Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Ric Williamson: "The whole nation is watching Texas to see if we can pull it off."

Perry's massive transportation plan may face a bumpyroad to fruition

As the project unfolds, the nation is watching -its critics, in particular

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2005

Texas transportation officials are expected to negotiate a plan this month that would launch the Trans -Texas Corridor , Gov. Rick Perry's grandiose vision of future transportation.

The first planned route would run through Central Texas from Oklahoma to Mexico, and its first segment would be a four-lane toll road from Dallas to San Antonio. But officials in Houston and along the Gulf Coast are paying close attention.

They're not alone.

"The whole nation is watching Texas to see if we can pull it off," said Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, Perry's appointee and go-to man for getting the corridor built.

The corridor is a new road-funding system that would use private developers to build and operate state-owned facilities under exclusive long-term contracts. It already has opposition, even in Perry's camp.

Critics object to the closed-door negotiations, the dearth of publicly available details, the 50-year exclusive contract granted without legislative approval and - especially - the condemnation of right of way for exclusive use by the developer.

When Perry unveiled his plan in 2002, artist's drawings showed a 4,000-mile, $175 billion network crisscrossing the state - each leg an unlovely but efficient transportation machine 1,200 feet wide, with toll roads for cars and trucks, tracks for freight and passenger trains, power lines overhead and pipelines underground.

On Dec. 16, the commission chose a bid from the Spanish firm Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA (Cintra for short) and its partners as the best of three submitted for the corridor, designated TTC-35. The Texas Department of Transportation will likely agree this week or next to negotiate a detailed plan with the company.

Cintra's toll road would run generally east of Interstate 35 past Dallas, Waco, Austin and San Antonio. If talks succeed and federal authorities give environmental clearance, bulldozers could crank up in 2007 and the project could be finished by 2018. If talks break down, TxDOT could negotiate with the next-best bidder.

Taking a look at U.S. 59

The toll road would just be a baby step, but it is big enough to alarm opponents and excite supporters, including Harris County Judge Robert Eckels.

"Taxpayers have not paid one dime for the Harris County toll road system, and we think the same thing can happen with major state routes," Eckels told a Clear Lake-area Republican club recently. A next likely candidate for development, he said, would follow U.S. 59 from Texarkana to the border, with a spur to the Port of Houston.

The Alliance for I-69 Texas has pushed for years to get U.S. 59 upgraded to an interstate highway - the so-called NAFTA Highway - to handle truck traffic expected from increasing trade with Mexico and Canada.

The alliance is "very supportive of the corridor idea" as a way of reaching its goal, said the group's administrator Anne Culver in Houston.

Given funding realities, Culver said, it is unlikely that both an interstate and a corridor would be built on the same route. She expects a tolled corridor , rather than an interstate, would eventually run near the present highway.

Culver said the Greater Houston Partnership hasn't taken a position on the corridor but supports the alliance.

She acknowledged that some smaller cities in the Interstate 69 alliance worry that the proposed corridor , designated I-69/TTC, would bypass them and that local businesses could not compete with the corridor 's exclusive developer.

But she said the eventual route could pass close enough to those towns to benefit them while also skirting far enough outside Houston to avoid contributing to local traffic jams and air pollution.

A concern for Wharton

Mayor Bryce Kocian of Wharton, 60 miles south of Houston on U.S. 59, hopes she's right. His town is a stop for travelers and truckers to and from South Texas beaches, the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico.

"We depend on that traffic to stop at our Wal-Mart and maybe grab a hamburger," Kocian said.

"I've been at meetings where they talk about how the Texas Transportation Commission is going to move the corridor 15 to 30 miles away from Wharton," Kocian said. "We hear different things all the time."

No counterpart to Cintra has made an offer to build an I-69 corridor, but Williamson said several have expressed interest.

Until that happens, it will be impossible to define the corridor route, which will depend on the developer's wishes, environmental studies, engineering requirements and state and local politics.

The state Republican Party platform calls condemning right of way for a profit-making toll road "confiscation of private land." And Mike Lavigne, chief of staff of the Texas Democratic Party, said the corridor gives Perry's rivals a big target, tapping resentment toward toll roads, overseas ownership and the condemnation issue.

Environmental harm cited

The Texas Farm Bureau also objects to the splitting of ranches and loss of local tax base. The state chairman of Texas Libertarians called the corridor "a scar across Texas " that will "divide counties, drain the state highway fund and ultimately fail." Even the conservative Eagle Forum's newsletter headlined an article about the corridor "Tyrannosaurus Tex."

"When it comes to change, there are always going to be some people upset," said Perry spokesman Robert Black.

"But I think you're going to have more and more people appreciate a governor and a state government that look way down the road and not just at what's good for the next two or three years."

On the environment, the Sierra Club says the corridor will destroy wildlife habitat and increase air pollution.

Williamson said the corridor 's state and federal environmental requirements are the same as for other road projects.

Williamson said Cintra would likely build first where traffic can yield profits, such as loops around the major cities, before connecting the dots between them. If a developer goes bankrupt, Williamson said, taxpayers will not be responsible. He said the development plans will be negotiated to cover "any conceivable scenario."



Cintra proposes spending $6 billion to build a four-lane toll road on the Trans -Texas Corridor . Details include:

The firm would pay the state $1.2 billion in return for the 50-year exclusive right to operate it.

It would operate businesses along the route.

After the 50 years are up, TxDOT could renew the agreement, contract with another company or operate the road itself.


For more information, go to www.keeptexasmoving.com, www.corridorwatch.com and www.dot.state.tx.us/txdot.htm. The last includes a long discussion of the Cintra project, TTC-35, by the Texas Transportation Commission. See transcript of its Dec. 16 meeting.

Houston Chronicle: www.chron.com