Sunday, April 09, 2006

"Commissioner Williamson has no credibility on our lack of funds on transportation."

Corridor route plan irks North Texas

April 9, 2006

Tony Hartzel
Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2006

North Texas leaders now have a rough idea where the Trans-Texas Corridor probably will be built.

While the first part of the corridor won't open for at least 10 years, the political arguments and battles over its exact location can begin in earnest.

On Tuesday, state and federal transportation officials held a news conference at the Grand Hyatt DFW at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to announce an agreement that establishes the 10-mile-wide, 521-mile-long proposed corridor study area, which runs on or near much of Interstate 35.

Just a few minutes after – and just a few feet down the hall in another Grand Hyatt ballroom – some North Texas leaders gathered to denounce the proposed alignment.

They don't like it because it splits off from I-35 and runs too far east of Dallas.

A final 10-mile-wide study area will be announced in about a year, after dozens of public hearings beginning this summer.

Local leaders said the state did little to solicit their input on the route.

"Nobody asked for any input, really," said Dallas County Commissioner Ken Mayfield.
State officials said selection of the study area is an environmental process that takes into account many factors, including environmental hazards, wetlands that could be claimed, and developed property that would have to be bought.

As such, the state and environmental planners could not consider political concerns and released as much information as they could.

"We followed the rules and regulations of the federal government. The process that has been followed in the last year was as open and as transparent as the law and the regulations permit," said Ric Williamson, Texas Transportation Commission chairman.

They emphasized that local concerns will be a major factor in the next phase of the project, which will determine where specific toll roads, rail lines and utility lines will be built.

The battle over the corridor may just be beginning. Mr. Mayfield said he wants to talk with the new chairman of the state Senate's Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, John Carona, R-Dallas, about the corridor.

Mr. Mayfield and others also question how the state got to where it now says it needs $86 billion to meet its transportation needs by 2030.

They point out that Mr. Williamson served in the Legislature in the 1980s, when lawmakers began taking gas tax revenue that was dedicated to building highways and using it for things like the Department of Public Safety and public education.

Those gas tax diversions are a sore point for local leaders trying to get more money for transportation without having to place tolls on many new highway projects.

"Commissioner Williamson has no credibility on our lack of funds on transportation. He was one of those who made the decision to divert transportation funds away from transportation," Mr. Mayfield said.

Mr. Williamson was prepared when the subject came up at the state's announcement last week.
The state is billions of dollars short for several reasons, he said: Texas lost an estimated $7 billion because it hasn't received a fair reimbursement on federal gas tax revenue it sends to Washington; it lost $10 billion from diverting state gas tax revenue; and its maintenance costs for all the highways built in the 1950s and 1960s grew more than expected, while gas tax rates remained relatively flat.

"I don't think anyone stopped and thought about the maintenance costs of the National Highway System," he said.

Tony Hartzel can be reached at and at P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, Texas 75265.

© 2006 The Dallas Morning News Co