AUSTIN -- Everything's big in the Lone Star State, but the term "superhighway" barely begins to describe Texas's transportation plan for the 21st century.
Called the Trans-Texas Corridor, it is the most ambitious highway project since the Eisenhower administration introduced the interstate system in the 1950s. The $184 billion, 50-year plan calls for building 4,000 miles of roadways up to a quarter-mile wide. Each corridor would contain six high-speed toll lanes for cars and trucks; six rail lines and easements for petroleum, natural gas and water pipelines, as well as electric, broadband and other telecommunications lines.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) first proposed the Trans-Texas Corridor project in his 2002 reelection campaign.
(Eric Gay -- AP)
With Texas's population expected to double to 50 million in the next few decades and NAFTA-fueled cross-border trade increasing, the new corridor would move people and goods on these mega-highways from the Mexican border to Oklahoma and from the piney woods of East Texas to the El Paso desert. Cars and trucks could zip along at 85 mph. Oil could be piped out of Mexico across the country. Water from the Louisiana border could flow into drought-stricken West Texas. And hazardous materials could be routed out of Houston and Dallas, improving the state's ability to prevent terrorist attacks or other disasters.
The price would be minimal to taxpayers, say state officials, who are seeking private companies to finance, develop, build and maintain the corridor in exchange for the right to charge tolls for half a century.
Gov. Rick Perry (R) calls the corridor a "vision," and transportation experts are watching to see whether the Texas plan will work in other states that are contending with clogged roads and scarce highway funding. The project's reliance on tolls would mean a significant shift in how road construction is paid for and might not easily translate to such states as Ohio, Washington and Indiana that recently decided a gasoline tax increase to pay for highway construction was more palatable than creating more toll roads.
"The Texas concept has great potential that the rest of the country could benefit from looking at," said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. "Is this a panacea? . . . I think the jury is out on that."
Opponents have lined up against the plan, worried about the environmental impact, the trampling of property rights, the expense of tolls and the loss of business along already established interstate routes.
"What's going to happen when they come across our farms and ranches that have been in some families for generations?" said cotton farmer and Texas Farm Bureau President Kenneth Dierschke. "You could be sitting on your back porch looking at this corridor and looking at your property on the other side."
In December, the Texas Transportation Commission chose a private consortium led by a Madrid-based toll road operator to construct the first segment of the corridor. Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA, in conjunction with a San Antonio construction company, will build 316 miles of four-lane turnpike, with substantial room for expansion, from north of Dallas to east of San Antonio. The cities are connected by the most congested portion of Interstate 35 in Texas -- a stretch of road packed with commuters at rush hour and freight trucks round-the-clock. The "Trans-Texas Corridor 35" will be built east of and parallel to I-35 and construction will begin, subject to environmental approval, in the next five years.
Cintra will spend $6 billion to build the highway and will give the state an additional $1.2 billion to fund other road-improvement projects along I-35, Texas's primary NAFTA truck route. In exchange, Cintra will get the right to charge state-approved tolls on the road for 50 years. The Texas Transportation Department will spend $3.5 million to develop the master plan for the turnpike, but other details are still being worked out. Officials expect to sign a contract with Cintra this month.
Private-public transportation contracts make some analysts wary. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which monitors transportation projects in six states, found that similar agreements in Virginia, for example, are costing taxpayers millions through the subsidies or tax-exempt bonds the state has provided to private road contractors.
"With tighter transportation dollars, there's an obvious appeal" to private-public projects, said Trip Pollard, the center's director of land and community projects. "But people have to realize, it comes out of the public's pocket, whether it's taxes or tolls. . . . There's no free lunch with these projects."
For now, Texas officials are touting the first phase of their new superhighway.
"To Texans stuck in traffic now, know that help is on the way," Perry said last week in his State of the State address. "This toll project will allow us to build the needed corridors sooner and cheaper."