Thursday, March 10, 2005

"Governor's motives are open to question in light of the large campaign contributions he received from interests boosting the privatized corridors."

Speed bumps

With opponents turning up the heat, Trans -Texas Corridor planners need to fill in many blanks as the colossal project nears liftoff.

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2005

When first announced, Gov. Rick Perry's $175 billion, 4,000-mile transitway proposal seemed more visionary than practicable. Now that the project is on the verge of transforming itself from political rhetoric to concrete reality, opposition from a nonpartisan range of interests has taken on a sudden urgency. The opponents are discovering just how much they don't know about the biggest transit project to hit Texas since the creation of the interstate highway system.

The plan to allow a foreign consortium, Spain's Cintra, the right to build and operate massive tollways across the state for a half century has created an unlikely coalition of opponents. They range from Republicans concerned with property rights to small-town officials fearing the loss of highway commerce to environmentalists worried about the toll the concrete rivers will take on the state's ecology.

And don't leave out agricultural interests appalled by the potential paving over of millions of acres of arable Texas land and the splintering of hundreds of farms and ranches that eventually will fall in the corridors' path.

As Texas transportation officials negotiate details of a plan for implementing the first stages of the corridor project, many basic questions remain unanswered. They include details of project financing and decision-making, the public's right to information about construction and operational decisions, and the taxpayers' liability if the deal goes sour.

Gov. Perry touts the creation of the developer-funded system of 1,200-foot-wide corridors running from the Mexican border to Oklahoma as a revolutionary solution to the state's commercial transport needs. The super highways would divert traffic from urban areas along high-speed truck and auto lanes as well as multiple rail lines, alleviating big city gridlock and reducing pollution. The wide rights of way would provide ample space for communications cable and energy pipelines. Land condemned through the exercise of eminent domain by the state would allow the corridor operators to franchise roadside amenities such as hotels, restaurants and other businesses to supplement toll fees charged system users.

Cintra would put up $6 billion to construct the first link of the system running between San Antonio and Dallas paralleling I-35. According to project supporters, that so-called design and build formula would allow the construction of a new generation of tollways without using taxpayer dollars.

The governor's motives are open to question in light of the large campaign contributions he received from interests boosting the privatized corridors. One of Perry's top aides, Dan Shelley, recently worked for Cintra and introduced officials from the consortium to Texas transportation officials before a Perry-appointed highway commission awarded Cintra the project contract in December.

Although the governor's brainchild has enjoyed a high-speed trip down the legislative highway, the road gets rougher from here on out. Supporters must explain how the corridors will turn a profit. The one previous private tollway in Texas , Laredo's Camino Columbia turnpike, went bankrupt several years ago. An attempt to build a privately funded high-speed rail line in Texas in the 1980s foundered when studies revealed it was not economically feasible.

Texas lawmakers are readying a number of legislative amendments to Perry's corridor plan, including narrowing the rights of way, requiring frequent on and off ramps to guarantee easy access to nearby communities, and limiting commercial development along the corridors to private owners rather than the tollway operators.

Former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, a past Texas Highway Commission chairman, says that the design and build contract awarded Cintra can pose big oversight problems for the state, because agencies will be hard-pressed to play watchdog on plans formulated by the contractors. There's also the question of the deal's lack of transparency. It is not clear whether Texas ' open government statutes would apply to the project.

"They are granting to the contractor without competitive dollar bid the right to make a whole lot of public decisions now and in the future," Lanier said. "The state should proceed very, very cautiously."

It's getting late in the process, but Texas lawmakers should ask the right questions now and get satisfactory answers before they allow the Trans -Texas Corridor to continue on its fast track to construction. If this is to be the premier transit project of an era, let's make certain it's going to be a boon rather than a boondoggle.

Houston Chronicle: