Thursday, January 03, 2008

"This corridor is a top priority, not only for TxDOT but for Gov. Perry as well."

Despite Losing Leader, Trans Texas Corridor Moving Ahead.


Richard Williamson
The Bond Buyer
Copyright 2008

DALLAS -- Texas will move ahead with plans for the Trans Texas Corridor in early 2008, despite the loss of the project's leading promoter and a partial moratorium on private development of toll highways.

Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson, a close ally of Gov. Rick Perry in promoting the TTC, died Saturday of a heart attack. The formerly five-member commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, is expected to continue with one of the board members acting as chairman until Perry names a replacement.

"This corridor is a top priority, not only for TxDOT but for Gov. Perry as well," said Ned Holmes, a TTC member. "We've met with leaders along the corridor in recent weeks explaining the work we have under way to accelerate this long-overdue project. The I-69 corridor has been a work in progress for the past 16 years, and it is high time we pour some concrete. In fact we are ready to proceed to the next step."

The so-called corridor is actually a network of highways and rail lines designed to relieve congestion on tax-funded interstate highways while speeding commercial traffic to and from the Mexican border. While one highway will parallel Interstate 35, another, known as Interstate 69, will carry traffic across far South Texas to Houston and northbound to eventually connect with the existing I-69.

Plans for the 650-mile Texas section of I-69 call for use of existing highways before acquiring new right-of-way, according to a draft environmental impact statement released in November.

Beginning Jan. 15, TxDOT will hold 11 town hall meetings followed by 46 public hearings starting Feb. 4.

"We want to hear the public's ideas and we want to answer their questions," said TTC member Ted Houghton. "It is their comments that will help shape the final decisions."

Last month, TxDOT issued a formal request for proposals to two private developer teams on how to finance, design, construct, operate, and maintain I-69. The teams, which submitted initial proposals last year, are ZAI ACS TTC-69 and Bluebonnet Infrastructure. ZAI ACS TTC-69 is led by Zachry American Infrastructure Inc. and ACS Infrastructure Development Inc. Bluebonnet Infrastructure is led by Spanish developer Cintra, which is also working on another section of the TTC between Austin and San Antonio.

Both teams must submit their proposals by March 5.

Williamson was the leader in the fight to tap private funding to build transit projects in Texas, as tax revenues and federal dollars fell increasingly short of the state's needs.

The search for a long-term private partner to finance and develop I-69/TTC is separate from environmental study, which Perry accelerated in 2002 with a streamlined review process.

I-69/TTC was designated a high priority corridor 16 years ago but lacked the billions of dollars in funding needed. Legislation passed in 2003 allowed TxDOT to pursue the project more vigorously.

In December 2005, Perry announced an ambitious plan to partner with the private sector to develop an interstate-quality highway corridor from Northeast Texas, the Gulf Coast, and the Rio Grande Valley. Perry proposed new rail freight capacity, connections to ports, and links to industrial hubs from South Texas and the Midwest.

In the last session of the Texas Legislature, SB 792 placed a two-year moratorium on privately funded toll roads, but made exceptions for planning the I-69 project, among several others.

The decision to develop existing highways first was a result of public comments to date, said Amadeo Saenz, TxDOT executive director.

"We are doing what the public asked us to do and that is look at existing highways first," Saenz said, pointing to public comments urging a better, more direct connection between the Port of Corpus Christi and the inland port of Laredo.

"That is a possibility that deserves additional study and public input, so it is included in the refined study area," Saenz said.

"The Trans-Texas Corridor will connect the state's metro and urban areas without cutting through the hearts of our cities," Saenz said. "We will work with local officials to consider how existing highways will be used to connect urban areas to the corridor."

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