Friday, June 16, 2006

Ric Williamson miffed by Fort Worth Mayor's remarks

A Trans-Texas tussle

By Jack Z. Smith
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief assailed the Texas Department of Transportation on Tuesday, suggesting that it was snubbing Metroplex officials' preferred alignment for the region's portion of the Trans-Texas Corridor, the state's proposed toll system on steroids.

After his forceful address to the Texas Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security at its public hearing in Fort Worth, Moncrief attempted to shake hands with Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford before departing the meeting at the downtown Intermodal Transportation Center.

An obviously miffed Williamson, rankled by Moncrief's blunt comments, refused.

Williamson apparently took Moncrief's comments as a slap in the face, although the mayor didn't malign the commissioner personally. Moncrief seemed somewhat baffled by Williamson's becoming so steamed.

After witnessing the tense exchange and talking to the two afterward, I thought: "Oh, no, this is exactly what the D-FW area doesn't need." Strained personal relationships between two important public officials can only make it more difficult to resolve the crucial issue of where the TTC system will be routed in the Metroplex.

After Moncrief's comments, Dallas City Councilman Bill Blaydes, a bear of a man who speaks with a powerful voice and doesn't mince words, offered additional pointed remarks that further irritated Williamson and other TxDOT officials.

But as the dust cleared after the four-hour hearing, I was feeling considerably better. Despite a stream of barbed comments and prickly exchanges, the end result appeared to be that TxDOT officials and Dallas-Fort Worth leaders better understood each other's positions.

Most encouraging is that Williamson repeatedly insisted that the preferences of Metroplex officials would be given great weight at public hearings being held later this summer to solicit comments on the preferred TTC alignment.

Williamson said he finds it "incomprehensible" that a project of such magnitude would be approved without support from a region as large and populous as North Texas. He indicated that local political and business leaders would be strongly influential in determining the route.

A Spanish firm, Cintra, and Zachry Construction of San Antonio are proposing to use $6 billion in private investment to build a 316-mile, four-lane toll road dubbed TTC-35 from the D-FW area to San Antonio and pay a $1.2 billion concession to the state. Cintra-Zachry would collect tolls for 50 years. TTC-35 would be the portion of the statewide Trans-Texas Corridor system relieving congestion on choked Interstate 35.

Cintra favors running a primary leg of the TTC-35 segment around the east edge of Dallas County. But D-FW elected officials, business leaders and transportation experts strongly favor running the corridor up the Metroplex's middle, along the path of an extended Texas 360 and on to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

Local leaders also favor constructing an east-west corridor at the southern edge of the Metroplex and looping it northward around the west edge of Tarrant County.

The locals have been perturbed by earlier comments by Williamson leaving some to believe that Cintra might call the shots as to the alignment for TTC-35 in the Metroplex. But Williamson insisted on Tuesday that local leaders would have far more influence, with TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration ultimately deciding.

Although Cintra officials wouldn't determine the route, they could decline to participate in the project if they believed it wouldn't make enough money, Williamson said.

The plan favored by D-FW officials appears superior. It's now vital that they speak up in important hearings in July and August regarding the proposed route.

In the wake of Tuesday's oral tussles over the TTC, I'm confident that Moncrief and Williamson can resolve their differences if they haven't already.

They're big boys. They know how vital it is that the project be done right to help ensure that the Metroplex traffic jams of the future are not unbearably long and unpleasant.

That's something they should be able to shake hands on.

Jack Z. Smith is a Star-Telegram editorial writer. 817-390-7724

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