Ric Williamson: “The governor is very sensitive to the criticism directed at him from ... his roots. To his credit ... he hasn’t backed down."
By Colleen Schreiber
FORT WORTH — The Trans-Texas Corridor is a proposed multi-use, statewide network of transportation routes in Texas that will incorporate existing and new highways, railways and utility rights-of-way.
Though specific routes for the TTC have not been determined, projections call for the proposed corridor to include separate lanes for passenger vehicles and large trucks, freight railways, high-speed commuter railways, infrastructure for utilities including water lines, oil and gas pipelines, and transmission lines for electricity, broadband and other telecommunications services.
The Trans-Texas Corridor will be built with public and private partnerships to minimize costs to taxpayers. It will be financed with the support and resources of the private sector along with tolls, bonds, limited state funds and other revenue sources.
The impact that the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor could have on private property rights has private landowners, particularly those up and down the I-35 corridor, in an uproar. Members of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association voiced their concerns to Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, during their recent annual convention here.
Williamson was invited to present the department’s side of the story. He told listeners he was there to share the facts, to more or less set the record straight, and to let private property owners know that the Texas Highway Department and the Governor’s office were open to dialog.
Williamson’s presentation focused on why such a project was being promoted now, why the first corridor would parallel an existing major artery, and why the primary contract had been turned over to a private party.
He answered the “why now” portion of the equation by pointing to the population growth in the state.
“There are at least 24 million people living in Texas, 50 percent of us live within 50 miles of I-35, and 75 percent of us directly depend upon I-35 for direct commerce,” Williamson told TSCRA members.
“I-35 is the single most important transportation route in the state of Texas. It is the single most important trade corridor to the citizens of this state.
“In the last 20 years the population has increased 40 percent, and the vehicle count has grown 60 percent during that same time period,” he continued, “and we have added exactly three percent more actual road capacity.”
Why, then, a separate parallel corridor?
“Because the state of Texas does not have the money to expand the existing corridor,” he said. “You can cut it any way you want to, but that’s the bottom line.”
He told listeners that Texas is one of only two industrial states that are also “donor” states when it comes to highway funding. Donor states, Williamson explained, are states whose citizens pay more federal gasoline tax than they get back. Rather than allow the federal bureaucracy to determine how the pie would be sliced, Texas gets back a set amount, 83.5 cents of every dollar it contributes in federal gas taxes.
The catch, he said, is that the state government takes out 40 percent of those funds and spends them on something other than transportation.
“In 1985 the Legislature started transferring money out of the state’s highway fund for non-transportation purposes. I won’t criticize that; I voted for it,” Williamson told listeners.
“Since 1985 the Legislature has transferred $8.9 billion. Had that money been spent on the contract proposed to TxDOT, that $8.9 billion would have bought $11 billion in transportation assets. To put it in perspective, we have a 12-year plan for every highway in the state of Texas. From 1986 to 2000, had that money been transferred, every project on that 12-year plan would have been built, including purchasing additional right-of-way on I-35.”
Williamson said there are other reasons why expanding the existing corridor isn’t feasible. One is logistics. Texas is the only one of the 15 industrial states that chose to build its interstate highways through the middle of its five largest cities. Texas also is the only industrial state to have built access roads along its interstate highways.
“Those access roads have, in effect, fenced us in from expanding roads inside the existing footprint,” Williamson explained.
There were questions and discussion about why it was necessary to come up with a new corridor when the already approved I-69 would greatly relieve congestion through the center part of the state.
“The federal government has not set aside one dollar to construct I-69,” Williamson told listeners. “I-69 was meant to be a tax-supported road, not a toll road, but I-69 will only happen if it’s a toll road.”
“Last year the federal government gave us our share of the $294 billion, and then they said, ‘If you want to quit spending money on I-37 in Corpus Christi and Hwy. 59 in Sugarland, and if you want to quit spending money on 620, and 820 and 410 and all the other major loops in the cities, and you want to quit spending on farm roads, then you can spend it to build I-69.’
“I have to give them credit; they did give us $60 million to study I-69, but that came out of our apportionment,” he noted.
Why a private party? Williamson said it again has to do with money. Road construction, the chairman said, historically is funded by pooling gasoline tax and motor vehicle registration fees.
“We call it pay as you go,” Williamson said. “The highway department picks which road is next; a private company gets the contract, and we pay that private company out of that pool of money a little over time as the road is built.”
That pot of money, Williamson told listeners, isn’t nearly enough to even begin to fund the massive transportation project the Governor is proposing.
“That’s why we turned to the private sector. We had to find someone who was willing to front the cash, a private entity that was willing to get that investment back from toll fees over time.
“We knew those companies were out there, because three years ago we sent employees of the Texas Transportation Department out to look at what was happening in other parts of the world, to countries like France, Spain, Australia, England, Germany, etc., to try to figure out how they were dealing with this problem.”
Any entity, he added, could have submitted a proposal to build this new corridor.
“We asked Texas A&M and the University of Texas to consider using funds out of the Permanent University Fund to build these roads. We would have liked them to collect these funds from the tollways, but they weren’t interested. We asked the General Land Office if they wanted the Permanent School Fund to build this road, to make all this money, and they weren’t interested. So the notion that the legislation was created to benefit a select few is just crap,” Williamson said.
TxDOT recently formalized a partnership with Cintra-Zachry, an international group of engineering, construction and financial firms, to develop TTC-35, the first element of the Trans-Texas Corridor, from Oklahoma to Mexico.
Cintra-Zachry is proposing to invest $7.2 billion to help build TTC-35. The first phase of their proposal calls for building a $6 billion toll road between Dallas and San Antonio by 2010. In exchange for building and operating it as a toll facility, the consortium will pay the state an
additional $1.2 billion, which the state may use to fund road improvements or high-speed and commuter rail projects along the I-35 or TTC-35 corridors.
As pointed out in a recent TxDOT news release, this agreement only authorizes a $3.5 million planning effort. It does not set the alignment for TTC-35, authorize construction, set toll rates, determine who gets the tolls, or eliminate competition for future services. No final alignment for TTC-35 has been selected.
The environmental study is ongoing. This first phase is expected to be completed by spring of 2006. Additional environmental studies are required to determine the final route alignment before construction can begin.
Williamson told TSCRA members that Cintra would not own the road, the land or the right-of-way.
“They build it and give title to the state. The state concedes back to them the ability to operate the toll for 50 years.”
From the beginning, Williamson said, Gov. Rick Perry was concerned about displacing people from their land and looked for creative ways to make this project work in everyone’s favor, at least as best it could. To that end, affected landowners would be given the option of choosing a “participation payment” similar to a royalty payment for a transmission line, for example, in lieu of a cash payment for their land.
TSCRA lobbyist Ed Small voiced concern that the way the law is currently written, landowners choosing the “participation payment” in lieu of a cash settlement would be subordinate to the bond holders, meaning the bond holders would be paid before landowners would get their “participation payment.”
“We would like to negotiate to get that changed,” Small said.
Another of the major concerns voiced by Small during the discussion was that of accessibility and severance.
“If the corridor splits a property, how will an owner of a property be able to get from one side to the other? Will there be an overpass or an underpass?” Small asked.
“There was talk that there wouldn’t be frontage roads, so there is this potential problem that some landowners may not even be able to get out their front gate onto the highway. They may have to go out another gate onto a county road and onto the highway that way.”
Williamson assured listeners that they were willing to negotiate on that aspect. One solution, he said, might be an overpass or underpass. Small said the solution he’d like to see is to ensure that the money the landowner receives in the takings process recognizes the severance and the accessibility issue.
“The current law in Texas is not as good for the landowner as we want it to be with regard to damages for accessibility issues,” Small commented.
There was a heated debate about condemnation, whether a private entity could condemn private property and also whether private property could be condemned before the actual route had been finalized.
“It is just not true that we can condemn outside of a route,” Williamson told listeners. “Not only is it not true, it would be illegal. All of these routes have to have national environmental approval. We have to go through the environmental process before we can buy the right-of-way and reimburse the landowner or under law condemn.
“Furthermore, the law does not give a private entity the power to condemn your land. Only the State of Texas can condemn your land, and only the State of Texas can own your land. We can’t give condemnation to Bank One. It’s not in the law, it’s not fact,” he told listeners.
Small, however, pointed to the fact that companies like Exxon and TXU condemn land all the time for pipelines and transmission rights-of-way. In reality, Williamson said, that condemnation authority comes through the state.
With regard to condemnation of private property for the purpose of private good, Williamson said the transportation code again gives the Texas Department of Transportation the right to condemn, but he said the state is certainly willing to negotiate so these ancillary facilities could be owned by the private sector.
“If you want to reserve the right to negotiate what occurs on your land with regard to the corridor, that’s fine with us,” Williamson assured listeners. “If you want to maintain development rights to the property which you’ve sold to the state, that’s fine with us. If you want to be the guy to build a service station, a hotel, a fast food restaurant, that’s okay. We’re not in the hotel or water business. We’re in the business of getting this road built.”
Ultimately, Small said, the U.S. Supreme Court may decide, as there is a case before the court about this very issue.
Williamson also assured listeners that the state would not strip landowners of their water rights should their land be condemned for this project.
TSCRA director Rooter Brite Jr., Bowie, asked the chairman how wide the footprint was expected to be.
“I can’t give you the exact acreage because it’s shrinking all the time,” Williamson commented. “I can tell you, though, that it won’t be 1200 feet wide. That was the worst-case scenario.”
Williamson said ideally they’d like to include rail lines, utility lines and water lines all within the same corridor and in that way minimize the totality of condemned acreage and loss of private property. Discussions, he said, are currently underway to determine the feasibility of that idea.
There was a comment about how that might not be possible when there is a difference in what’s an acceptable grade for highways versus rail. Roads supposedly can be built on grades up to 12 percent, but rail can only handle a three percent grade.
“We probably won’t track the rail in the corridor unless it can be built parallel, and our grade on highways is probably not going to be 12 percent,” Williamson said. “We’re suggesting that it might be a grade closer to rail.
“How the private company constructs the road will be up to them, but they will most likely build it in a way that will attract market share. They’re going to want to attract 100,000-pound axle weight trucks, and a truck traveling 80 miles per hour can’t stay on a 12 percent grade highway.”
TSCRA, Small said, would also like to negotiate for some changes with the mitigation aspect of the law. Construction projects this large almost always require that some land be mitigated, meaning equal habitat is provided somewhere else. TSCRA would like the state to consider purchasing conservation easements for this purpose. That way, at least one landowner could stay on the land.
Williamson concluded his remarks by encouraging listeners to get the facts.
“It’s okay to disagree with the facts,” he told listeners. “But don’t disagree because someone has told you that a guy from Spain is going to get rich off this deal. Don’t disagree because someone says you’re not going to have access. We’ll negotiate for that. Every transaction has said that we will guarantee access if we can’t reach a commercial transaction.
“The governor is very sensitive to the criticism directed at him from what he considers to be his roots,” Williamson concluded, “but I think it’s to his credit that he hasn’t backed down. He’s told us to find a way to fix the problem because there really isn’t a going back. We can do away with the corridor, but someone is still going to build a parallel. That’s going to happen. It will happen because we don’t have any room on the existing footprint and we don’t have any money to pay for it, so it will be the private sector that builds it.”
Following the discussion, Small said he was hopeful that some of the concerns being raised by landowners could be resolved.
“There was a lot of give and take back and forth on the issues during the meeting,” Small commented. “There seemed to be some agreement on some of the issues, and others we’re going to have to work on.
“I believe there is still time to do that in this legislative session. There are some other bills that TxDOT wants, and I think at this point that we can amend some of those bills so that some of these issues come through in our favor. We probably won’t get everything, but we’ll get some.”
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