I haven't blogged much about the Trans Texas Corridor before, but with the announcement yesterday that an agreement has been reached to build the first piece of the corridor, a toll road between San Antonio and Dallas, I think there will be a lot to say in the future.
The long-term partnership with the consortium, led by Spanish toll road operator Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction Corp., is at once shockingly new for Texas and historically familiar. Spaniards, after all, built the first road in Texas, the El Camino Real about four centuries ago, some of it in the same corridor where Interstate 35 now lies and where Cintra and its partners would start the turnpike. But handing over a major state highway project to private operators, this in a state that could not even build toll roads until recent years, breaks new policy ground.
The consortium, in the first phase of what could be a decades-long partnership, would construct more than 300 miles of four-lane turnpike (with ample room for expansion) from the Oklahoma border to the east side of San Antonio, leaving a gap only for Texas 130 near Austin. The road would tie into the south and north ends of Texas 130, a tollroad currently under construction by Lone Star Infrastructure. Lone Star's primary partner is Fluor Enterprises Inc., which was the lowest ranked of the three bidders Thursday.
Officials expect that construction could start on the first segment from the south end of Texas 130 to San Antonio by 2007. The other four segments would begin in 2009 and 2010, with completion of the entire route by the end of 2014. Cintra and Zachry, along with about 16 other subcontractors, would also build other segments of the I-35 alternative, including a connection to Mexico either through the Rio Grande Valley or Laredo sometime after 2025. The "conceptual" plan submitted by Cintra recommended that extension go to the Valley (rather than the hometown of the man Perry defeated in 2002, Tony Sanchez), but a final decision on that route is likely years away.
The specific path of the entire project, in fact, is still a work in progress. The Transportation Department, in conjunction with Cintra and federal highway regulators, plans to narrow that route down to a 10-mile-wide corridor by late spring. The final route would likely be as close as possible to urban centers, officials said, but still far enough enough to be largely free of city traffic.
Just how Cintra and Zachry can afford to lay out $7.2 billion, and still make a profit remained unclear Thursday.
Jose Lopez, United States and Latin America director for Cintra, said the toll rates would be comparable to current Texas toll rates, which generally fall between 10 cents and 20 cents a mile for passenger cars and three to four times that for large trucks. And he said the company's financial plan did not include making money off concessions along the roads such as fast food restaurants, souvenir stores or gas stations.
Cintra and Zachry believe that if they build it, the drivers will come. One possible incentive: the 2003 legislation that allowed the state to build the Trans-Texas Corridor, or let someone else build and operate it, allows speed limits on the road of up to 85 miles per hour.
Here's what the Express News has to add.
The Trans Texas Corridor is huge and costly. The $184 billion endeavor is eventually supposed to crisscross the state with 4,000 miles of 10-lane highways and rail lines in swaths up to a quarter-mile wide.
Officials will have to charge tolls to finance bonds and pay for operations and maintenance. They'll also have to confiscate farmlands and wildlife areas.
"This is just one of those things that is painful and there's not an awful lot we can do about it," said commission Chairman Ric Williamson.
Motorists now pay from 10 cents to 20 cents a mile to use toll roads in Houston and Dallas, and Cintra says that will be a starting point to decide its fees on the route it will build along Interstate 35.
Cintra will have to rely on traffic congestion on I-35 to drive frustrated motorists to its toll lanes.
As a result, Texas will likely limit expansion of the interstate — probably to six lanes — to ensure a lucrative market for the company.
"They need to have an expectation that they can get a profit," Williamson said. "And we shouldn't be ashamed of that."
Besides, Williamson added, the Transportation Department couldn't afford to do much more on I-35 anyway.
Another fun thought from the Star Telegram:
Cintra officials said tolls will probably be similar to current rates on such roads as Dallas' President George Bush Turnpike. At 20 cents per mile, a trip from Fort Worth to Austin would cost about $40 each way, but the toll would be higher for trucks and other vehicles with more than two axles.
The road would be open to all traffic, but the emphasis would be on getting large trucks off congested highways.
Trans Texas Corridor supporters predict that trucking companies will pay tolls for a reliable, high-speed road. The projected speed limit on the Trans Texas Corridor is 85 mph, and trucks would be allowed to carry 50 percent more cargo.
Oh, and doesn't the idea of sharing the ride with supersized rigs tooling along at 85 MPH just make you want to rush right out onto that new toll road? I shudder to think what the casualty rate is going to be like.
One last thing, getting back to all the land that will have to be bought up before any concrete is poured: Better start buying now, or risk seeing huge cost overruns come construction time.Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 17, 2004 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack