Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"The alliance's interests have changed since Harris County joined it."

Commissioners may opt out of I-69 alliance

Moratorium on toll road contracts causing discord

May 15, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Commissioners Court may vote today on whether to withdraw the county's membership in the Alliance for I-69 Texas, an organization that has long supported converting U.S. 59 through East and South Texas into an interstate highway.

The county is at odds with the I-69 alliance over its request that Gov. Rick Perry veto a state transportation bill because it includes a two-year moratorium on long-term contracts between the state and private firms to build and operate toll roads for profit.

The county wants the bill signed into law because another largely unrelated provision would empower the Harris County Toll Road Authority to build toll roads on Texas Department of Transportation right of way.

County Judge Ed Emmett said the I-69 alliance, acting on advice from state highway officials, appears to have given up on building Interstate 69, and now supports constructing a Trans-Texas Corridor toll road roughly parallel to the existing U.S. 59.

The Trans-Texas Corridor system, pushed by Perry, would be a network of toll roads, railways, and pipelines contained within wide rights of way crisscrossing the state. The Texas Department of Transportation contends that funding the state's future highway needs, including one along U.S. 59, requires the public-private partnerships that the moratorium would temporarily suspend.

"The alliance's interests have changed since Harris County joined it," Emmett said. "The original intent was to upgrade U.S. 59 to an interstate."

John Thompson, I-69 alliance chairman and Polk county judge, said I-69 will remain a viable project so long as lawmakers do not ban the private-public contracts that may be needed to build it.

The moratorium and related provisions, however, would have been "devastating" to I-69 plans, Thompson said.

He said the only part of the House bill that the alliance objected to was the moratorium on these contracts. It did not object to the provision relating to TxDOT and the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

Even if a tolled corridor is built parallel to U.S. 59, Thompson said he still favors converting the present road into an interstate through East Texas, with the toll road being used mainly by heavy trucks going long distances.

On Monday, the state Senate unanimously passed a compromise bill that might satisfy both sides. The bill, SB 792, is expected to be fast-tracked in the House for a possible vote Thursday.

A TxDOT spokesman said the department does not comment on pending legislation.

I-69, sometimes called the NAFTA Highway (for North American Free Trade Agreement) was conceived as a corridor connecting Mexico and Canada with the U.S. heartland. The Texas segment would be 800 to 1,000 miles long and skirt suburban Houston.

Whatever plan ultimately emerges, completion of the project would cost billions of dollars and take decades.

Harris County pays $50,000 in annual membership fees to the alliance, a coalition of counties, towns, chambers of commerce and others.

Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said she would support Emmett's motion to withdraw because "it has always been my position that we spend too much money on membership fees and get no real value for the dollars we spend."

bill.murphy@chron.com; rad.sallee@chron.com

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