Thursday, February 24, 2005

Rep. Kolkhorst tries to trim some fat from Corridor

Lawmakers heed call for super-highway cuts

Bill seeks to inject a slew of control factors.

February 24, 2005

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Activists taking shots at the planned Trans Texas Corridor have found some legislators willing to take a stab at trimming the colossal super-highway and ensuring that state authorities control the toll rates.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, who sits on the appropriations committee and is vice chairman of the House Rural Caucus, said she filed House Bill 1273 in an attempt to balance the huge scope of the corridor with grass-root concerns.

"My goal is to better the concept," she said. "I will be very saddened for Texas if we don't have some assurances in place."

Kolkhorst was joined by co-authors Robby Cook, D-Eagle Lake, Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, and Glenn Hegar, R-Katy.

The bill calls for:
  • Reducing the width of the corridor to 800 feet from 1,200.
  • Requiring on and off ramps for every state highway and Farm-to-Market road.
  • Prohibiting the state and road contractors from franchising gas stations and restaurants along the corridor , leaving it instead to private landowners.
  • Prohibiting restrictions on building free public roads that would compete with toll lanes.
  • Requiring approval from Texas Transportation Commission for any toll increases.
When Gov. Rick Perry unveiled his vision three years ago of a 4,000-mile network of 10-lane highways, rail lines and utility lines crisscrossing the state, it was criticized as a pipe dream by some and hailed as revolutionary by others.

It suddenly became more concrete in December when the Transportation Commission selected a consortium led by Cintra of Spain to build the first segment, which will parallel Interstate 35. It will open in sections, with construction lasting more than 25 years.

But worries have sprouted around the state, in rural and urban areas alike. Fears range from loss of farmland and wildlife, lack of access to the corridor and draining of economic vitality from towns and cities.

Kolkhorst's bill promises some relief for rural Texas .

"It's certainly a step in the right direction," said Steve Pringle, legislative director for the Texas Farm Bureau.

Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, who chairs the House transportation committee and ushered in the 2003 bill that gave legal legs to the corridor , said the concerns need to be considered.

Cintra officials declined to comment.

Cintra and Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio would put up the money for the corridor paralleling I-35, selling bonds and shouldering the risk.

For starters, they'd spend $6 billion over 10 years to build a four-lane toll road from San Antonio to Dallas and relocate some Union Pacific tracks east of Austin and Seguin.

Traffic levels on I-35 will help determine toll rates and limits on building competing public roads, say officials with the Texas Department of Transportation. A certain amount of congestion on I-35 is needed to drive motorists to the toll lanes.

"So there's always a balance going on," said Ric Williamson, chairman of the Transportation Commission.

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