"We think the governor's office and TxDOT have once again demonstrated their willingness to play word games with the citizens of Texas."
Critics say move breaks a vow not to use tax funds
By RAD SALLEE
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
A Spanish-led consortium, chosen by state highway officials to privately develop a toll road through Central Texas and operate it for profit for 50 years, is seeking a $320 million low-interest federal loan for part of the job.
Although the company, Cintra-Zachry, and Texas Department of Transportation officials say the loan would be legal and would benefit Texans, critics of the $7.2 billion Trans-Texas Corridor project note Gov. Rick Perry said it would be built "at no cost to taxpayers."
"We think the governor's office and TxDOT have once again demonstrated their willingness to play word games with the citizens of Texas," said David Stall of CorridorWatch.com , which has campaigned statewide against the plan.
"Cintra seeking federal money seems contrary to the constant assurances ... that no taxpayer dollars were being spent on this project and that one advantage of the project was the exclusive use of private money," Stall said in a prepared statement.
Planned all along
A Cintra-Zachry statement says the company has planned to use a federal loan "from day one" and describes such a loan as "part of a broader array of financing to overcome gridlock on Texas roadways and get drivers and goods moving again."
Cintra-Zachry and TxDOT spokeswoman Gaby Garcia noted that the Texas Transportation Commission approved an order Dec. 16 allowing Trans-Texas Corridor projects to be funded "under appropriate circumstances" with money provided under the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 1998.
Garcia said there is no way taxpayers could be left holding the bag. "It is a loan," she said. "They (Cintra-Zachry) will repay its interest — not the state. The state by law is barred from backing any of their financial obligations."
Needed to complete route
On June 10, Cintra-Zachry sent the Federal Highway Administration a letter stating its interest in a $320 million loan to complete the Texas 130 toll road east of Austin.
TxDOT has built the northern half of the route, but Garcia said funding has not been obtained for the southern half.
The company would use the loan to continue the route to Seguin, at a cost of $1 billion.
Texas 130 may eventually become part of the Trans-Texas Corridor project that Cintra-Zachry was chosen by TxDOT on March 11 to develop from Dallas to San Antonio. Eventually the corridor could include freight and passenger rail and utilities, and stretch from Oklahoma to the Mexico border.
Garcia said the northern half of Texas 130 will be operated by the state. And the company is not guaranteed to develop the southern half, she said, although its agreement with TxDOT puts it first in line for the work.
A statement by TxDOT Executive Director Michael Behrens notes that the corridor project — designated TTC-35 because it generally parallels Interstate 35 — would be owned by the state. Contracting with Cintra-Zachry to build and operate it "allows the state to use tax dollars for other projects" along the corridor, Behrens said.