Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Critics say moving ahead right now is a slap in the face to the Legislature."

Trans-Texas Corridor moves ahead

6 /26/2008

By Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

The Texas Transportation Commission is poised to pick a developer and authorize a contract today for the latest ire-raising route of the gargantuan Trans-Texas Corridor.

The proposed route of toll lanes, rail lines and utility paths stretches 650 miles between the Mexico and Louisiana borders and skirts within 70 miles southeast of San Antonio. It's one of a network of corridors that could crisscross Texas this century.

Two private consortiums — one led by Cintra of Spain and the other by Zachry American Infrastructure and ACS Infrastructure Development — competed for a contract worth up to $5 million to come up with a financial and development plan within 18 months.

Critics say moving ahead right now is a slap in the face to the Legislature, which last year passed a two-year moratorium on leasing toll roads, the prime funding mechanism for the Trans-Texas Corridor. The law carved out numerous exceptions, including the part of TTC-69 south of Refugio County.

“Was the legislative intent so dim that they couldn't see that our lawmakers wanted them to wait another 12 months?” said toll-road skeptic David Stall of “On the face of it, it looks like you're completely snubbing the Legislature and doing whatever you want to do.”

Trans-Texas Corridor

The proposed Trans-Texas Corridor route through East Texas sticks to existing highway corridors.

Last year, as legislators debated the merits of tolling and privatization, TxDOT used a provision in a similar development contract for the TTC route paralleling Interstate 35 to let Cintra and Zachry start construction and later lease the Texas 130 tollway between Austin and Seguin.

The development contract for TTC-69 will also include such a provision, which will give the winning consortium rights to negotiate first on possibly $500 million worth of projects, according to TxDOT.

“We'll be very mindful of all laws and regulations,” said Mark Tomlinson, TxDOT's turnpike director.

Some 12,000 Texans flooded 47 public hearings on TTC-69 earlier this year, many of them blasting the plan. The Texas Department of Transportation responded by shriveling the study area to stick with existing highways and avoid new locations.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who authored the moratorium language, applauded the change but reiterated concerns about letting private companies operate TTC-69 toll lanes. He couldn't be reached Wednesday for comment.

State Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, who leads a legislative caucus called the Texas Conservative Coalition, said the change reverts to an older Interstate 69 plan and signaled the first death throes of the Trans-Texas Corridor.

But as far as the Transportation Commission authorizing TxDOT to negotiate a development contract for TTC-69, he said that seems to be in line with legislative intent.

“So I'm not alarmed by that,” he said.

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