Sunday, March 13, 2005

Perry brags as he signs Comprehensive Development Agreement with Cintra-Zachry

Amid wreckage, Austin news conference, if you could get there

March 13, 2005

Robert Rivard, Editor
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Texas Gov. Rick Perry was in the mood to boast Friday afternoon as he celebrated the first signed contract for the building of the Trans Texas Corridor .

"In Texas we do things bigger, better and first," Perry told transportation reporters covering the contract signing.

Even if the ambitious 50-year plan to remake the state's ground transportation grid is really the work of state transportation professionals, it has taken shape and gained a political foothold on Perry's watch. If it's realized, the undertaking could become an enduring legacy of his time as governor.

As a first step, a partnership formed by San Antonio's Zachry Construction Corp. and Spain's Cintra will design a four-lane tollway to ease congestion along Interstate 35 from San Antonio to Dallas-Fort Worth.

The plan also would reroute Union Pacific trains that now carry toxic chemicals on lines through the heart of San Antonio. One such train derailed last June in rural Bexar County, setting loose a cloud of toxic chlorine gas that killed three and injured 50, a tragedy that would have been far worse had the wreck occurred in the city.

Perry's enthusiasm belied the reality for motorists traveling - and I use the word loosely - along I-35 from San Antonio to Austin that same day.

Less than 15 miles to the south of the media event, emergency response workers labored much of the day and late into the evening, clearing the wreckage of two accidents on I-35. The northbound lanes were sealed shut for hours, causing gridlock that stretched south for miles as police waved motorists off the interstate.

An 18-wheeler struck a concrete embankment and caught fire early Friday morning, a wreck that kept lanes closed until 3: 30 p.m. I heard from a UTSA professor caught in the morass en route to Austin, but a quick check of state and media Web sites here and in Austin yielded no information to explain the stalled highway traffic. Finally, after a couple of hours behind the wheel and little or no chance of arriving before the end of a conference sponsored by the University of Texas , the professor turned back south and headed home.

Later that evening, I set out with my family for Austin to see Cirque du Soleil, which had erected its colorful tents on the site of the old airport. We were on the road before 6 p.m., plenty of time to make the 8 p.m. show - until we hit a line of stopped traffic on I-35 just north of Buda that stretched as far as the eye could see. One radio disc jockey reported the problem, and wondered aloud about the cause.

Almost 45 minutes later we had progressed a mile or two, far enough to reach an exit and the access road. Mile after mile to our left, the interstate traffic remained snarled.

Just inside the city limits, we watched as workers removed the remains of two destroyed vehicles, one of which looked like it had hit a roadside bomb. Later we learned that an infant died in the two-vehicle wreck, several adults were injured, and the northbound interstate remained closed late into the night.

Tens of thousands of travelers on the state's first day of spring break were affected by the unpublicized closures and thus were unable to avert being caught in the chaos, or to find out why they were stuck once it was too late.

All this on a single day on the road between San Antonio and Austin. And for state officials, at least, it wasn't even news or something that warranted telephone calls to all the area media to sound the alert.

I-35 has become a monument to inadequate planning and preparation. Mass transit such as high-speed train lines and light rail in the cities isn't even high on the public agenda. Too many elected officials are afraid to support transportation taxes, and instead spend their term-limited time in office ignoring the looming crisis.

The Trans Texas Corridor might be part of the solution, or it might be a fancy name for another half-century of highway construction that will only breed more traffic. After one day in the life of I-35, it was hard to see exactly how we Texans do things better, bigger and first - even for those of us with all the time in the world to think as we waited in idling vehicles, burning gas and time, wondering who died.

Robert Rivard

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News: