Saturday, March 22, 2008

TTC-69 tolls near urban areas to fund construction of other corridor segments

Three South Texas highways to be interstates

March 22, 2008

Jackie Leatherman
The Monitor
Copyright 2008

South Texas is not only going to get its first interstate - it is also going to get a second and a third.

State transportation officials knew one of three southern highways - U.S. Highway 281 in Hidalgo County, U.S. Highway 77 in Cameron County or U.S. Highway 59 in Webb County - would eventually become part of an interstate stretching from the Texas-Mexico border to Texarkana, in the northeast part of the state. Only Webb County is currently served by an interstate.

The state's Trans-Texas Corridor plan calls for an Interstate 69 extension linking South Texas to points north, with I-69 eventually becoming part of a federal highway project to connect Canada and Mexico. Advocates expect the project to reduce congestion, enhance safety, expand economic opportunities and improve air quality, among other benefits.

Now, though, instead of only one South Texas highway making the cut for I-69 inclusion, all three of them have.

"All three routes are considered part of the I-69 system," said Mario Jorge, the Texas Department of Transportation's local district engineer. "The actual determination of which one comes first will be handled at a later date when funding becomes available."

Early discussions included the possibility of adding new lanes to one of the highways and operating them as a toll road targeting commercial traffic, while existing lanes would remain free for motorists to use.

But Jorge said no new lanes will be added to the highways, and the major upgrades will just be overpasses.

U.S. Highway 77 is the most likely choice to become the first I-69 corridor running through the Rio Grande Valley, he said, because it will be quicker, easier and cheaper to upgrade. No final decision has been made yet, however.

"Our plan is to get an interstate to the Valley as soon as we possibly can," Jorge said. "If 77 can get it here, we will do that."

Of the two Valley routes, U.S. Highway 77 has more segments that are already up to "interstate standards," which means they have more overpasses compared to U.S. Highway 281.

There also are fewer landowners along U.S. Highway 77 between Brownsville and Corpus Christi, meaning the state doesn't have to get as many approvals from property owners to access land for construction.

"It is a lot more expensive and a lot more complicated along 281," Jorge said. "There are way too many property owners."

The private development team for I-69 will have the final say over which corridor is upgraded first.

A consortium comprised of Spanish infrastructure giant Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction Corp. will provide TxDOT with a cost estimate and design for the Texas portion of the I-69 corridor in the next few months, Jorge said.

TxDOT also will ask the companies to do the upgrade of U.S. Highway 77, he said.

He said "zero dollars" have been allocated to upgrade the highway. State transportation officials started cutting road projects in December, citing a budget that can't keep up with existing road maintenance and new highway construction.

Jorge said the private developers will be funding the U.S. Highway 77 project from tolls collected in other segments of I-69 outside the Valley.

Once the consortium presents the three corridor construction plans to TxDOT, state officials will make their final decision on which route to upgrade first.

Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas met with Gov. Rick Perry last week to ask him to upgrade both U.S. Highway 77 and U.S. Highway 281 at the same time.

Salinas points to a February 2007 TxDOT study that repeatedly states that U.S. Highway 281 carries more truck traffic as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The federal government signed NAFTA in 1994 to increase trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico.

U.S Highway 281 carried 5.9 percent of the state's NAFTA traffic. U.S. Highway 59 was slightly lower and U.S. Highway 77 carried 3.6 percent.

The study also predicts U.S. Highway 281 will have the second largest increase in truck traffic by 2030 among seven major NAFTA corridors. Only Interstate 30, running from Dallas to Texarkana, will have a larger increase, according to the study's projections.

Salinas questions the state's rationale for leaning toward upgrading U.S. Highway 77 before U.S. Highway 281.

"Their own studies say that 281 is busier than 77," he said. Salinas added, though: "I'm not going to put 77 against 281 - they need to do both."

Repeated messages left with the governor's press office, the main TxDOT press office and Zachry were not returned Friday, which was a holiday. The Monitor was unable to locate contact information for Cintra.

U.S. Highway 281 will be upgraded, Jorge said. He just doesn't know when. However, construction for the U.S. Highway 77 upgrade should begin in the next three to five years.

"We're doing something very similar on 281 and trying to get the plans ready for expansion," Jorge said.

Jackie Leatherman covers Hidalgo County government and general assignments at The Monitor. She can be reached at (956) 683-4424.

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