Thursday, June 30, 2005

Members try to learn of Corridor's location and financing

Corridor advisory committee briefed on route

Thursday, June 30, 2005

By Matt Joyce, staff writer
Waco Tribune-Herald Copyright 2005

AUSTIN – Members of a citizens advisory committee sought Wednesday to understand the two major tentacles of the state's evolving plans for the Trans-Texas Corridor: its location and financing.

In the committee's second meeting, Texas Department of Transportation officials briefed members on the state's selection of a corridor route and on the formation of a development agreement with private financiers and builders Cintra-Zachry.

"I think the committee is a good group that knows we need to do something about transportation, but is very skeptical of both (Cintra-Zachry) and the transportation department staff. I think that's the way we're coming at it," said Roy Walthall of Waco, the only McLennan County resident selected for the citizens committee.

The Texas Transportation Commission formed the 22-member committee in April in response to complaints that the state was pushing forward on its corridor plan without enough public participation.

Gov. Rick Perry proposed the corridor project in 2002 as a way to meet the state's present and future infrastructure needs. His plan calls for a 4,000-mile tolled transportation network criss-crossing the state at a total construction cost as high as $184 billion.

The state plans for the corridor to be 1,200 feet wide with space for passenger vehicle traffic, truck traffic, railways and a 200-foot utility zone. But officials have said the various components would be built only as the state's transportation needs merit.

The citizens committee, which elected Bell County Commissioner Tim Brown as chairman, will advise the transportation commission and does not have decision-making authority.

On Wednesday, Doug Booher, environmental manager for the Texas Turnpike Authority Division, outlined the department's progress on setting the alignment for a section of the corridor known as TTC 35. The section is the state's top corridor priority and would run parallel to Interstate 35 from Oklahoma to Mexico with a possible route through McLennan County.

Highway officials have said construction of an initial section of the corridor, a four-lane divided highway, could begin by 2010.

Through a federally mandated environmental study, the department's current 50-mile-wide study area will be narrowed to 10 miles by this fall. The department will then hold public hearings on its preferred corridor to gather public feedback that could influence the alignment, he said.

Once a 10-mile-wide study area is identified, the actual construction of the corridor – which could be up to nearly a quarter-mile wide – would take place as the state's transportation needs merit new construction, he said.

The selection of the corridor alignment within the 10-mile area would require another complete environmental study to identify a specific route.

"This does not authorize any construction at all," Booher said. "It simply says that when a transportation need is identified, this (10-mile-wide) corridor will be our starting point for those detailed studies."

State officials also tried to bring committee members up to speed on the state's partnership with a private firm, Cintra-Zachry. The development group has agreed to invest $6 billion into building the first segment of the corridor, from Dallas to San Antonio, in exchange for the state allowing Cintra-Zachry to operate the corridor as a tollway for 50 years.

The state agreed in March to pay $3.5 million to Cintra-Zachry to flesh out comprehensive plans for financing and building various elements of the corridor. Finalizing those plans, which are known as the comprehensive development agreement, will take until October 2006, said Dieter Billek, project manager for the transportation department's turnpike authority.

State officials stressed that the process of forming a comprehensive development agreement is separate from the environmental study to identify a route. Cintra-Zachry will not be allowed to deviate from the state's selected route, they said.

Amadeo Saenz Jr., the transportation department's executive director of engineering operations, said the state will have its own experts studying the cost of building certain segments. The agreement would allow either the state or Cintra-Zachry to opt out if the two parties don't come to terms on the price of building a certain segment of the corridor, he said.

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