Monday, January 3, 2005

AUSTIN, Texas — In what sounds like another tall tale told by a Texan, the state has embarked on an audacious project to build superhighways so big and so complex that they will make ordinary interstates look like cow paths.

The Trans-Texas Corridor project, as first envisioned by Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2002, would be a 4,000-mile transportation network costing $175 billion over 50 years, financed mostly if not entirely with private money. The builders then would charge motorists tolls.

But these would not be mere highways. Proving anew that everything’s big in Texas, they would be megahighways — corridors up to a quarter-mile across, consisting of as many as six lanes for cars and four for trucks, plus railroad tracks, oil and gas pipelines, water and other utility lines, and broadband transmission cables.

Supporters say the corridors are needed to handle the expected boom in the flow of goods, driven by the North American Free Trade Agreement, to and from Mexico and to enable freight haulers to bypass heavily populated urban centers on straight-shot highways that cut across the countryside.

The number of corridors and exactly where they would run have to be worked out. But the Texas Transportation Commission on Dec. 16 opened negotiations with the Spain-based consortium Cintra to start the first phase of the project, a $7.5 billion corridor that would stretch from Oklahoma to Mexico and run parallel to Interstate 35.

“Some thought the Trans-Texas Corridor was a pie-in-the-sky idea that would never see the light of day,” said Mr. Perry, who has compared his plan to the interstate highway system started during the Eisenhower administration. “We have seen the future, and it’s here today.”

But as the plan rumbles along in the fast lane, some have called it a Texas-size boondoggle. Environmentalists are worried about what it will do to the countryside. Ranchers and farmers who stand to lose their land through eminent domain are mobilizing against it. Small towns and big cities alike fear a loss of business when traffic is diverted around them.

Even the governor’s party opposes the plan. The Republican platform drafted at the state convention in the summer rejected the plan because of its effect on property rights.

Mr. Perry is undeterred. “I think it will be a model for future infrastructure construction in the world,” he said.

The tolls would represent a dramatic departure for Texas, which traditionally has relied on federal highway funding from gasoline taxes to build roads. But supporters say the combination of tolls and private money would allow Texas to pour concrete at a rate that would not be possible through gasoline taxes alone.

Texas economist Ray Perryman said the corridors could generate about $135 billion for the state during the 50-year span and lure new industry by offering efficient shipping routes for goods and utilities. “Any time we can do something better, faster and cheaper, it’s going to give us an advantage,” he said.

The new rail lines also could lower the risk of chemical spills in urban areas, said Robert Black, a spokesman for Mr. Perry. “We have hazardous materials running through our city centers because of a rail system that was built 100 years ago,” Mr. Black said.

For the Oklahoma-Mexico corridor, Cintra plans to spend $6 billion for about 300 miles of four-lane highway from Dallas to San Antonio and give the state an additional $1.2 billion for improvements along the route. In return, Cintra wants to maintain and operate the toll road for 50 years.

Other potential corridors could stretch east to west from Orange to El Paso, and north to south from Amarillo to Laredo.

The Texas Farm Bureau — generally regarded as an ally of Mr. Perry, who grew up on a farm in West Texas — opposes the project.

“They’re proposing going primarily through farm and ranch lands,” said bureau President Kenneth Dierschke, a cotton farmer from San Angelo. “If someone comes in and cuts your property in half, that’s no good.”

Officials promise property owners will be fairly compensated for any land seized. And a special provision put in for the benefit of rural Texas would allow some to negotiate for a share of the revenue generated by traffic on the corridor.

David Stall, former city manager of Columbus, a town of about 3,800 along Interstate 10, founded Corridor Watch in opposition to the plan. He predicted an El Paso-to-Orange corridor would divert as much as 25 percent of the traffic off of I-10 and have a “devastating impact” on Columbus.

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