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Texas Thinking Big on Transportation

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Texas Thinking Big on Transportation

Tue Jan 4, 7:55 AM ET Top Stories - Los Angeles Times

By Lianne Hart Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Do not mistake the Trans-Texas Corridor for a mere superhighway.

As imagined by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the $175-billion project will be a transportation behemoth of mind-boggling proportions: 4,000 miles of mostly toll lanes perhaps a quarter-mile wide, capable of carrying cars, trucks, and high-speed freight and commuter trains.

There would be room underground for oil, water, electric and gas pipelines, and the whole works would be built largely with private money.

"It's a blueprint for our transportation and population needs for the next 50 years," Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Gaby Garcia said. "It's the wave of the future to plan for different modes [of transport] in one corridor."

Opponents call the ambitious scheme ill-conceived and absurdly expensive.

"It's so grandiose and outlandish that people at first didn't think it would happen," said David Stall, who founded a group called Corridor Watch to keep tabs on the project. "But they're railroading it through — and most Texans don't even know what it is."

Perry introduced what he called a "visionary transportation plan" during his 2002 reelection campaign, and continued to push for it after he was sworn in. In 2003, he signed a transportation bill that authorized construction of the mammoth roadway.

The corridor is meant to ease congestion on existing interstates by diverting long-distance and regional traffic onto mega-highways, which would largely skirt urban areas. Trucks carrying hazardous materials could bypass populated cities by traveling on the new system.

"We can slowly try to address traffic in cities with very expensive Band-Aids, which means making four lanes into six or eight," said state Rep. Mike Krusee, who wrote legislation to make the corridor possible. "But wouldn't it be cheaper to build basically a parallel corridor, where land is cheaper and there's room to expand?"

Backers say the project is badly needed in Texas because of a rapidly growing population and increased traffic from a post-NAFTA flow of goods to and from Mexico.

The linchpin of the plan is its financing: Though the state would own the right of way to the roads, private contractors would pay to build them. In return, the contractors could charge concessions — such as tolls — for as long as 50 years. Similar projects in other countries have been financed this way, Krusee said, and it is how the Texas Department of Transportation intends to do it.

"Our problems are urgent in Texas, but we don't have the money to do this sort of thing," said Krusee, who is chairman of the state House Transportation Committee. "By putting it up for bid from private companies, it's a way for growth to pay for itself."

In mid-December, the state Department of Transportation agreed to let a private consortium led by Spanish toll-road operator Cintra build the first section of the corridor — a $6-billion, 316-mile turnpike from Dallas to San Antonio.

As part of the deal, the group will add $1.2 billion more for other state transportation projects, Garcia said. In return, the consortium will be allowed to charge tolls on the road at rates approved by the state.

The Dallas-San Antonio toll road will be part of an 800-mile corridor that will run parallel to Interstate 35 from Oklahoma to Mexico. Other potential corridors could run east-west from the Texas Gulf Coast to El Paso and north-south from the Panhandle to Laredo.

Stall is skeptical of the Cintra deal, reserving judgment until the contract becomes public, assuming it ever does.

"They say no state dollars will go into the corridors, and that may be semantically true. But someone who is investing billions of dollars expects to get their money back and more, and ultimately Texans will pay for it through tolls and other concessions," Stall said.

The Trans-Texas Corridor is a revenue-raising plan masquerading as transportation development, Stall said. The state can acquire private land for the roads through the power of eminent domain, then sell or lease the property for any purpose — whether it's for the highway, a gas station, restaurant or a billboard.

"The state is using its powers to create a monopoly [along the corridor] for the state and concessionaires," Stall said.

Texas economist Ray Perryman has estimated that the project could generate about $135 billion for the state over 50 years.

But Stall is not alone in his objections. Environmentalists are concerned about the effect of massive construction on rural lands. And members of the Texas Farm Bureau — who generally support Perry, who was raised on a West Texas farm — voted to oppose the plan.

"The roads will split through farms," bureau spokesman Mike Barnett said. "The way we understand it, it will spread over a number of miles, so it will be hard to get from one side of the farm to another."

With minimal exits, the corridor will cut off access to many rural towns already economically pinched, he said. "They're talking about a quarter-mile swath through wherever it goes. That hurts. You lose the tax base because the land goes to the state," Barnett said.

Marc Maxwell, city manager of Sulphur Springs — population 14,551 — in northeast Texas, said his town "lucked out" during the Cintra negotiations. It appears the corridor will come by his city, bringing more trade to local businesses, he said.

But Maxwell worries about Texans getting a fair price for their land, and the fate of rural towns bypassed in construction.

"The state has got their backs against the wall. They've got to do something about the demand for more roads," he said. "But these are huge stakes, with huge implications positive and negative. You hope this is the right thing."

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Yes we already know about this. This is the most idiotic plan I have ever seen in my life. A 10 lane highway in the middle of NOWHERE is truly brilliant thinking, right? Tolls everywhere, that sound right, eh? This plan is merely designed to screw Oklahoma, as seems Texas' goal, especially with the Red River shootout, the bogus Pandhandle claim, and the North Fork Scandal. This plan, which features an extension of I 69, is merely to divert the booming transportation industry out of Oklahoma, and other states where I 35 disect it, and shoot up to Canada through Houston and Shreveport.

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