Monday, April 16, 2007

"It doesn't take a doctorate in ethics to divine that HNTB might have something of a conflict of interest."

What's $11.7 billion between friends?

April 16, 2007

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

It was a quick-and-dirty job, but somebody had to do it.

The "it" in this case was a cost comparison between expanding Interstate 35 beyond six lanes and building the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor twin to I-35. The "somebody" was HNTB Corp., which is serving as the Texas Department of Transportation's general engineering consultant on the I-35 corridor project. It was hired to do the comparison after skeptical Texas senators asked questions at a March 1 hearing.

It doesn't take a doctorate in ethics to divine that HNTB, which produced a 101-page report plus hernia-inducing exhibits in just three weeks, might have something of a conflict of interest. So take their March 22 findings, released to the Legislature last week, with a pinch or three of salt.

But what the report says, essentially, is that building from scratch 300-plus miles of a four-lane TTC-35 through farmland east of I-35 will cost less than half what it would take to expand the interstate by four lanes. It also says that a wider I-35 would take about $566 million of property off the tax rolls, more than 14 times the property value taken by a new rural tollway. And that adding those two lanes per side to I-35 from San Antonio to Oklahoma would require land from 2,351 businesses; 166 schools, churches and government buildings; eight parks; and 11 cemeteries.

In Austin, that would include — according to the report's meticulous cataloging of every motel, auto repair shop, dance hall and fast-foot joint flanking I-35 — slices of two cemeteries, a chunk of the Longhorns' practice field, Bikinis Bar and Grill, and . . . the Austin Chronicle. Hmmm, HNTB isn't the only one with a conflict here.

Anyway, because the exact route of TTC-35 hasn't been set, HNTB wasn't able to estimate how many farms or other rural properties would be affected by it.

The HNTB report also reiterates that the $20.5 billion needed to expand I-35 by four lanes would come from public coffers (taxes, for instance, or borrowed money paid back by taxes or tolls) while the estimated $8.8 billion cost of TTC-35 would come from the private sector (paid back by tolls). The inescapable (though unstated) conclusion to be drawn from the report goes something like this: "Are you nuts? Of course you build TTC-35!"

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who leads the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee and called the March 1 hearing, hadn't read the report when I talked to him last week. But he said that adding I-35 capacity "doesn't have to be an either-or proposition." And relative costs, he said, shouldn't be the sole consideration.

The report, no matter what you might think about HNTB's objectivity (and if you want a highway engineering estimate, you pretty much have to go to a highway engineer), puts a fundamental point in black-and-white: To build a road, you must buy or condemn someone's land. The only difference between a Waco hotelier's land and a McLennan County farmer's land is that the hotel land costs more per acre. A lot more.

Either way, somebody's life gets turned upside down.

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