Friday, June 27, 2008

"If they don't end this public fleecing, there won't be enough political cover for the consequences at the ballot box."

Commission picks developer for I-69 corridor


The Associated Press
Copyright 2008

The Texas Transportation Commission approved a development proposal Thursday for Interstate 69, a segment in the Trans-Texas Corridor toll road superhighway.

Commissioners agreed to pursue a proposal by Zachry American Infrastructure and ACS Infrastructure that would develop the southern section of U.S. Highway 77 to interstate standards without tolling that part of the road.

The companies want to build and operate $1.5 billion worth of toll roads in South Texas to generate money needed to develop the existing highway. The contract also would include the right of first negotiation for the joint company to perform some of the highway projects.

More commission action is needed before construction can begin.

A separate environmental study is ongoing for I-69, which is to run from the northeast corner of the state into the Rio Grande Valley. The environmental study will determine the highway's exact route.

Thursday's decision allows the state transportation department to negotiate a contract with the company, then a master plan and master financing plan would be worked out.

Zachry American Infrastructure is part of the San Antonio-based Zachry Construction Corp. ACS Infrastructure Development Inc. is a Spanish firm.

The I-69 development proposal is innovative and would extend the interstate system into South Texas, Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi said.

"This proposal moves us closer to building I-69/TTC," she said. "For two decades, (I-69) has been nothing more than a line on the map and a promise."

Delisi said the road is important to the state's economic development. The private companies' proposal shows the project can be built "while minimizing the need to purchase additional land and only limited, innovative tolling," she said.

The proposal calls for coordinating with local authorities in the Rio Grande Valley and the Corpus Christi area to develop South Texas toll roads. Those would help finance the initial segments of I-69 without requiring tolls to be collected along long stretches of highway extending north from Cameron County, Delisi said.

Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, a critic of the transportation agency, issued a statement blasting the commission's decision as "a total slap in the face to the people of Texas." The group took issue with several provisions of the I-69 development proposal.

"If they don't completely clean house at TxDOT (the transportation department) and end this public fleecing, there won't be enough political cover for the consequences at the ballot box. Enough is enough," said group founder Terri Hall.

State transportation department officials recommended to the commission that it select Zachry American Infrastructure and ACS Infrastructure over a proposal by Bluebonnet Infrastructure Investors.

The transportation department also says it will continue plans for upgrading U.S. Highway 281, which, along with U.S. 77, has been designated by the federal government as a possible future route for I-69 in Texas.

Transportation department executive director Amadeo Saenz said the I-69 portion of the Trans-Texas Corridor will be developed using existing highways wherever possible.

Earlier this month, state transportation officials said they would only use existing corridors, such as U.S. Highway 59 in East Texas from Texarkana to Houston and U.S. Highways 77 and 281 in South Texas, in their environmental studies for the project. If existing roadways need to be expanded, only the new traffic lanes would have tolls.

© 2008, The Associated Press:

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