Trans-Texas Corridor name dies, but not entire concept

Work will continue on I-35, I-69 pieces of original plan of cross-state tollways, railways and utility lines, officials say.

The Austin American-Statesman | January 07, 2009
By Ben Wear

The Trans-Texas Corridor, as a name and as a guiding concept of the state's transportation future, is dead, Texas Department of Transportation Executive Director Amadeo Saenz told an audience of more than a thousand people Tuesday at an Austin hotel. But Saenz acknowledged that all elements of the original plan, including a tollway twin to Interstate 35, could be built as stand-alone projects if and when they are deemed necessary.

Gov. Rick Perry in 2002 unveiled with great fanfare the corridor plan as an almost $200 billion blueprint for the state's transportation future and then took withering criticism for it in a tough 2006 re-election race. On Tuesday, he said, "The days of the Trans-Texas Corridor are over."

Critics of the corridor plan and TxDOT officials differed Tuesday over whether the body is truly cold and what would constitute the death of the proposed network of cross-state tollways, railways and utility lines. Planning and environmental studies of the twin to I-35, which would run from San Antonio to Oklahoma, and of I-69 , from Brownsville to Texarkana, will not stop, officials said.

And Perry, talking to reporters while in Iraq on a brief visit to Texas troops there, said, "We really don't care what name they attach to building infrastructure in the state of Texas. The key is we have to go forward and build it."

Asked if the announcement means that private toll road contracts, which have been central to the two corridor ventures under way to date, are a thing of the past in Texas, Perry said no: "We'll continue to use all the tools available to build infrastructure."

So, is a name change really all that occurred Tuesday?

"That's basically it," Saenz said. "The connotation of the name was that we were going to build all these elements (roads, rail and utilities) in one footprint."

By all accounts, the 1,200-foot-wide conglomeration of side-by-side projects, captured in a TxDOT rendering in 2002 that helped set off alarms around the state, won't be happening.

Saenz's surprise pronouncement of last rites came a week before legislators gather for a session during which they must decide whether to allow TxDOT to continue pursuing long-term toll road leases with private companies and just over a year before Perry is likely to face a GOP gubernatorial primary against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

A Hutchison spokesman said the problem wasn't the Trans-Texas Corridor name but rather the tollways associated with it and the fields and pastures that would be consumed to build them.

"When citizens pointed out the flaws in his original corridor idea, specifically trampling private property rights, the Perry administration responded with condescension and arrogance," said Todd Olsen, an Austin-based spokesman for Hutchison's gubernatorial exploratory committee. "It wasn't about a name."

Perry spokesman Mark Miner said, "If the senator hadn't been asleep at the wheel for the last 15 years and saw that Texas got its fair share of federal tax dollars, we wouldn't need to look for alternative ways to fund Texas roads."

Whatever projects emerge from the remains of the corridors TxDOT is still using that portion of the original term, at least would be no more than 600 feet wide.

Several years ago, TxDOT officials conceded that much of the plan, particularly its West Texas pieces, would not be needed until far in the future, if ever. And the Trans-Texas Corridor idea all along generated fierce opposition, including from some Perry allies like the Texas Farm Bureau that objected to the large amounts of farm and ranch land that would be lost.

David Stall of Fayette County, southeast of Austin, founded a group called CorridorWatch in opposition to the plan. Stall took TxDOT at its word Tuesday. Even if some pieces remain under study, he said, "the Trans-Texas Corridor as a statewide, massive, multimodal, over-reaching project is dead."

So why would TxDOT go out of its way to declare the project dead?

"They've got some bridges to mend with the Legislature that don't have asphalt on them," Stall said. "So if this is a foregone conclusion, it's an easy gimme."

The term "Trans-Texas Corridor" for now survives in one very prominent place, the Texas Transportation Code.

A bill eliminating that entire section of law has been filed, something TxDOT would not like to see, given that doing so would wipe out other powers it wants to maintain. "For instance, that's the only place we have authority to build rail," Deputy Executive Director Steve Simmons said.

TxDOT officials couldn't say Tuesday how much had been spent on the corridor plan.

Cintra-Zachry, a Spanish and American consortium hired by TxDOT to develop a plan for the I-35 twin, signed a contract for $3.5 million. But the agency has spent much more on environmental work, public meetings, legal fees and other consulting on the agreements associated with the plan.

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said almost none of that money should be considered wasted. "We're still going to build Texas 130 ... we're still going to build I-69," Lippincott said. "Maybe we wasted some money developing a TTC logo, but that's about it."