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Ever wanted to own a toll road? How about one with 85 mile-per-hour speed limits alongside a congested interstate -- one where you had exclusive rights to sell food, gas and lodging? You can buy all that and more if you've got a few billion dollars and can convince the Texas Transportation Commission to let you build the Trans-Texas Corridor.
In 2002, Governor Rick Perry campaigned on a promise of a privately financed and operated toll road system -- 4,000 miles to be built over the next 50 years. The cost is estimated at $180 billion. Few within the transportation industry took Perry's plan seriously, but little-noted legislative changes last year made a huge difference in how Texas roads can get built.
"The governor has put in place a different way of when and where to build a road," says Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. "Roads will be built at precisely the moment the private sector realizes they're needed."
The first realization came in December when the five-member, Perry-appointed transportation commission unanimously recommended that a group led by Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA, a Spanish toll road company, be allowed to pay more than $7 billion for the privilege of building the first part of the Trans-Texas Corridor.
The contract won't be hammered out for a month or so, and details are still hazy. But Cintra beat out two other consortiums and clearly wants to invest in Texas: $6 billion for 316 miles of four-lane divided highway running parallel to the heavily congested I-35 between Dallas and San Antonio. Another $1.2 billion will go for road improvements to develop the "NAFTA Corridor" from Oklahoma to Mexico.
The Trans-Texas Corridor would run roughly parallel to existing interstate highways throughout the state, potentially offering travelers the option of paying a toll for a faster, better ride while reducing congestion on interstate highways.
Private investment in return for future tolls might free up state money to relieve current congestion in Texas's urban areas. It might also take up to 20 percent of the federal money that Texas receives in highway funding.
The new super-tollways would eventually be about a quarter-mile wide and include six high-speed lanes for cars and four for trucks. There will be additional space for several commuter and commercial rail lines and for utility lines.
"There is nothing like it anywhere," says Kara Kockelman of the University of Texas's Center for Transportation Research. "It is quite an ambitious vision."
And critics say that vision is badly blurred. Erik Slotboom, a Houston software engineer and confessed "road geek," says the proposed corridors are not only unnecessary but could spell financial disaster for the state.
Slotboom, who authored Houston Freeways (see "King of the Roads," October 2, 2003), did a detailed analysis of state highway traffic in evaluating the plan. It concludes that traffic projections are grim for urban congestion, but simply don't bear out the need for tollways alongside rural interstates.
The only justification for expansion is along I-35 in the Austin-San Antonio area, "and that's basically an urban area," Slotboom says. And those traffic needs on I-35 could be relieved for at least 20 years by adding two additional lanes, he says.
He points out that the toll fee from Dallas to San Antonio would be about $40. "The nightmare scenario is that these highways are underutilized because the people won't pay tolls, and then they'll toll existing interstates to make up the cost," says Slotboom.
The list of skeptics is growing. It includes the Texas Farm Bureau, which opposes the potential loss of a half-million acres of arable land to the state. Numerous small towns along interstates also fear the loss of revenue from local property tax rolls and the deterioration of their communities should the new route bypass them. Even Governor Perry's own Texas Republican Party opposed it in its June platform.
Opponents cite private property rights, fiscal irresponsibility, double taxation and a lack of legislative oversight in awarding contracts as among their chief concerns. They also accuse Perry of being beholden to private contractors. The governor has received more than a million dollars in contributions from transportation interests over the last decade.
Late last month, The Dallas Morning Newsalso revealed that Perry aide Dan Shelley had been a consultant for Cintra until about three months before Cintra's bid was selected by the state. (The governor's office denied any improprieties.)
A December article in Time magazine summed up the dispute with the title "The Next Wave in Superhighways, or A Big, Fat Texas Boondoggle?"
The state's first private toll road in decades, the Camino Columbia turnpike near Laredo, went bankrupt in 2001, a year after it opened. Transportation officials, including Williamson, had touted the project for reasons similar to those given for the Trans-Texas Corridor.
"Everyone's forgotten about Camino Columbia," says Slotboom.
Part of the new transportation code would allow tolls on any existing road, provided there's a non-toll alternative. Slotboom says turning roads already paid for into toll roads amounts to double taxation.
Williamson has said that "In your lifetime, most existing roads will have tolls."
"For whatever reason, they want to turn Texas into the tollway capital of the world," Slotboom says about Perry and Williamson. "They want to create a toll-road industrial complex."
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