The Next Wave in Superhighways, or A Big, Fat Texas Boondoggle?

  • To see the future of transportation in Texas, you have to drive out to the prairie north of Austin, past the sprawling plants of Dell and Samsung, to the farthest suburbs, where wild grass and cornfields nuzzle up to McMansions with their perfect green lawns. There, giant earthmovers, their wheels taller than a Texan in his boots, are ripping up the gummy, black soil to lay a 49-mile stretch of concrete tollway. State Highway 130, at a cost of $1.5 billion, is the biggest highway project under way in the U.S. today. It is also the first test in concrete for the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) — a radical rethinking of the nation's Eisenhower-era roadways.

    The brainchild of Texas' Republican Governor, Rick Perry, the TTC would, if built, completely transform the state's highways over the next 50 years, creating a 4,000-mile network of multimodal corridors for transporting goods and people by car, truck, rail and utility line. Each corridor would have six lanes for cars, four additional lanes for 18-wheel trucks, half a dozen rail lines and a utility zone for moving oil and water, gas and electricity, even broadband data. The corridors could measure up to a quarter of a mile across. The projected cost, at least $183 billion, is more than the original price tag for the entire U.S. interstate system. But Texas, going it alone, is seeking private companies to take on the mammoth job of constructing, financing, operating and maintaining the network. To pay for the roads, developers will rely on a familiar but long-neglected method of financing: tollbooths.

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    Depending on whom you talk to, the Trans-Texas Corridor is either an innovative solution to the U.S.'s overcrowded highway system or a Texas-size boondoggle. Backers claim that such corridors are needed to divert road and rail traffic — NAFTA truckers driving up from Mexico, railcars of Chinese goods from Western ports, hazardous cargoes of all kinds — from congested urban areas. Buying land for the system now, decades before it's needed, would cut acquisition costs and might entice businesses to relocate inside the corridors. T. Boone Pickens could ship his West Texas water across the state in pipelines through the corridors; oil and gas could be shipped north from Mexico; even high-speed passenger rail lines could become reality. "The Trans-Texas Corridor is not just a road, not just asphalt," says Perry. "It's a vision."

    Opponents of the corridor range from environmentalists (the Sierra Club has called it "evil") to the Texas Republican Party, which has urged the legislature to repeal it. Texas, which is losing more land to sprawl than any other state, would need more than 9,000 sq. mi. of right-of-way for the corridors, affecting critical wetlands and pristine prairie lands. The Big Thicket National Preserve, considered "the biological crossroads of North America" for its mix of habitats, was put on the list of most-endangered parks by the National Parks Conservation Association this year, in part because of the threat from the Perry plan.

    Environmentalists have found an unlikely ally in traditionally conservative landowners worried about property rights. David Langford, an activist for the Texas Wildlife Association, is organizing farmers and ranchers whose land could be cut in half or condemned by the Trans-Texas Corridor. An early plan for central Texas showed a corridor passing near the homestead Langford's family settled in 1851. With the state's new "quick claim" ability — granted under TTC legislation — his family homestead could be gone in 90 days, he says, transferred to private investors operating the corridor. Though he would be compensated financially, he's still steamed. "I can't believe Rick Perry's grandfather would want his house and ranch taken and turned over to Paris Hilton's family to build a hotel on one of these roads," he says.

    Local politicians are mobilizing too. The TTC legislation, passed after eight hours of debate, in June 2003, drew little attention until Republican activist David Stall, a former city manager of Columbus, in East Texas, discovered a notice for hearings buried in the ads for gravel and road-material bids. He was "horrified" to discover that the corridor, as a limited-access turnpike, would steal business his town gets from travelers. Today public officials from six counties along the corridor route have joined his grass-roots group, CorridorWatch, to oppose the TTC. "There is no legislative oversight, no elected officials overseeing the contracts to build and operate these toll roads," Stall complains.

    But the worst ruckus broke out in Austin last summer, when commuters realized that the "innovative" financing authorized by the Trans-Texas legislation meant they would start paying tolls. Traditionally, highways have been financed by gasoline-tax revenues. But that money now barely covers road maintenance, much less new construction, and raising gas taxes is as politically unpalatable in Texas as it is everywhere else. The state, for the first time, can go into debt by issuing bonds for new roads. Although those bonds can be paid back by a number of possible revenue sources (such as steeper fines for drunken driving), Texas policy now is to look first at tolling for all new highway projects.

    What's more, the TTC legislation allows existing roads, not just new ones, to be converted to tollways. "They can take any highway anywhere, anytime, and put a tollbooth there," says Sal Costello, whose group, AustinTollParty, argues that putting tollbooths on roads already paid for with gas taxes amounts to "double taxation" of commuters. The political outcry is having an effect. After Austin approved eight new toll projects for roads and bridges, a recall campaign was launched against the Democratic mayor and two city councilmen. "It's been a true grass prairie fire," says Brewster McCracken, one of the city councilmen targeted. He's now against conversions.

    Congress in the 1950s expressly rejected tolls as a way of financing the nation's interstate highways. But the Bush Administration, faced with an aging freeway system and a lack of money for building and maintenance, is rethinking the idea. Mary E. Peters, head of the Federal Highway Administration, has called Perry's TTC plan a "bold concept." President Bush has threatened to veto any increase in the nation's 18.4¢ gasoline tax and has expressed support for tolls on interstate highways. Other states, such as California, Missouri and Minnesota, are closely watching the Texas toll experiment.

    Perry, a farm boy from West Texas who studied animal science at Texas A&M; University, sees the Trans-Texas Corridor as a way to make his mark by tackling the state's growing congestion. Urban rush-hour drivers were stuck in traffic for an average of 46 hr. in 2002, nearly triple the time in 1982, according to a study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute. Increasingly, tolls are seen as a way to reduce traffic. "We simply can't afford to build our way out of traffic congestion, so we have to better manage it," says Michael Replogle, transportation director of Environmental Defense, a nonprofit group that advocates "time-of-day tolling": tolls that would take effect during rush hours to discourage driving at peak times.

    The Trans-Texas Corridor has won accolades from conservatives like Wendell Cox, transportation guru at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who hails it as "the first serious innovative thinking in transportation in a half-century." Texas economist Ray Perryman estimates that the TTC could generate $135 billion in annual personal income for Texans and nearly 2.2 million jobs. But not everyone accepts his projection of $13 billion a year in revenues from the corridors. Kara Kockelman at the University of Texas' Center for Transportation Research warns that NAFTA-generated trade could decline and unforeseen crises, like the terrorist attacks in 2001, could affect travel. The state has had to buy back its first private toll road — promoted by a former Democratic candidate for Governor, Tony Sanchez — for $20 million.

    None of that has stopped an array of private companies from trying to get a piece of the new Texas road-building boom. Sometime in December, the Texas Transportation Commission, a five-member board appointed by the Governor, will award a $24 billion contract to develop proposals for the TTC's first multimodal corridor — a 600-mile stretch from Mexico to Oklahoma needed for NAFTA trucking and rail. In the running are three consortiums, one headed by the California-based Fluor Corp., another that includes Halliburton's Kellogg Brown & Root subsidiary and a third headed by the Spanish tollway operator Cintra. Fluor got into the game early. It submitted an unsolicited bid for work on the Trans-Texas Corridor in early 2002, before there was even an approved state plan. "Our work on SH 130 is considered the TTC's precursor," says Fluor vice president Steve Dobbs.

    The toll issue could come back to haunt the Governor, who is up for re-election in 2006. Perry's hefty donations from construction firms have been noted by public watchdogs. Since 1997, he has received more than $1 million from highway interests, according to reports filed with the Texas ethics commission. Two Republican rivals — Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and state comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn — have opposed the tolling of existing roads. Perry now says he, too, is against conversions, but notes that those decisions are up to local authorities.

    Meanwhile, in the town of Hutto, north of Austin, the construction on State Highway 130 is a sign of things to come. Farmers no longer gather at the cotton gin, but the town's first national chain, Home Depot, has moved in. Mayor Mike Ackerman drives by the construction site every day on his way to work and is sanguine about the changing face of his town. "Anything we can do to get traffic moving north and south, we need to do," he says. The question is whether the rest of Texas agrees with him.