Transportation corridor plans stir Central Texans' rural revoltOpponents organize against cutting swath through countryside
March 7, 2004
Ben Wear, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Get transportation aficionados talking about the Trans Texas Corridor , and, provided the tape recorder is off, some of them will tell you the $180 billion plan for toll roads, rail and utilities is a pipe dream.
Two years after Gov. Rick Perry unveiled the corridor plan, and with the Texas Department of Transportation busy with preliminary steps and informational hearings around the state, a lot of folks still just don't take it seriously. And that may or may not be an accurate appraisal.
Down in Fayette County, on the other hand, the county judge and a very motivated Fayetteville couple are taking it very seriously. They look at the Trans Texas Corridor and see the potential for a noisy and polluting gash nearly a quarter-mile wide through their scenic cow country. Call it a pipe nightmare.
"We've been talking to people about this for two years," said Linda Stall, a legal assistant in La Grange, "and everyone says the same thing: 'It'll never happen to us in our lifetime; the state doesn't have the money.' But now (the state) has all these new tools to get more money, and maybe it will happen."
Stall and her husband, David, the Columbus city manager, have lately turned into something of a nightmare for the state Transportation Department. The Stalls, who live on 1 1/2 acres south of Fayetteville, have created a slick and extensive Web site called corridorwatch.org -- motto: "Challenging the wisdom of the Trans Texas Corridor ."
And on short notice, they managed to pack the corridor hearings in Colorado and Fayette counties, part of a statewide, county-by-county blitz of mostly ill-attended meetings the state held in February.
The Stalls helped turn out 70 or so people at the Feb. 25 meeting in La Grange, including Fayette County Judge Ed Janecka, and a good number of them left unhappy with what they heard.
"They said, 'We're doing this for the betterment of our grandchildren and children,' " Janecka said this week. "My thought was, 'You're certainly not doing it for the children and grandchildren of rural Texas .' . . . If this is the governor's plan, I'd like to have the governor come down and explain it to us."
Janecka, who describes himself as a "very conservative Democrat," has persuaded the state to hold a second hearing March 23, and this time Mike Behrens, executive director of the state Transportation Department, will be there. Janecka, the county judge since 1991, plans to invite Perry as well.
Kathy Walt, the spokeswoman for the Republican governor, hadn't heard of the brouhaha last week and couldn't say what Perry might do.
"It's a little difficult to respond to an invitation that hasn't been extended yet," Walt said. "Obviously, the governor feels the Trans Texas Corridor is important to the state, both in terms of some of the public safety features it offers but also in economic development potential and in moving traffic."
The corridor plan, to review, is something like the interstate system on steroids. It is so huge in scope, in fact, that Linda Stall said when a friend e-mailed details of it to a college professor she knows, the professor replied that surely she was a victim of an Internet hoax.
No, it's real. In concept, the plan includes 4,000 miles of 1,200-foot-wide corridors that would contain 10 highway lanes, six tracks for freight and passenger rail and a reserved path for a range of utilities, including water and hydrocarbon pipelines. Trucks and cars would pay tolls to drive the highways.
Building the whole thing, transportation officials say, will take decades and, almost surely, tens of billions of dollars in bond money and private capital to supplement state and federal gas tax money.
It could also take, according to a comprehensive transportation law passed by the Legislature last year, up to 20 percent of the federal transportation dollars Texas gets each year. Last year, that would have been almost $500 million, or about 10 percent of the Transportation Department's budget.
Pipe dream or clear and present danger, or something in between, the corridor plan has certainly progressed well beyond being simply a Perry campaign proposal.
The state Transportation Department received an unsolicited development proposal to build the corridor that roughly tracks Interstate 35 from a consortium led by Fluor Corp., the engineering and construction giant heading the team building Texas 130 around the Austin metro area's east edge.
Texas 130, despite having a right of way only a third as wide as the plan contemplates and just six lanes, is expected to be incorporated into that corridor . Last August, the state solicited competing "qualifications" and within a month had proposals from Cintra, a Spanish team, and a group led by Hensel Phelps Construction Co.
Just what those groups suggested remains mostly a mystery. Citing the protection of proprietary information, the state released only the detail-light executive summaries. But the proposals apparently contained whatever it took to get all three teams on a short list.
Sometime later this spring, the department will solicit detailed proposals from all three, according to Phillip Russell, director of the turnpike division, and it hopes to have a signed a contract with one of them by this time next year.
That's when it gets really complicated. Though the conceptual map of the corridor routes looks simple and of-a-piece on paper, Russell said the network probably would be built in pieces based on the perceived ability of segments to generate traffic and pay back debt with tolls.
In places, the highway lanes might be separated by miles from the rail corridors , or the four truck lanes could be distanced from the six lanes for cars. Some portions with particularly light traffic, in West Texas for instance, probably wouldn't be built for a very long time.
As for where the money comes from, well, that is definitely a work in progress. The overall price tag, the $180 billion, repre- sents more than 30 years of the Transportation Department's entire budget and perhaps a century of the money it has available for new construction.
And because the corridors would by and large skirt the state's largest metropolitan areas, they won't directly address the congestion plaguing those areas. In other words, the agency will need to spend most of its tax money and federal grants elsewhere.
That leaves borrowed money, mostly, both by the state and by the private sector. Bond investors, not the state, would bear the risk if tolls fail to generate enough money to make debt payments.
Russell was asked what sort of financial mix the state envisions.
"We don't know yet," he said.
Pulling out an analogy that appeared as early as the afternoon of the day in January 2002 when Perry unveiled the plan, Russell compared it to the building of the national system of interstate highways.
"The reaction had to be very similar," he said." 'How are we ever going to build this thing called an interstate system? We have no money for it, blah, blah, blah.' Then, mysteriously, the highway trust fund was created, and, instead of a hundred years, we built the interstate system in 20 or 30 years."
That sort of can-do-somehow attitude might get the system built eventually. Or perhaps folks such as the Stalls and Janecka are fretting over a phantom.
At the very least, the San Antonio-to-Houston corridor that would cut through Fayette and Colorado counties is not on the front burner. The I-35 relief route and Interstate 69, a corridor from East Texas to the Rio Grande Valley, are to be the first built.
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