Double-Wide Divide

Critics say Perry's turnpike plans will take a terrible toll on Texans

But Williamson, the governor's good friend and point man on transportation, says Texas has two choices: taxes now or tolls later. Currently, Texas roads are financed through gas taxes, fines and fees.

Williamson says that taxpayers might support a five-cent increase per gallon of gas, but "We would have to double the gasoline tax to make any progress in the next ten years."

He says the state's unique problems -- its major population centers are far apart, the population is rapidly increasing, and Texas is the main gateway to Mexico -- required a unique solution.

Confessed road geek Erik Slotboom says the new 
supertollways could spell financial disaster for Texas.
Courtesy of Eric Slotboom
Confessed road geek Erik Slotboom says the new supertollways could spell financial disaster for Texas.

Slotboom agrees that the state transportation department needs more funding, but says that raising the gasoline tax by ten cents -- with regular adjustments for inflation -- would address the state's needs for at least 30 years. He accuses Perry and Williamson of playing a shell game, placing the burden of current road construction on future generations of toll payers.

"For Ric Williamson and Rick Perry, a toll is more easily raised because it's not called a tax. They're really two versions of the same thing, but they won't need legislation to raise tolls.

"They say it's a user fee, not a tax, but when you think about it, the gas tax is also a user fee. The more you drive, the more you pay."

The project would be the biggest road-building project since the interstate highway system was conceived more than 50 years ago.

Each mile of the corridor would require an unprecedented 146 acres, including land needed for environmental mitigation and space for roadside "convenience centers." New legislation also includes provisions to more quickly acquire private property through imminent domain, after just 90 days' notice and years before the land is actually needed.

The land-grab aspect of the corridor is what most troubles David Stall, former city manager of the town of Columbus, 70 miles west of Houston.

"More than one-half million acres will become government property used not only for transportation but as state-owned rental property in direct competition with private business," says Stall. The Texas Department of Transportation "will become a land developer, and they'll have a monopoly."

The new transportation code would allow the state to acquire property along the corridor for any revenue-generating purpose. Hotels are specifically mentioned, and convenience centers along the I-35 corridor may offer another lucrative source of income to Cintra. Under the new legislation, Cintra would be able to lease state-owned property along the corridor to private vendors for 50 years.

Stall says when he went to local legislators in 2002 to discuss the corridor, "They said it would never happen because so many legislative changes would be needed."

Nine months ago, few people even knew abut the plans, Stall says. But he was stunned to find out in February that the legislation had already passed. He has resigned as city manager and now runs a Web site, www.corridorwatch.org, dedicated to defeating the Trans-Texas Corridor.

He says his efforts led 800 people to attend a public hearing in La Grange and that TxDOT officials had no answers for their questions. Most of those questions had to do with private property rights.

"They kept saying it was just a concept," says Stall. "I think that's disingenuous at best."

But Williamson says that except for the Cintra deal on I-35, which is not yet complete, the Trans-Texas Corridor is just lines on a map. But he adds that if private companies have a proposal to build a section of corridor, "They can bring it to the table. The door is open for innovation.

"The federal government and other states are carefully watching to see how we do this," says Williamson. He adds that the next project likely to attract investors will be the I-69 corridor, which will run from Laredo through -- or maybe around -- Houston.

Slotboom says the main problem in Texas is urban congestion, not traffic between cities. He believes that private companies will prefer to build around urban areas, not through them, because the land is cheaper.

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, the area's leading transportation official and chairman of the Alliance for I-69 Texas, shares those concerns.

But Eckels explains he is a "strong supporter of the legislation and the partnerships it creates." He envisions a partnership with the Port of Houston in making sure that the I-69 corridor goes through Houston.

"The most important thing is we want connectivity to the port," says Eckels.

Supporters of the Trans-Texas Corridor often compare it to the interstate highway system, which faced similar criticisms. Williamson says that when people look back in 20 years, they'll praise Governor Perry for his vision.

"Lots of politicians talk about big ideas, but they don't deliver," he says.

But Stall says that unlike the Trans-Texas Corridor, "The interstates were built after a lot of discussion and debate." He says the current attitude is "We'll let you see it after we sign the contracts."

Slotboom says the corridor "is not needed for 35 years, not even 50 or 100. The system is not broken, and we can easily make needed improvements. That's especially true on I-69."

"TxDOT, prior to the Perry era, used sound engineering and financial principles…not anymore," says Slotboom. "Pay-as-you-go has served us well, but if Perry has his way, Texans have a future of driving around the state paying very expensive tolls."

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