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 News also 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."
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.
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.
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"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."