Friday, January 28, 2005

"State officials -- as well as the news media -- need to do a far better job of educating the public" about the Corridor

Rollin', rollin', rollin' ...

JACK Z. SMITH, Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2005

There's been recent talk about some potentially very pricey driving on the Trans -Texas Corridor .

That includes media speculation that an approximately 400-mile round trip from the Fort Worth-Dallas area to Austin might cost you $80 in tolls.

If you're not familiar with the corridor , or TTC for short, it's the proposed $175 billion, 4,000-mile network of high-speed toll roads that might one day serve as the state's solution for a mushrooming population and increasingly choked freeways.

In December, the Texas Transportation Commission selected a Spanish firm, Madrid-based Cintra, to build and operate a 316-mile leg of the TTC that would bypass Interstate 35. The new route, dubbed TTC-35, would run from north of the Metroplex to San Antonio.

Cintra would pay for the $6 billion road in exchange for the right to collect tolls from it for 50 years.

The next step is for Cintra and the state to reach agreement on a master development plan outlining when it would build various sections of the road and many other particulars.

In a Dec. 17 news story, the Star-Telegram cited comments by Cintra officials who said tolls on TTC-35 probably would be similar to current rates on such roads as Dallas' President George Bush Turnpike.

The article made this observation: "At 20 cents per mile, a trip from Fort Worth to Austin would cost about $40 each way, but the toll would be higher for trucks and other vehicles with more than two axles."

That could mean an $80 round-trip toll for passenger vehicles and potentially much higher rates for big freight trucks.

By comparison, you could travel 296 miles round-trip on the New Jersey Turnpike for $12.90.

The new TTC-35 presumably would be much less congested than I-35 and might permit a speed limit of 85 mph, offering a quicker trip with less stress.

But would that be worth paying $80? Certainly not for me or most other Texans.

Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson told me Wednesday that he's confident the tolls would be much lower than the $80 level.

"I don't see that it would be that high, because no one would pay it," he said.

"If I were guessing, it might be in the range of $15 one-way and $25 round trip," he said.

A $25 toll is still more than I would be willing to pay, particularly since there initially might not be a TTC-35 segment on the west side of the Metroplex.

Williamson speculated that Cintra, when previously suggesting per-mile tolls similar to those on the Bush turnpike, probably was thinking of motorists who would drive only short stretches of the corridor before getting off.

He speculated that truckers might be levied tolls two to three times higher than passenger vehicles. I wouldn't be surprised if some truckers found such tolls too steep.

Williamson foresees TTC-35 as an innovative experiment in which big companies such as Wal-Mart might negotiate with Cintra so that the giant retailer's truck fleet could use the corridor at a discounted flat rate.

Under a concept of "congestion pricing," individual motorists also might enjoy sharply reduced rates if they drove the corridor during "off-peak" hours when traffic was minimal. For example, someone who drove TTC-35 from the Metroplex to Austin late at night might pay only a $5 toll, Williamson speculated.

But would you want your college-age offspring driving an 85 mph road at 11 p.m.? And why not just take I-35, which also would be less congested late at night?

Williamson said Cintra would have to levy market-driven tolls that are sufficiently moderate to attract substantial traffic to TTC-35, because motorists still would have the alternative of taking I-35.

As now envisioned, the entire Trans -Texas Corridor would be built over several decades, although portions paralleling I-35 (notably from Austin to San Antonio) might be completed within several years.

Portions of the corridor eventually might be 1,200 feet wide and include segments for passenger vehicles, freight trucks, high-speed passenger rail and transmission of water, oil, natural gas, electricity and telecommunications cables.

I still have more questions than answers about the corridor . It could prove to be the biggest transportation success story in Texas history and serve as a revolutionary role model for other states -- or it could become a colossal boondoggle that takes away huge swaths of land without sufficient offsetting benefits.

I know one thing for sure, though.

State officials -- as well as the news media -- need to do a far better job of educating the public as to what the corridor is all about and the basic philosophy behind its creation.

Jack Z. Smith is a Star-Telegram editorial writer. (817) 390-7724

Copyright 2005 Star-Telegram, Inc.

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