Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Ric Williamson: "The moratorium doesn't affect TTC-35."

Move it!

Toll boss clarifies moratorium

June 27, 2007

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

A construction contract for a Trans-Texas Corridor toll road from Austin to Dallas could be ready within two years, and a new moratorium law wouldn't stop it, state officials said today.

SB 792 bans leasing of many new toll projects for two years, the state's preferred way to finance its border-to-border TTC network, but the restriction does not apply to TCC plans along Interstate 35, said Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson.

That's because a TTC-35 development contract signed in 2005 covers upcoming construction contracts, he said. And that means those projects can be built using otherwise prohibited concession agreements, which raise upfront cash in return for letting companies collect tolls for up to 50 years.

"The moratorium doesn't affect TTC-35," Williamson said. "I don't know what else to say."

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, got an assurance read into the House record for SB 792 last month that says no construction of TTC-35 projects, except for Loop 9 around Dallas-Fort Worth, would start over the next two years.

Gov. Rick Perry's office told her that work couldn't start within two years anyway because environmental studies won't be finished.

But today, in a conference call Williamson and other officials held with reporters, Texas Department of Transportation Assistant Director Amadeo Saenz said otherwise.

A big-picture environmental study for TTC-35 could get federal clearance this summer and the first second-phase studies to determine specific alignments could be finished in a year or year and a half, Saenz said.

TxDOT announced two weeks ago that they're ready to pursue 87 toll projects statewide, including three four-lane TTC-35 tollways — one from I-35 south of San Antonio to I-10 near Seguin, a segment from Austin to Dallas and another from Dallas to Oklahoma.

Williamson said today that a construction contract could be ready within two years for the toll-road from Austin to Dallas.

But that doesn't mean the state will sign the contract right away, he said, not without giving lawmakers a chance to weigh in at the 2009 legislative session, when TxDOT itself and the ability to enter into concessions come up for sunset reviews.

"We'll be very judicious about that kind of stuff," he said.

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