Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Zachry and ACS TTC-69 plans raise questions in Wharton

County Commissioners question plans for I-69


Wharton Journal-Spectator
Copyright 2008

A presentation on the Texas portion of the proposed Interstate 69 plan raised more questions with the Wharton County Commissioners Court than it answered Monday morning.

Zachry American Infrastructure Senior Project Manager Gary Kuhn reiterated the Texas Department of Transportation decision to use existing highway footprint, including U.S. 59, for development. But he warned the company is looking at ways to generate revenues to fund local upgrades along the route.

"As part of our competing for site selection, we are looking to seek and share resources," Kuhn said, adding it would help generate more prosperity which leads to more disposable income, encourages small companies to grow into big companies that would in turn create more smaller companies and lower unemployment rates.

The commissioners questioned two comments made by Kuhn. The first was quoting a CNBC report Texas had the number one business climate in the U.S. having the "best transportation system in the country." Kuhn said that was determined by the fact that more goods are shipped in and out of the state than any other.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Chris King questioned that statement, saying that during the Trans-Texas Corridor meetings, TxDOT officials said the state's highway system was deteriorating.

King also questioned Zachary's partner in the development project, the Spanish firm ACS Infrastructure, asking if it was a branch of Cintra, the Spanish Company initially awarded the TTC project based on developing toll roads and the wide-based, multiple transport systems that included rail, pipelines, transmission lines and multiple lanes of traffic. Kuhn said there was no connection between the two companies and that Cintra had partnered with another firm and lost out on the development contract.

Kuhn pointed out that along U.S. 77, local government entities were looking at approving toll roads to generate the revenue but said that leasing right of way for pipelines and similar kinds of projects could also be included. He added the upgrade to an interstate would also attract businesses to the Rio Grande Valley and other communities along the route.

"The valley is the most populous area of the country not served by an interstate," he said. "And it is difficult to compete in today's markets without an interstate, without out that red, white and blue shield along the roadway."

The big funding alternative centers on another project being worked on by Zachary and its Spanish Partner ACS Infrastructure - one to create a universal elevated freight shuttle. The shuttles would be designed to haul specifically designed containers, but could be adapted to accommodate trailers.

The shuttle lines would connect Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Freeport, Galveston, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Laredo. Those lines would be built in the highway right of way with the companies leasing the "air space" from TxDOT.

That prompted Precinct 3 Commissioner Philip Miller to question why the county would have to raise money for the road work if the right of way was generating revenues. He said a lot of the rural counties the highway would pass through don't have the available resources to contribute to such a project.

Kuhn said that while Zachry is partnered with ACS, the majority of the money invested would come from the U.S.

He added that several retirement funds for teachers and other union groups had expressed interest in making such an investment because it is so stable.

In describing the appeal of the freight shuttle system, Kuhn said the freight industry looks for the least expensive way to transport goods. He said railroad companies are not interested in the kind of short trips made between, for example, Houston and Dallas and really aren't interested in anything being shipped less than 750 miles.

By offering the container option, Kuhn said it would get trucks off the road, creating space for more personal vehicle traffic and reduce the maintenance needs. He said company research predicted there would be no need to increase the capacity of I-69 for at least the next 40 years.

That wasn't the only cost savings he pointed out. Based on current fuel prices, Kuhn said, the cost of shipping a trailer by shuttle would be around 8 cents per mile compared to 85 cents per mile for a tractor-trailer.

In addition, he said that while the system would be plugged into the state's electric grid, designers were expecting to use solar power to generate all the necessary electricity for normal operations.

And he said the system, along with transfer stations, are modular in design and could essentially be assembled quickly, "like Legos" and be in place and handling freight as soon as 2015.

When announcing the awarding of the bid to ZAI/ACS in June, TxDOT Yoakum District Spokesperson Bryan Ellis said because no construction is involved, the proposal does not violate Senate Bill 792, which placed a moratorium on the construction of I-69.

As part of the framework of SB 792, local toll roads proposed by Zachry could only be operated with the approval of local government entities, according to a TxDOT news release announcing the contract. However the bill does include, with certain exemptions, a provision permitting the private participant to operate the toll project or collect revenue from the toll project. That prohibition does not apply to any part of the project located on U.S. 77, U.S. 281 or U.S. 59 south of Refugio County.

The proposal, with maps, is available on the Internet at

© 2008 Wharton

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