Saturday, March 12, 2005

Trans-Texas Corridor given go ahead

State gets in fast lane to new toll road system

Go-ahead given for planning Trans Texas Corridor segment.

March 12, 2005

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

As officials huddled Friday to sign the first contract for the Trans Texas Corridor , Gov. Rick Perry licked his lips, widened his eyes as he looked at the 2-inch-thick document, and then smiled.

The contract formed a public-private partnership to develop a 600-mile corridor of toll roads, rail lines and utility lines east of Interstate 35 - the first leg of a 4,000-mile network to be built across the state over 50 years.

Perry and others, buoyed by taking such a solid step forward, seemingly couldn't find enough adjectives to stress the significance of the concept.

They called it huge. Cutting-edge. Bold. Forward-looking.

"In Texas , we're not willing to wait for others to lead or innovate," Perry said shortly before the signing, held at the Texas Department of Transportation's main office.

"We do things better, faster and first," he said.

The contract, signed by officials with the transportation department, Cintra of Spain and Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio, is the first of many to follow for the Trans Texas Corridor segment that will parallel I-35.

This agreement authorizes $3.5 million for the two companies to create a master plan within 15 months to finance and build the segment.

The contract doesn't lock in the route's alignment, allow construction to start, set toll rates or rule out competition to determine who'll actually build and operate various sections.

Critics of the Trans Texas Corridor - including the Texas Farm Bureau, the Sierra Club and some of the towns and cities along I-35 - eagerly await such details.

Their concerns include loss of farmland and wildlife, lack of access to the corridor , bypassing of businesses and communities linked to I-35 and impacts that rising oil prices could have on driving habits and toll revenues.

"We will be monitoring," said David Stall of in an e-mail Friday.

By unleashing the power of the private sector to tackle choking traffic congestion, Texas is leading the way for the rest of the nation, said Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters, who joined Perry at Friday's ceremony.

She described it as the dawning of a new transportation era, comparing it to the launching of the nation's interstate highway system in the 1950s and the paving of roads in the first half of the century.

"It is not for the faint of heart, let me tell you," she said. "A few people have the courage to move us into the next generation of transportation improvements.

For the first phase of the Trans Texas Corridor , Cintra and Zachry have proposed spending $6 billion to build a four-lane toll road from San Antonio to Dallas and to reroute Union Pacific through trains out of San Antonio and Austin.

Work would start within five years, with an extension of Texas 130 from Lockhart to Seguin opening as soon as 2010. Texas 130 from Austin to Lockhart, already under construction, is expected to open in two years and fold into the Trans Texas Corridor .

Cintra and Zachry would sell needed bonds and shoulder the risk. They also offered to pay the state $1.2 billion for the right to operate the toll system.

Traffic levels on I-35 will help determine toll rates and limits on building competing public roads. A certain amount of congestion is needed to create a market for toll roads.

Motorists pay from 10 cents to 20 cents a mile to use toll roads in Houston and Dallas.

Within 15 years, work could start on toll lanes along Interstate 10 east of San Antonio and along Southwest Loop 1604, according to the Cintra and Zachry proposal.

Toll roads to the boarder, high-speed passenger rail between San Antonio and Dallas and new freight tracks from Austin to Dallas could follow after 2025.

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News: