Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ric Williamson: "You can’t tell them where to build the road.”

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Route change request rejected


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN — Companies that are willing to pay for the right to build toll roads in Texas should have wide latitude to decide where they’re built, state officials told Metroplex leaders Thursday.

New evidence of the state’s move to privatize roads was on display Thursday, when members of the Texas Transportation Commission said they will not pressure the private consortium Cintra Zachry to build the Trans-Texas Corridor closer to Dallas-Fort Worth.

About 100 North Texas elected officials and business leaders had traveled to Austin to ask the commission to force Cintra Zachry to build the highway as a loop around Dallas-Fort Worth. But the commission refused.

“If you aggressively invite the private sector to be your partner, you can’t tell them where to build the road,” commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford said.

Cintra Zachry, a combination of companies from Spain and San Antonio hired by the state, plans to have the Trans-Texas toll road bypass the Metroplex to the east of Dallas. Cintra Zachry has said it can build the $6 billion highway with private money — no gas-tax dollars — and pay the state a $1.2 billion concession fee for the right to collect tolls for 50 years.

The Dallas portion could be built by 2015. A toll road and freight rail line around the west side of Fort Worth would be added several years later.

But Metroplex officials are concerned that the project would cause leapfrog development outside the Metroplex and drain jobs away from the urban core. The outer loop would make it easier to incorporate the toll road into the region’s freeway plans, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

After the exchange with Williamson, North Texas leaders said they plan to meet with Cintra Zachry engineers to share statistics. They say Metroplex freight companies would rather have the toll road follow Interstate 35, 35E and 35W more closely.

Morris’ office has proposed that the highway be built in a more or less straight north-south line from San Antonio through Austin and Waco to Mansfield, where it would connect with an outer loop. Those wishing to go through the Metroplex could connect with a proposed Texas 360 toll road in Mansfield.

The proposal could shorten the project by 60 miles and save Cintra Zachry $1.9 billion, Morris said.

“It isn’t the public and private sector operating in a vacuum,” Morris said during the meeting. “We don’t think we’re asking the private sector to do something that’s foreign to them.”

But Cintra Zachry officials have consistently said the most profitable path for a toll road would steer clear of the Metroplex.

Despite the Trans-Texas disagreement, state and local officials agreed to support one another in plans for toll roads, express toll lanes and freight- and passenger-rail lines. The state is expected to experience an $86 billion highway-funding shortfall through 2030.

Those appearing on behalf of the Metroplex included developer Ross Perot Jr.; Pete Rickershauer, vice president of BNSF Railway; and Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief. The North Texas group, known informally as Dallas-Fort Worth Partners in Mobility, meets annually with the commission to discuss plans to reduce Metroplex gridlock and build roads, despite a chronic funding shortfall.

The Trans-Texas Corridor will be the subject of more than 50 public hearings statewide this summer, although the Texas Department of Transportation, not Cintra Zachry, is guiding that process.

Also Thursday, the North Texas group called for lawmakers to stop diverting about a quarter of the state’s gas-tax revenue to education and instead spend that money on relieving gridlock.
Gordon Dickson, (817) 685-3816

© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram: