Thursday, February 03, 2005

TTC Project Manager: "Cintra will not ask for local, state or federal contributions."

Trans Texas Corridor ambitious undertaking for developers

February 3, 2005

David Hendricks
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Texas' highway capacity hardly is keeping up with the state's population and vehicle registration growth.

The Texas Department of Transportation can't do much about that, since its budget increasingly must be devoted to maintaining current highways.

The main plan to address long-term highway capacity is the Trans Texas Corridor . At 4,000 miles long and 1,200 feet wide, with a 50- to 100-year timetable and a $184 billion price tag, it is the biggest and most ambitious highway project since the U.S. interstate highway system was built almost half a century ago.

It also is difficult to visualize, with so many questions not yet having answers.

But the privately operated corridor will come into focus over the next 15 months, said John Bourne, corridor project manager and associate vice president of HNTB in Austin, a transportation engineering and planning firm.

First, TxDOT and a consortium of companies led by Spain-based Cintra is finishing negotiations and could sign a contract within a week, two months after Cintra was chosen from three competing consortiums.

San Antonio's Zachry Construction Corp. is a 15 percent partner in the Cintra consortium.

The contract will call for a fairly specific plan to be completed in 15 months for the corridor 's first leg, stretching from the Oklahoma border to the Mexico border, terminating either in the Rio Grande Valley or Laredo, with construction taking 10 years.

That highway and other Trans Texas Corridor highways that follow eventually could feature 10 lanes of traffic - two devoted to trucks only - plus freight, commuter and high-speed rail lines and utility lines carrying water, natural gas, oil, electricity and telecommunications.

It likely would incorporate the Texas 130 route that has started construction east of Austin, extending the currently funded segment south to near Seguin to create an alternative to the congested Interstate 35.

The Texas 130 portion is slated tentatively for completion within five years.

The entire corridor will be tolled, of course.

Outside of the rail lines, very little public money will go into the corridor 's construction, as it is conceived so far.

The developers, not taxpayers, will carry the project's risk, which is why the project is not on any ballot.

With Southwest Capital Markets as a member of the Cintra team, the project likely will be financed by revenue bonds repaid by the tolls, not gasoline taxes.

"Cintra will not ask for local, state or federal contributions," Bourne said.

The land for the corridor will be obtained by state condemnation. The state legally cannot delegate eminent domain responsibilities to private developers.

TxDOT also is responsible for public hearings on federal environmental clearances, Bourne told members of the San Antonio Transportation Association on Wednesday.

The TxDOT-Cintra contract is expected to call for Cintra to invest $6 billion and make a $1.2 billion "concession payment" by 2014 to TxDOT, which can use the money for enhancements along the corridor , such as connecting highways and/or passenger/freight rail lines.

If this project can stick close to its 10-year timetable, it will take pressure off TxDOT to further widen I-35.

Already controversial, this Oklahoma-to-Mexico segment will become a much hotter issue as the route is selected, with some interested parties not wanting it near them, others wanting it closer and some landowners fighting condemnation.

Who controls development rights along the route will be another issue that must be hashed out.

Moreover, who can say that court rulings on what projects can be subject to condemnation won't affect the corridor 's plans over the years?

The fight over where the first corridor highway turns south of San Antonio, either to Laredo or the Valley, will be bloody by itself.

Some members of the San Antonio Transportation Association believe there is no sign of public support for the Trans Texas Corridor , which it is being driven by engineering and construction companies who make money from these projects.

If those members are right, it is just another barrier the corridor developers must overcome as plans are drawn, ground is broken and the cement begins to pour.

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News: