Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Here comes the Porkbarrel Express Ltd.

State to get bid to build rail project

Details on consortium making offer, terms of deal expected today.

March 29, 2006

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

A consortium led by a Fortune 500 company today will give the state a proposal to build a rail project from north of Dallas to south of San Antonio as part of the Trans-Texas Corridor, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said.

Williamson, contacted after the Texas Department of Transportation called a noon news conference for today to make a "monumental announcement," would not reveal further details about the rail proposal — including the company or its proposed terms for doing the project — until the news conference.

But the state has been talking to Union Pacific and BNSF Railway for a couple of years about moving most of their freight operations out of urban centers such as Austin along the Interstate 35 corridor. The Trans-Texas Corridor, as proposed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2002, was envisioned as a network of cross-state toll roads, freight and passenger rail lines, and utility lines.

The state Transportation Department in December 2004 announced that Cintra-Zachry, a partnership of Spanish toll road builder Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction Corp., had offered to spend $6 billion to build a four-lane toll road from San Antonio to the Oklahoma border paralleling I-35. Cintra-Zachry is working on a more detailed plan under a $3.5 million state contract with the state.

The partnership also pledged that it would, as the 300-mile project is built in segments, pay the state $1.2 billion in concession fees. That money could be used for other transportation projects, including rail.

The state in the next few weeks will announce the course of a 10-mile-wide swath that, after a couple more years of refinements, would include the several-hundred-foot-wide path of the tollway. In theory rail lines could be built alongside or in the median of road.

Urban leaders up and down I-35 would welcome a cross-country freight alternative. Union Pacific, whose line runs from south of San Antonio through San Marcos, Austin, Round Rock and on to Taylor, has two dozen or more freight trains a day passing through the corridor.

The procession of slow-moving trains causes constant traffic tie-ups in San Marcos. Derailments and the hazardous materials sometimes on board freight trains present a safety hazard. And transit advocates, if the Union Pacific line were used only for the four or five local freight runs a day, would like to run commuter trains from Georgetown to San Antonio along the rail line that runs through Central Austin in the MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) right of way.

Under the agency's rules, receipt of an unsolicited proposal for a project triggers a procedure in which it seeks competitors. The original proposers, or one of the late-comers, could end up doing such a job. What makes this proposal significant, Williamson said, is that the terms as outlined so far would already be highly favorable from the state's point of view.

"It's as good as one can hope for," he said. "It will only get better."; 445-3698

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