"It's evident that TxDOT's deception, lack of accountability, and frankly, their arrogance must be stopped by this Legislature."
High costs and funding problems inspire little public confidence
By Michelle West
The Daily Texan
Committee members asked the audience to maintain its composure as the crowd groaned in disapproval at statements made by a controversial transportation official addressing a state Senate panel Thursday.
The public hearing by the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security addressed the topics of toll roads, public-private partnerships and the Trans-Texas Corridor. These issues, along with Texas Department of Transportation Chairman Ric Williamson, evoked negative reactions from the vast majority of a witness list - that as of 8:30 a.m. numbered more than 80 - testifying in front of an audience of more than 1,000 people, many of whom opposed the buiding of the corridor.
The corridor, first proposed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2002, received the lion's share of input from citizen groups, farmers, municipal officials and others.
Parallel highways would be built along Interstate Highways 35, 37 and 69 from Denison to the Rio Grande Valley, I-69 from Texarkana to Houston to Laredo, I-45 from Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston, and I-10 from El Paso to Orange, according to a 2002 commission report. These highways would include a passenger, commuter and freight rail roadways separating passenger from commercial traffic and a "dedicated utility zone."
Revenue gained from the state gas tax, remaining at 20 cents per gallon for 15 years, is insufficient to fund future roadway projects that are necessary to deal with the state's rapid population growth, Williamson told the senators. Private equity firms offer a solution to the funding problem, he said.
Last month, the committee's chairman, Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, called for the replacement of Williamson, reasoning that his handling of the project in a push to see the corridor through has alienated many in the public. Adding to controversy, a recent state audit found errors in the department's accounting, and the agency was criticized for keeping details of a contract from being released in a public information request.
"It's evident that TxDot's deception, lack of accountability, and frankly, their arrogance must be stopped by this Legislature," said Terri Hall, regional director for the San Antonio Toll Party.
The first project of the I-35 segment, State Highway 130, is being built in conjunction with an international private firm Cintra Zachry. When asked why existing roadways could not be expanded in order to deal with the population increase, Williamson replied that one additional lane on I-35 would cost an additional $2.9 billion.
"The emphasis and the apparent zeal to build the corridor is so strong, and the disregard for public concern has been so high that when you hear a statement made like, 'One lane costs $2.9 billion,' I got to admit it [would make] me wonder, 'Is it really 2.9, or are these folks just telling me this, because they've got an agenda?'" Carona said.
Williamson defended the need to build parallel roadways instead of expanding existing ones. "The construction cost of a parallel is so much cheaper than an expansion of the existing lanes," Williamson said. However, a report released by the Texas State Auditor's Office points out shortcomings in the department's budgeting. "Weaknesses in the department's accounting for project costs create risks that the public will not know how much the state pays for [the I-35 project], or whether those costs were appropriate," according to the report.
Some speakers criticized the use of private contractors for the construction and development of the project and the use of tolls to supplement funding. "We are on the verge of relinquishing control of vital public infrastructure in ways we cannot fully appreciate today," said David Stall, founder and spokesman for CorridorWatch. Contractors would choose to build roadways where it is most profitable and feel free to charge toll rates undesirable to commuters, he said.
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