Thursday, March 30, 2006

"This is really about moving Chinese goods into the U.S. from Mexican ports.”

Corridor rail line proposed

March 30, 2006

Staff and Wire Reports
Temple Daily Telegram
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN - The developer of the first phase of the Trans Texas Corridor super highway toll system says Texas needs an addition: 600 miles of new rail line from Dallas-Fort Worth to Mexico for freight trains.

That’s the proposal from Cintra-Zachry, the Spanish and American partnership already working on the first section of toll road for cars and trucks, announced by state transportation officials Wednesday.

The Trans Texas Corridor is the plan kick-started several years ago by Gov. Rick Perry to build 4,000-plus miles of tollways and railways that would incorporate oil and gas pipelines, utility and water lines, and even broadband data.

State Rep. Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple, said Monday afternoon, “I have just got the information. I’m studying it now, and I have a number of questions about it.”

The new rail line could ease congestion on Interstate 35 by reducing the need for about 1 million trucks. It could also improve traffic safety, get hazardous materials out of urban areas and reduce pollution, the developer and state officials said.

Cintra-Zachry gave a rough outline of the plan in a letter to the Texas Transportation Commission.

Commission officials said Cintra-Zachry would pay about $5 billion to build the rail line, then charge companies to use it. The developer is spending its own money on the highway and will collect on its investment with tolls.

Cintra-Zachry was selected last year to develop the first phase of the project, a 600-mile traffic and trade route from Oklahoma to Mexico to run roughly parallel to Interstate 35.

If the state chooses to pursue the rail plan, Cintra-Zachry is not guaranteed to be the developer. State rules require the government to pursue alternative bids.

Although rail companies would not be forced to use it, they probably would if it helps them move cargo faster, commission Chairman Ric Williamson said. Trains could travel up to 70 mph shipping goods across the state or in and out of Mexico.

And by freeing up existing rail in cities, it could spawn new commuter rail traffic, Williamson said.

“This confirms Governor Perry’s vision that once our mobility challenges were open to innovation, the market would respond,” Williamson said.

Rail companies Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe last year signed agreements with Perry to work toward moving freight lines out of urban areas.

Union Pacific spokesman Joe Arbona said the company had not heard of the new rail line plan before Wednesday and didn’t know how it would affect its existing agreement with the state. Union Pacific currently operates about 6,400 miles of railroad in Texas.

The corridor plan has been met with opposition.

Farmers and environmentalists worry they will be forced to give up land or that local economies will suffer as traffic is diverted to alternate routes. If the corridor is 1,200 feet wide in some areas as planned, a farmer could lose as much as 146 acres per mile, according to the Texas Farm Bureau.

Chris Hammel, president of the Blackland Coalition, a Central Texas organization dedicated to preventing construction of the TransTexas Corridor, said, “It’s pretty clear the governor and the Texas Transportation Commission are eager to do business with a Spanish company that comes to them with no-bid offers like this one. I’m not surprised at all. This is just another step in the plan they have had all along.”

Hammel said, “This is about getting a cheaper way to get Chinese imports into the U.S. The building container ports in Mexico can be unloaded with a lot less expense in Mexico, and a lot of those containers are from China. This is really about moving Chinese goods into the U.S. from Mexican ports.”

Three of Perry’s political opponents, Democrat candidate for governor Chris Bell and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman, have all criticized the toll road plan.

Strayhorn chimed in again Wednesday.

“Our roads, our railways, our bridges, our seaports, our airports and our border crossings are vital to our economy and prime targets for terrorists,” Strayhorn said. “Why take the chance and let a private or public foreign operation control vital Texas infrastructure and property?”

Any rail line could take two or three years to get started. In addition to the bidding process, the state would also have to perform environmental impact studies to see where it could be built.

Theoretically, the rail line would run near the toll road. State officials will soon unveil a potential corridor for the highway, a 10-mile-wide swath of land that will eventually be parred down.

Under the proposal, the new line would be built so all vehicle traffic would cross either under or over it, eliminating dangerous crossings.

Copyright © 2006 Temple Daily Telegram