Sunday, March 19, 2006

Perry's parallel universe

Officials not linking ports deal, new tollway

March 19, 2006

By Mike Anderson
The Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2006

Federal officials have been squabbling in recent weeks over a proposal to give operations of some U.S. ports to a Dubai company, but in Texas, state officials don't appear to share the same concerns about a Spanish company operating portions of the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor.

On Thursday, a state-owned Dubai company announced it was backing out of a deal to manage some terminal operations at six American ports, amid a political firestorm in Congress. President Bush supported the arrangement, but it was opposed by some in Congress who expressed concern about security issues arising from having a foreign company operating U.S. ports.

Meanwhile in Texas, the Spanish company Cintra, joining with San Antonio-based Zachry Construction, has signed a contract with the state to develop portions of the Trans-Texas Corridor between Mexico and Oklahoma.

Gov. Rick Perry proposed the project in 2002 as a means to handle current and future trade traffic and population growth by providing an alternative to the interstate highway system. The project would bring together highways, rail and utility infrastructure in a 1,200-foot-wide tollway. The Texas Department of Transportation is expected to announce a 10-mile-wide environmental impact study area for the corridor in the next few weeks. The corridor will likely pass through McLennan County.

Cintra has proposed investing $6 billion to build a toll road between Dallas and San Antonio by 2010, with an additional $1.2 billion to extend the corridor to Mexico, state officials have said. In return for the investment, Cintra has proposed to negotiate for a 50-year contract to maintain and operate the new highway as a toll road, officials have said.

When Perry proposed the corridor, he promoted it in part as a way to improve the state's ability to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks or other disasters by creating hazardous material routes outside major cities. He also touted the corridor as providing transportation alternatives which would make it more difficult to paralyze the state's infrastructure.

On Friday, Perry spokeswoman Rachael Novier said while ensuring Texans' safety is the governor's number one priority, she does not see a parallel between the operation of the Trans-Texas Corridor and the concerns expressed over a Dubai company overseeing American ports. Novier pointed out that Cintra will be working with Zachry Construction, which she described as the nation's largest construction firm.

State transportation department spokeswoman Gabby Garcia said even if Cintra operates the toll road, the state will retain oversight and ownership. She added that while Cintra will be the first at the table to negotiate to build and operate the corridor, that does not mean they are guaranteed to be the builder. She said the competitive process is ongoing.

One person who has been critical of the state's corridor plan, Waco resident Rick Wegwerth, laughed when ask about a possible comparison between foreign operation of ports and the corridor.

“Isn't that funny that we give a 50-year monopoly to a Spanish company to put in a highway to nowhere, then at the same time everybody has a huge problem with a foreign company running our ports,” said Wegwerth, an organizer of the McLennan County anti-corridor group DERAIL.

The New York Times news service contributed to this story.


© 2006 The Waco Tribune-Herald