Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lawsuit attempting to keep TTC CDA secret will be dropped.

Toll road contract at issue in governor's race to be made public

Sep. 28, 2006

Kelley Shannon
Associated Press
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN - Secret sections of a contract to develop the Trans-Texas Corridor that have created a contentious point in the governor's race are being released to the public, state transportation officials said Thursday.

The decision was announced at a Texas Transportation Commission meeting where a master plan for the first phase of the proposed corridor was revealed.

Because the master plan is an update of an earlier proposal by the consortium Cintra-Zachry, all parts of the earlier proposal - including portions that were kept secret for proprietary reasons - will be released, said Amadeo Saenz, assistant executive director for engineering operations at the state transportation department.

That also means a transportation department lawsuit attempting to keep the contract secret will be dropped, he said.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who proposed the Trans-Texas Corridor in 2002, has come under fire from opponents and anti-corridor activists in part because of the secret contract. Some are also mad because the giant toll road will take their land.

Perry, after a speech in Houston on Thursday, said secrecy surrounding the toll road contract was necessary during active negotiations. He compared it with asking that competitors bidding on a house divulge their offers.

"It would have been highly disruptive to the process to make all that public" before negotiations were complete, he said. Perry said he had nothing to do with the transportation department's decision to release the information.

While the Texas Department of Transportation said it posted all parts of the contract on its Web site Thursday, downloading the document was a slow process. It took The Associated Press an hour and 45 minutes to download a copy of the 256-page document, which included more than 50 pages of aerial photographs of the road's proposed route.

The agency was working on the problem and hoped to have the contract quickly accessible to the public via computer by Friday, said spokesman Randall Dillard.

Cintra-Zachry proposed paying $7.2 billion to build the first segments of the corridor, running roughly parallel to Interstate 35. The Spanish-American consortium said it would invest $6 billion to build a state-owned toll road and would pay the state $1.2 billion and get to operate the road and collect tolls.

State transportation officials now say the private money invested could total as much as $8.8 billion.

Cintra-Zachry initially had a development agreement to start working on the project. The company's spokesman, Rossanna Salazar, said it was always understood that once the master plan was completed and accepted by the Texas Department of Transportation, that Cintra-Zachry's development agreement would be released in full.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn has been the most vocal Perry opponent criticizing the Trans-Texas Corridor and the state contract with Cintra-Zachry.

Over the summer, she attended several crowded public hearings along the corridor route to speak against the project and called for the contract to be made public.

"Texans have the right to know what their government is doing, but Rick Perry and his highway henchmen are determined to cram toll roads down our throats and were willing to go to court to protect this administration's special interests," Strayhorn spokesman Mark Sanders said Thursday.

Attorney General Greg Abbott's office ruled last year that the agreement should be public, but the transportation agency hired outside lawyers to go to court to fight that decision. A court hearing was scheduled for Oct. 10.

The first phase of the proposed corridor, as described in the master plan Thursday, would be a toll road built from north of Dallas-Fort worth to south of San Antonio, connecting to I-35 at those two points. The tollway would loop around Dallas and follow a path a few miles east of the interstate.

The Federal Highway Administration will have final say on the first-phase plan released Thursday. Construction could begin by 2011, pending environmental clearance.

Ultimately, the corridor would be a network crisscrossing the state and costing up to $184 billion, Perry has said. The corridor would be up to a quarter-mile across, consisting of as many as six lanes for cars and four for trucks, plus railroad tracks, oil and gas pipelines, water and other utility lines, even broadband transmission cables.


Associated Press writer Joe Stinebaker in Houston contributed to this report. Kelley Shannon has covered Texas politics and government in Austin since 2000.

© 2006 The Associated Press: