Thursday, January 31, 2008

"It's been promised as an interstate freeway, not as a tollway in the hands of a foreign company."

Valley officials court state's superhighway


Lynn Brezoksy
Rio Grande Valley Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

WESLACO — One of 11 town hall meetings at points along Gov. Rick Perry's controversial I-69/Trans-Texas Corridor opened Thursday with officials from different ends of the Valley urging that what would be the region's first interstate be routed their way.

Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas pushed for upgrading U.S. 281, stressing that the highway stretching north from Edinburg was the key evacuation path for more than a million people, a front door to a thriving automotive component industry just across the border, and the second-fastest-growing region in America.

Cameron County Commissioner David Garza countered that U.S. 77 would bring in seaports to both Brownsville and Corpus Christi.

The Trans-Texas Corridor is envisioned ultimately as a 4,000-mile superhighway that would crisscross the state and provide a long-awaited interstate from Valley points north to the Canadian border.

About 75 people attended the meeting, far fewer than meetings held in other regions.

Valley officials have been crying for years for an interstate to boost their post-NAFTA growth by transporting goods from Mexico. When initial plans for an Interstate 69 corridor collapsed, they supported Perry's plan.

Bill Summers, director of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, said the ideal plan would use both routes.

Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Gaby Garciasaid the informal town hall meetings would be followed by formal public hearings at 46 locations starting in February. The hearings will gather public comment on the 1,072-page environmental impact statement for the South Texas segment.

Although Rio Grande Valley leaders support the corridor plan, it has been railed against elsewhere in the state as a land grab for toll roads that will pay big for private enterprise. Previous meetings have drawn overflow crowds.

The Cintra Zachry consortium, composed of the Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio and Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA, a Spanish company, planned the first phase of the TTC along Interstate 35. The firms are now competing against one another, TxDOT's Amadeo Saenz said.

"We not only have a massive land grab by the state, but the state has turned over the management, or essentially the ownership of that road, for the next 50 years to a foreign company," said Steve Pringle of the Texas Farm Bureau.

Garcia countered that it would be years before construction or management contracts were awarded.

"They're certainly going to compete, but the key word is compete," she said.

TxDOT's "Keep Texas Moving" Web site says existing highways would take precedence over new routes and that roads will never be converted into toll roads without voter approval. It says there will be free travel alternatives.

Garcia said the state's population growth was outpacing its infrastructure and that traditional funding sources for roads were not good enough.

"What we're going to see is more rail, more trucks on the highway. If we don't find ways to move them more efficiently, we're facing future gridlock," she said. "We need to do this so we're not caught off guard in 10, 20 years saying we should have done that."

Terri Hall, leader of the anti-TTC group Texans United for Reform and Freedom, said Valley officials were supporting the most expensive way to get their interstate.

"It's been promised as an interstate freeway, not as a tollway in the hands of a foreign company," the San Antonio resident said. "The bottom line is they're going to take an existing road and turn around and toll it."

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