Friday, June 27, 2008

"This removes any requirement for competitive bidding, which on its face is an absolute failure of the state's fiduciary duty."

Toll road team awarded Trans-Texas Corridor project

June 27, 2008

Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN – State officials awarded a contract Thursday to a private toll road team that has promised to put the remaining pieces in place for Gov. Rick Perry's expansive vision for the Trans-Texas Corridor, a network of superhighways stretching 1,140 miles.

The $5 million contract approved by the Texas Transportation Commission gives the team led by Texas construction powerhouse Zachry American Infrastructure and another firm, ACS of Spain, responsibility for planning billions of dollars' worth of new highways, rail lines and other projects. The team will have 18 months to add details to a plan that will begin with construction on 10 new toll roads – including eight in South Texas – by 2015.

Those roads could cost close to $3 billion, and seven of them will be clustered near U.S. Highway 77 in South Texas. Whoever builds those roads will use the toll revenues to pay for an additional $1 billion in improvements to Highway 77, making it the first interstate-quality highway in the Rio Grande Valley.

"The proposal includes innovative plans that would finally extend the interstate system into South Texas," said Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi.

The Trans-Texas Corridor is the centerpiece of Mr. Perry's proposal to stretch highways, rail lines and utilities from top to bottom of the Lone Star State. The contract awarded Thursday involves half of that project. It's the 600 miles that will become Texas' portion of one of the largest federal highway programs in the country, the southern extension of Interstate 69. That interstate now runs from Canada to Indianapolis, but will eventually stretch to the Mexican border.

The other half of the corridor, a 540-mile north-south stretch running roughly parallel to Interstate 35, is already under development by Cintra, another large Spanish-based toll road operator. Cintra has already expanded its role beyond that of master planner and has moved ahead with plans to build the first private toll road near Austin, extending State Highway 130.

Under the terms of Cintra's initial $3.5 million planning contract, similar to the one awarded Thursday for the I-69 segment, the company was able to win TxDOT approval to build the Austin toll road without having to compete against other toll road developers. It is covering the entire cost of the road, and in return will collect escalating tolls there for 52 years.

Toll road critics, who have loudly denounced the Trans-Texas Corridor for years, reacted bitterly to the contract, which one group called a "monopolistic sweetheart deal."

"If this isn't a wake-up call to the Legislature that it's business as usual at TxDOT until they forcibly restrain them via state law, we don't know what is," said Terri Hall, founder of Texans United for Reform and Freedom. Her group opposes Mr. Perry's continued push to pay for Texas transportation needs through privatization and toll roads.

"This removes any requirement for competitive bidding, which on its face is an absolute failure of the state's fiduciary duty,"she said.

Lawmakers had attempted to slow down the state's rush to private toll roads during the 2007 session, though they've also refused to raise taxes to provide funds for the road-building that TxDOT is running out of money to pay for.

When they return in January, they're expected to weigh whether to rescind TxDOT's authority to enter into the private toll contracts at all. TxDOT officials said they hope to compromise with lawmakers.

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