Thursday, January 08, 2009

"Pressed for details, it turns out that changes to the TTC plans are largely cosmetic."

Transportation project's name changes, not the senselessness


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

What's in a name?

That is a call you will be able to make in the next round of state elections.

When Gov. Rick Perry unveiled the Trans-Texas Corridor project six years ago, many were stunned by its ambition. It would be a 4,000-mile network of 1,200-foot-wide corridors with 12-lane highways — some for autos and others for trucks — along with railroad tracks and utility easements — that would take a half-century to complete.

But from its inception it has been a public-relations disaster that has undermined confidence in state government.

At virtually every step of the way, growing numbers of Texans have come to see it as wasteful and poorly conceived, and intended more to enrich well-connected insiders than to provide for transit needs. And as more project details have emerged, or been modified, even greater mistrust has been created — and unified incredibly disparate set of opponents.

In a state whose free-highway system was once the envy of the nation, as soon as people realized that it would be a massive toll-road project, opposition started to build.

Since drivers already pay federal and state gasoline taxes — supposedly to build and maintain the state's increasingly creaky highway system — the growing army of detractors asked, why should they then have to pay to use roads? Isn't that, in fact, double taxation?

Opposition grew even more intense when it became apparent that the tolls would be paid to foreign-owned private contractors — the only investors that stepped forward. They would build the thoroughfares on state-seized land and collect not just tolls, but presumably, rents that would be collected from concessionaires.

Environmentalists became alarmed because 4,000 miles of new quarter-mile-wide swaths would raise the potential for major ecological damage — and be overseen by an agency not exactly known for its environmental sensitivity.

Farmers and ranchers pressed the Texas Department of Transportation to be more specific about routes because, as initially touted, that much new roadbed would cover an estimated 584,000 acres of land.

Initially, TxDOT resisted giving out details, coming across as secretive and immune to public pressure. And when the agency finally did release more details about how the roads would look, and a map of the planned routes, they only added fuel to an already considerable fire.

The corridors would not be your father's freeways. Not only would they be considerably wider, they would have limited access points and might require long drives to get around since they would not be connected to all of the existing roads that they would traverse.

But it was the maps that really rallied opponents, because the planned swaths avoided most major cities, and worse, they weren't depicted as quarter-mile paths, but as being between 10 and 30 miles wide.

Tuesday, Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Amadeo Saenz announced that “the Trans-Texas Corridor as we have known it no longer exists.”

But pressed for details, it turns out that changes to the TTC plans are largely cosmetic.

The two development contracts that have already been let to the joint venture headed by Cintra of Spain will remain in force, along with plans for the first two legs of the project.

Where possible, we are now told, efforts will be made to widen existing roads instead of building new ones, new roadways will only be built as they are needed, and they won't be as wide as initially planned.

What has really changed? It will no longer be called the Trans-Texas Corridor. But plans for massive, automobile-intensive boondoggles continue to move forward as even Texans continue to drive less.

What sense does that make?

© 2009 San Antonio

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