Friday, June 09, 2006

Transportation Secretary: "Rickie you're doing a heckuva job."

Perry, Mineta laud new wave of toll roads

June 8, 2006

Associated Press
Copyright 2006

PFLUGERVILLE, Texas - While state transportation leaders touted the impact of 50 years of interstate highways Thursday, they also joined Gov. Rick Perry in lauding Texas' burgeoning pay-as-you-go system of toll roads.

Perry, federal Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and other officials toured part of a 40-mile section of the Central Texas Turnpike, which will be early and under budget when it opens this fall.

The $3.5 billion turnpike is designed to reduce congestion in and around Austin.

Motorists using the roads will stop and pay cash at the toll booths or drive straight through using a TxTAG, an electronic toll device placed on the windshield.

Perry has touted toll roads as a way to quickly and cheaply build Texas out of a growing problem of crowded highways.

While Interstate 35 remains a freeway, the new toll roads will allow drivers to pay to avoid Austin traffic at a price of 10 cents to 12 cents per mile.

"Soon Texans can leave behind the traffic jams, the bottlenecks, the jackknifed big rigs on I-35 for a small toll," Perry said. "That's the exchange. Drivers won't even have to slow down."

The state Transportation Department on Thursday also opened a two-day conference on the 50th anniversary of the interstate highway system started under President Eisenhower.

But Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said the days of Texas counting on federal gasoline tax revenues and work projects to pay for and build major new highways is long gone.

"That time, and that circumstance, has passed," Williamson said.

The Central Texas Turnpike was paid for with a combination of road bonds, a federal loan and local government contributions.

It includes some of the highest interchanges in the area at 110 feet.

The network of roads was built in less than four years, compared to the estimated 25 it would have taken if the state relied solely on federal tax money, Perry said.

The only other way to build that fast would be to raise the current gasoline tax of 20 cents per gallon by $1 or more, Perry said.

Mineta said Texas should be a model for other states looking to build major highways.

"Texas is showing the rest of the country how to expand major parts of its highway system," Mineta said.

Toll roads haven't come without their political speed bumps.

The state is in the early stages of the Trans Texas Corridor highway system Perry first proposed in 2002.

The overall plan calls for 4,000-plus miles of tollways and railways across the state that would incorporate oil and gas pipelines, utility and water lines and even broadband.

The project has been criticized by farmers and private property rights activists.

Perry's opponents in the race for governor, independents Kinky Friedman and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Democrat Chris Bell, all have criticized the toll road plan.

Strayhorn has called on Perry to make public the state contract with Cintra-Zachry, the Spanish-American partnership developing the first phase of the corridor.

Cintra-Zachry reached a $7.2 billion deal with the state last year to develop a traffic route running roughly parallel to Interstate 35.

Cintra-Zachry and state transportation officials went to court to keep parts of the deal secret.

Perry campaign spokesman Robert Black said most of the contract is open to the public except for proprietary information.

© 2006 The Associated Press: