Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Fat Blue Line

State releases map of proposed Trans-Texas Corridor

Cross-state toll road would run east of I-35, cut through blackland prairie, south to Laredo.

April 04, 2006

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Coipyright 2006

GRAPEVINE — The Trans-Texas Corridor toll road twin to Interstate 35 will flank the freeway to the east from Dallas to San Antonio, include the Texas 130 turnpike in Central Texas, and go to Laredo rather than Brownsville, according to a draft environmental report released by state officials this morning.

The centerpiece of the 4,300-page draft report is a fat blue line showing an approximately 10-mile-wide area from Gainesville to San Antonio and a thinner line running south of there, delineating what has been a much-anticipated path for the turnpike. Rural Texans, in particular, have been waiting to see if their lands would fall under that blue swath — indicating that they might have to sell their land someday for the road.

Even if a particular parcel lies within that corridor, however, the tale is far from being told. The draft environmental impact statement for what will be known as TTC-35 is still subject to review, more public hearings and tinkering during the next year. Then, for particular road segments or rail projects, the state will conduct a second study that would narrow the path to a few hundred feet in width.

Construction of any kind is unlikely until 2010 or later.

But today's release, preliminary though it is, answers some big-picture questions:

• East or west, or down the middle? East. The state had at least held open the possibility that TTC-35 (and the rail lines likely to accompany it eventually) could go west of Fort Worth or even in between Fort Worth and Dallas. Although the report leaves a slight opening, including 11 other "reasonable" alternatives that include swinging west of Fort Worth, it makes it clear that a western route would be bad for rail lines because of that area's steeper hills and would divert much less traffic from I-35.

"In Texas, goods tend to go to the eastern United States," said Doug Booher, environmental manager for the Texas Department of Transportation's turnpike division. "The alternatives that go east of Dallas-Fort Worth do a much better job of relieving congestion."

• Is Texas 130 part of the corridor? Yes, for all but its northerly few miles where it juts back and connects to I-35. This always seemed inevitable, given that the state would hardly want to have two toll roads flanking Austin. But for arcane legal reasons, state officials had to be coy about this.

The 10-mile-wide corridor has plenty of room east of Texas 130, which is under construction and should open in 2007, to put rail lines. But, significantly, the recommended corridor does not go far enough east to include an existing Union Pacific line running north-south through Elgin and Bastrop. State officials happily announced last week that Cintra-Zachry, the partnership in line to build the TTC-35 toll road, has submitted a proposal to build a rail line along the corridor from Oklahoma to Mexico.

Cintra-Zachry, composed of the Spanish toll road builder Cintra and Zachry Construction Co. of San Antonio, has said it would spend $6 billion on a four-lane turnpike from Oklahoma to San Antonio, paying the state $1.2 billion in concession fees. The 600-mile rail line, which would be built to avoid all road crossings and allow freight trains to go 70 miles an hour, could cost as much as $6 billion, Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton said last week.

• Will the corridor avoid the best cropland? No. While alternatives west of I-35 would have run over less fruitful lands, rather than the rich blackland prairie east of I-35, they scored low on fulfilling the road's purpose: to take cars and trucks off I-35.

The 10-mile swath does hug I-35 closely, with its western edge typically within 2 to 5 miles of the interstate, which might allow much of it to be built on the less-valued Austin Chalk lands. But north of Waco it cuts away from I-35 and I-35 East significantly to follow the most direct route toward Dallas' eastern side, a path that puts it over the blacklands area. The recommended corridor, according to the report, includes 2,403 square miles of prime farmland soils (although the narrower actual route would take perhaps only 2 percent of that much), the highest amount of 12 alternatives studied.

•Laredo or Brownsville? Laredo. This was perhaps the most surprising element of the report. Not the destination, but the path. The corridor south of San Antonio narrows from 10 miles to 4 miles and falls right on top of I-35 rather than to the side of it.

Critics had said over the past five years that Gov. Rick Perry's plan of new intrastate toll roads, most of them flanking various interstate highways, was unnecessary in some lightly traveled parts of the states.

South of San Antonio, for instance, current traffic on I-35 is only a little over 10,000 cars a day on a road that can accommodate several times that much.

Showing the corridor on top of the road indicates that state officials have taken that criticism to heart and would simply widen I-35 through sparsely populated and flat South Texas when additional road capacity is needed.

The complete study and map were to be available by 11 a.m. today on the state's Web site for the Trans-Texas Corridor, www.keeptexasmoving.org.

© 2006 Austin American-Statesman: www.statesman.com