January 6, 2009

Transportation plan stays, but name goes

By Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News

AUSTIN — Seeking to renew enthusiasm for a massive road-building plan that scared people by its very name, the Texas Department of Transportation has decided to reinvigorate it — by dropping the name.

“We've decided to put the name to rest,” Director Amadeo Saenz told more than 1,000 people Tuesday morning at the Texas Transportation Forum, according to a text of his speech. “The Trans-Texas Corridor, as it was known, will no longer exist.”

The corridor actually hasn't existed “as it was known” for years now, Saenz explained later. It's been evolving, often under fire, ever since Gov. Rick Perry unveiled the 50-year blueprint in 2002.

Back then, the vision showed 1,200-foot-wide swaths of toll lanes, rail lines and utility lines criss-crossing the state.

TxDOT officials later said the roads and rails might not be in the same corridors, and so the rights of way wouldn't have to be so wide. They also said segments would be built only as needed, and existing roads would be widened instead where possible.

But many people couldn't shake the wide berth shown in the original drawings. They added up acreage and projected the paths of the 4,000-mile network — and got scared.

“A lot of fear developed,” recalled state Sen. Robert Nichols, who at the time served on the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT. “With that fear came opposition.”

Anger from thousands of landowners and activists flooded public hearings, first in 2006 for the corridor's twin along Interstate 35 and again last year for a route through East Texas.

TxDOT refined plans, announcing that adding lanes to I-35 south of San Antonio was the priority over a virgin route. Last year, the Transportation Commission broadened that intention, promising to always first consider using existing rights of way for any corridor project.

On Tuesday, Saenz said the agency also will try to keep widths within 600 feet. Going wider, especially if roads and rails are put together, would be the exception rather than the norm.

“The right of way will be whatever you need to build the asset,” he said. “But the chance of it being all put together in one corridor is slim.”

Other than backpedaling from the Trans-Texas brand, and the goals and priorities set over the years, the corridor remains intact.

TxDOT still plans to partner with private corporations to build and lease projects. Toll roads, truck-only lanes and rail lanes also still are on the table.

Environmental studies for the I-35 and East Texas corridor segments still chug through the pipeline. And a development contract with Cintra of Spain and Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio for projects paralleling I-35 still is valid.

The difference now is that instead of referring to the Trans-Texas Corridor name, officials will identify each segment of the original plan separately.

Booting the corridor's name could freshen the concept and maybe clear the air some before this year's transportation-heavy legislative session starts next week.

“We can now focus on the real issue, which is additional road capacity and the means to finance the same,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas.

State lawmakers plan to put TxDOT, toll roads, privatization, gas taxes and other issues in the frying pan. Carona said all financing options will be needed.

“It's going to be a big chapter, it's going to be a great chapter,” he said of the upcoming session.

Perry, speaking from Iraq on a conference call with reporters, concurred that the state needs private investments in roads.

“Our options are relatively limited due to Washington's ineffectiveness from the standpoint of being able to deliver dollars or the Legislature to raise the gas tax,” he said. “So we have to look at some other options.”

Still, the name change has roused excitement.

“We're real pleased that a project once described as unstoppable has now screeched to a halt,” said David Stall of the citizens' group Corridor Watch.

He said his group will continue to watch developments.

R.G. Ratcliffe and Janet Elliott of the Austin Bureau contributed to this report.

Portions © 2009 San Antonio Express-News.www.mysanantonio.com

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