Wednesday, October 07, 2009

“The Trans-Texas Corridor will not be officially dead until Rick Perry is no longer governor and his political appointees are no longer running TxDOT"

TxDOT: I-35 toll twin 'officially dead'


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009|

The tollroad twin to Interstate 35, once the centerpiece of Gov. Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor plan, is officially dead, the Texas Department of Transportation announced today.

The department, which has spent years on a huge environmental study of the corridor from Dallas to San Antonio, will officially recommend to the Federal Highway Administration that no action be taken on the road.

“I don’t think I have ever seen a no-build recommendation in a TxDOT environmental impact study,” state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said in a statement. “It says a lot about today’s Transportation Commission and their responsiveness to the public.”

The environmental study had been in limbo for more than three years after TxDOT had unveiled a 4,000-page draft version with great fanfare at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

A final version of that environmental plan, which narrowed the possible path of the road down to a 10-mile-wide corridor, was expected to come out a year or so later. Smaller studies on individual road segments were to follow. But that final environmental statement remained an unfinished product until now, albeit with a different and unexpected conclusion: do nothing.

“… (P)eople don’t want it,” Texas Transportation Commission member Bill Meadows told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which first reported the no-build decision. “They said, ‘Hell no.’ “

Perry’s corridor plan, already under fire when the draft plan came out in April 2006, soon thereafter became an issue in the 2006 governor’s race as his political opponents and many rural Texans showed up to speak against the proposed road at 54 hearings up and down the corridor. Then, in early 2007, a majority of the Texas Legislature rebelled against the centerpiece of Perry’s corridor plan: the state issuing long-term leases to private companies to build and operate tollroads.

In January, TxDOT killed the Trans-Texas Corridor name and concept, but the only two projects from it lived on: the I-35 twin and Interstate 69, which would be a tollway from the Rio Grande Valley to Texarkana.

Officials said that project, which unlike the I-35 plan would mainly involve expanding existing highways, remains alive.

But the I-35 plan, given the lack of support legislatively and in rural Texas, was no longer politically viable, a TxDOT official said. That was underscored by an announcement this week that the Texas Farm Bureau, which for several years has opposed the Trans-Texas Corridor plan because it would require acquiring considerable farmland, is endorsing U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry’s opponent in the March gubernatorial primary. The group, despite opposing the corridor plan, had endorsed Perry in the 2006 campaign.

Today’s action, which officials say was in process well before the farm bureau announcement, will have no effect on that group’s decision, a spokesman said.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but those statutes are still on the books,” said Gene Hall of the Farm Bureau, referring to law authorizing the Trans-Texas Corridor. The group will stick with Hutchison, he said.

“It was a unanmous vote of the board of directors,” Hall said. “It wasn’t really a hard decision to make. (Perry’s) overalll private property rights record is mostly rhetoric, and we don’t think it’s a good one at all.”

Joe Pounder, a Hutchison spokesman, said “The Trans-Texas Corridor will not be officially dead until Rick Perry is no longer governor and his political appointees are no longer running TxDOT.”

Perry’s office, asked for comment, has not yet responded today.

In January, TxDOT said it had spent $131 million on planning and environmental work for the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The I-35 project seemed to be on the road to reality in December 2004 when Gov. Perry appeared at a Texas Transportation Commission meeting for the announcement that Cintra-Zachry, a consortium led by a Spanish toll road company, would be paid $3.5 million to create a plan for tollroads, rail lines and other facilities for the entire corridor.

If things went as planned, officials said that day, Cintra-Zachry would eventually pay the state $1.2 billion for the right to build more than 300 miles of toll roads, spending another $6 billion of its own money in the process.

Cintra-Zachry produced the plan, and is now building the southern 40 miles of Texas 130, which along with the existing piece of Texas 130 built and operated by TxDOT, likely would have been the southern section of the I-35 corridor road. Now, both roads likely will remain simply Texas 130.

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