Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"Toll roads, private development, foreign investment — "will probably be reincarnated in various road projects during the next two decades."

Trans-Texas Corridor plan officially axed, at least for now


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

The often-cursed Trans-Texas Corridor is no more.

State officials say they’ve officially pulled the plug on the proposed statewide network of toll roads, rail lines and utilities, an estimated $184 billion project that for more than two years has been loudly opposed by dozens of lawmakers and thousands of ordinary Texans.

"The Trans-Texas Corridor is dead. It was not what the people of Texas wanted," said state Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller.

But planners cautioned that many of the proposal’s controversial components — toll roads, private development, foreign investment — will probably be reincarnated in various road projects during the next two decades.

A sample of projects for which tolls and private investment will still be considered:

A proposed Interstate 35 toll road bypass from North Texas to San Antonio. State officials plan to continue their 3-year-old environmental review, although they’ll ask the Federal Highway Administration to delete the Trans-Texas Corridor name.

Construction of Loop 9, a proposed 240-mile toll road encircling Dallas and Fort Worth.

Relocation of freight railroad tracks in dense Fort Worth neighborhoods.

Fresh approach

Gov. Rick Perry unveiled the Trans-Texas Corridor in 2001 as a fresh approach to improving statewide truck, car and rail traffic.

A key feature was to use tolls as a revenue source to make up for a chronic shortage of state and federal gas tax dollars.

But after the state Transportation Department hired Madrid-based Cintra to develop a master plan for the Trans-Texas Corridor, it quickly became a magnet for controversy.

Diverse forces, from rural conservatives to urban liberals, began to speak in unity against the project. Thousands of Texans flooded public hearings, saying they feared that tolls would be rammed down their throats and private property would be seized for corporate profit.

Some even argued that the Trans-Texas Corridor would undermine the United States’ sovereignty by facilitating a "North American Union" among the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Many arguments lacked merit, department spokesman Christopher Lippincott said. Even so, he said, "The name Trans-Texas Corridor itself became an impediment to talking about the problem. It set something off in people. That is our responsibility as a department. We could have done a much better job explaining what we needed to do."

Speaking on a conference call from Iraq, where he is visiting troops with other governors, Perry said highways that would run parallel to north-south I-35 are still needed. The state’s commitment to building roads is what attracts many companies and jobs to the state, he said.

"I think the concept of the Trans-Texas Corridor is frankly one that got misunderstood," Perry said.

Supporters concluded that the plan was too broad — too uniform for a state with a diverse mix of traffic problems — and needed to be revisited.

"You’re seeing state government being responsive to the concerns expressed by the citizenry while at the same time moving ahead with the transportation infrastructure we really need," said Bill Meadows of Fort Worth, who last year was appointed to the five-member Texas Transportation Commission.

New name and plan

Amadeo Saenz Jr., executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, announced the demise of the Trans-Texas Corridor at the annual Texas Transportation Forum.

But Saenz spoke optimistically about his plan to continue building toll roads and rail lines under a new name, Innovative Connectivity in Texas.

The new plan still encourages construction of toll roads connecting Texas cities and ports, but with more restrictions. Among the examples are:

Rights of way should be only about 600 feet wide, compared with 1,200 feet proposed in the Trans-Texas Corridor.

New roads should be built on the state’s existing highway grid whenever possible.

In each area where a road project is proposed, local decision-makers should be assembled to guide the initial planning. The Trans-Texas Corridor was mostly planned at the Transportation Department in Austin.

Existing highway names and numbers should be kept wherever possible. The Trans-Texas Corridor plan had called for roads to be relabeled — TTC-35, for example.

North Texas reaction

In the Metroplex, officials supported the decision to nix the Trans-Texas Corridor, although they still support increased funding for traffic relief.

The region intends to use alternative financing such as tolls for Loop 9 and an extension of Texas 360 south of Arlington, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

"I think the governor was right — with 20 million people moving to the Interstate 35 corridor, something had to be done," Morris said.

But Morris criticized the "top-down process."

"It was sort of conceived in a backroom and just announced."

Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief lamented that toll roads are still very much in North Texas’ future. The state lacks resources to handle its growing traffic problems without them, he said.

"Financially, we still have no choice," he said. "It’s critical we at least have some planning process for our future transportation needs."

Staff writer Mike Lee contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.
GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816

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