Friday, June 27, 2008

"TxDOT is doing a little better job working... legislators."

TxDOT moves forward on Trans-Texas Corridor 69

Jun 27, 2008

by Will Lutz
Volume 12, Issue 43
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2008

Both the Republican and Democratic platforms oppose it vigorously, with the former going so far as to demand an investigation into why it continues.

The Legislature revolted against it, forcing a compromise with the governor.

Candidates for Texas House and Senate either run from it as fast as possible or run against it.

Yet the Texas Department of Transportation is continuing full-speed ahead.

It’s, of course, the Trans-Texas Corridor. The Texas Transportation Commission voted June 26 to take the next step toward building an addition to the corridor (the Interstate 69 Corridor), and — believe it or not — the political fallout may be muted.

The commission awarded a Comprehensive Development Agreement to Zachry American Infrastructure and ACS Infrastructure to plan Interstate 69 from the Brownsville area to Texarkana. The commission action does not actually authorize construction of the road, only the production of a plan for the road’s segments, including the financing.

As usual, TxDOT put on a dog-and-pony show about the joys of the contract. And the long-term consequences of TxDOT’s actions remain to be determined. Here’s what we know so far:

TxDOT is doing a little better job working with some legislators. Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Carona (R-Dallas) told LSR he was briefed in advance about TxDOT’s actions. That’s a dramatic improvement for an agency whose board chairman, less than two years ago, wouldn’t even meet with Carona until he was confronted about it in public at the House Transportation Committee meeting.

The action follows the letter of the moratorium. There is an important fact about the moratorium, passed in 2007 as part of SB 792 that many do not realize. It is not a moratorium on the Trans-Texas Corridor. It is a moratorium on “permitting the private participant to operate the toll project or collect revenue from the toll project.” TxDOT can plan. It just can’t toll.

Additionally, all of the I-69 project south of Refugio County is exempt from the moratorium. That means the Texas Transportation Commission could issue a comprehensive development agreement for a privately operated toll road from Brownsville to Corpus Christi, even with the moratorium.

“I do not believe it violates the spirit of the moratorium,” said Carona on the agency’s action.

TxDOT is trying to build the most popular segment of the road first. Brownsville has long wanted an Interstate Highway of its own — even if that means tolls. South Texas leaders expressly asked for their region to get an exemption from a moratorium and have long wanted US 77 improved to Interstate standards. A quorum of the Cameron County Commissioners Court was present at the meeting and endorsed the proposal.

Additionally, most of I-69 between Brownsville and Corpus Christi will not be tolled. Only seven loops or by-passes are subject to tolling, according to the proposal. US 77 is four lanes, so raising it to Interstate quality does not necessarily involve adding lanes, and TxDOT officials said the current proposal does not call for tolling existing lanes.

South of Refugio County, there is substantial support for the proposed project. North of Refugio County many locals are skeptical of the Trans-Texas Corridor. Additionally, what happens to I-69 in Houston is yet to be determined. This could be politically dicey, as there is a popular local toll authority there that has right-of-first-refusal.

TxDOT’s prior concessions have been noticed. Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton invited representatives of the Farm Bureau up to the podium to discuss their views and concerns. The Farm Bureau was treated respectfully. The department instructed the contractor to use existing right-of-way whenever possible, including US 77 and US 59.

“That was a big concession on the part of TxDOT and the Commission,” said Carona.

Cintra didn’t get this contract. At the post-meeting press conference, the director of TxDOT’s Turnpike Division Mark Tomlinson verified that this is the first Comprehensive Development Agreement (CDA) awarded that hasn’t gone to Cintra. It went instead to a coalition led by Zachry Construction, a Texas company.

Never fear, however, the Spanish Company ACS is a partner with Zachry in this CDA, so all the people (like former Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn) who don’t want foreigners doing anything with Texas roads still object to this proposal. Former Democratic agriculture commissioner candidate Hank Gilbert testified against the proposal, saying he supported the building of I-69, just not the “loss of sovereignty” associated with the CDA process.

“Today’s I-69 announcement means that South Texas will finally get an interstate quality highway to expedite traffic, job creation and hurricane evacuation. The TxDOT-approved I-69 comprehensive development agreement is a very efficient and cost-effective process for building new roads, without raising taxes,” counters Bill Noble, executive director for Texans for Safe Reliable Transportation. “This allows the state to partner with private companies to get much-needed roads built much sooner.”

Cintra was civil in defeat. “We want to commend the Texas Department of Transportation and wish them the very best as they embark on this critical project to improve highway infrastructure,” said Jose Lopez, Austin-based president of Cintra’s United States operations.

The June 26 action is limited in scope. Additional commission action is needed to build the road. The amount of money spent under the contract will be about $5 million . And — per a provision in the appropriations bill — this CDA will not get issued at all unless the Legislative Budget Board approves it.

Additionally, the approved proposal minimizes the use of tolls in South Texas to the new by-passes. It does this, in part, by using toll revenue from the by-passes to pay for the rest of the construction. It also relies on Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones to finance part of the project. That means, for any increase in property value attributed to the project, the property taxes go into that project. TxDOT officials estimated the entire planning process should take 12-18 months.

While the I-69 project in South Texas may have widespread public support, it’s anybody’s guess what happens beyond that. Some lawmakers and Texans oppose the operation of state highways by private firms. And the battles of the past are still raging.

But for now, TxDOT is still pressing ahead with the Trans-Texas Corridor.

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