oil and gas pipelines, utility and water lines, and even broadband data, during the next 50 years.

With a Texas -sized price tag of $175 billion, the gigantic project and its fair share of opponents, the project was referred to often as a "boondoggle" and drew plenty of chuckles.

But nobody's laughing now.

On Dec. 16, the Texas Transportation Commission opened negotiations with the Spain-based consortium Cintra to start the first phase of the project, an 800-mile corridor stretching from Oklahoma to Mexico parallel to Interstate 35.

Although Cintra's proposal is still developing, early plans for the project have envisioned concrete and rail corridors snaking across the state and stretching as wide as 1,200 feet in some areas, with enough room for cars, trucks, trains, pipelines and utility cables. The number of corridors and exactly where they would run has yet to be determined.

Perry's staff says it would be the first such project in the country and that the idea has drawn interest from several states, including Virginia, Kansas and Pennsylvania.

"Some thought the Trans -Texas Corridor was a pie-in-the-sky idea that would never see the light of day," said Perry, who has compared his plan to the federal interstate-highway system started in the 1950s. "We have seen the future, and it's here today."

But as the plan rumbles along the fast lane, opponents say it could hurt farmers, small towns and the environment. Arguments have pitted regions against each other with worries that moving commercial traffic from existing highways and railways will hurt local economies.

Even Perry's Republican Party opposes the plan. The party platform drafted at last summer's state convention rejected it, citing questions about property rights.

Perry is undeterred. During a trip to Mexico City in June, he envisioned expanding it beyond the border.

"It will change the way transportation infrastructure is built internationally, not just in Texas , not just in the United States," he said. "I think it will be a model for future infrastructure construction in the world."

Supporters say the corridors are needed for the state's economy, particularly NAFTA-driven commerce to and from Mexico. More than $41.5 billion in annual exports go to Mexico, the state's leading trading partner.

Texas economist Ray Perryman said the corridors could generate about $135 billion for Texas . Efficient shipping routes for goods and utilities would help the state lure new industry, he said.

"Any time we can do something better, faster and cheaper, it's going to give us an advantage," Perryman said.

The project also could improve safety, said Perry spokesman Robert Black. He said new rail lines will help avoid industrial accidents in large urban areas.

San Antonio has had several train accidents this year, at least three of which caused chemical spills.

"We have hazardous materials running through our city centers because of a rail system that was built 100 years ago," Black said.

Planners say the project will cost the state little. For the Oklahoma-Mexico corridor , Cintra plans to spend $6 billion of private money for about 300 miles of four-lane tollway from Dallas to San Antonio and give the state another $1.2 billion for improvements along the route.

Other long-range projects in the proposal include freight rail and utility lines and maybe high-speed passenger rail.

The proposal calls for the state to only kick in $ 3.5 million to help develop a final plan. In return, Cintra wants to maintain and operate the tollway for the next 50 years.

If drivers were tolled between 10 cents and 20 cents a mile, rates similar to Texas tollways already in use, driving 300 miles would cost $30 to $60 each way.

Texas has traditionally used pay-as-you-go spending that relied on federal highway funding from gasoline taxes. According to Perry's office, Texas gets stiffed on its share of federal funding by hundreds of millions per year.

In 2003, the Legislature allowed the state to use bonds and tolls to finance road construction, and the Cintra deal brings with it a massive infusion of private money.

Those revenue sources will allow Texas to boost road building at a rate that would otherwise require as much as a 50-cent tax increase on a gallon of gas, Black said, which "the people of Texas will not support."

Meanwhile, farmers and environmentalists say landowners and small towns will pay the greater cost.

"They're proposing going primarily through farm and ranchlands," said Texas Farm Bureau President Kenneth Dierschke, a cotton farmer from San Angelo.

"If someone comes in and cuts your property in half, that's no good," he said, promising that farmers will be out in full force at public hearings on the corridor project.

Another group warns the corridors will divert traffic from small towns.

David Stall, the former city manager of Columbus, a town of about 3,800 that sits along Interstate 10 in Colorado County, founded Corridor Watch in opposition to the plan.

Stall estimated that an Orange-to-El Paso corridor would divert as much as 25 percent of traffic off I-10 and would have a "devastating impact" on Columbus.

Bigger cities also have voiced such concerns.

Associated Press: