November 06, 2007
Why people subscribe to conspiracy theories

When you read a headline like Slower I-35 part of deal on toll road, it becomes abundantly clear, if it wasn't already, why so many people believe so many outrageous things about the Trans Texas Corridor. Note to Governor Perry: If you want people to stop saying sinister things about the TTC, then stop doing sinister things on its behalf. It's really not that hard.

The privatization contract for Texas 130 from Austin to Seguin, cutting a parallel path east of I-35, was quietly signed in March amid a legislative furor over whether to freeze such agreements. It includes a controversial clause that penalizes the state for widening or building competing roads.

If a project over the next 50 years -- with some exceptions -- interferes with Texas 130 toll traffic, the Texas Department of Transportation would have to pay Cintra of Spain and Zachry Construction Corp. of San Antonio for their lost profits.

But the state can also get credit, though not payment, for driving traffic to the tollway, including by lowering posted speeds on I-35.

Not that TxDOT would do that, and certainly not for financial gain, spokeswoman Gaby Garcia said.

"We don't expect to be reducing speed limits on I-35," she said. "They are set by traffic engineering studies and not by economic gain."

But toll critics say a gate is open to the manipulation of I-35 traffic to ensure toll profits, and they don't trust TxDOT as the sentry.

"Our highways are being hijacked for private interests," said Terri Hall of Texans United for Reform and Freedom. "Who's going to rein in this agency? It just baffles me."


If TxDOT raises the speed limit on I-35, it must pay Cintra-Zachry for any toll losses, according to a maze of requirements in the 192-page toll contract and its 476 pages of support documents.

Oddly, any improvements to the freeway are exempt from the competition clause. Also exempt are projects in existing 25-year plans.

The contract doesn't stop there -- it also covers speed limits for the 40 miles of Texas 130 that will run from Seguin to south of Austin, where it'll hook up with another segment that now loops around the city.

Cintra-Zachry will pay TxDOT $25 million upfront if the limit is set at 70 mph but will fatten the offer to $92 million for 80 mph and $125 million for 85 mph, which state law allows. The agency could opt instead to take a growing bite of profits.

This is crazy, and it's exactly why I oppose the TTC, even though I don't think toll roads in general are evil. As with so many privatization efforts, it's more about larding up the pork and distorting whatever market effects there might otherwise be in order to ensure a good return for the private investor. If a privately owned toll road is such a great idea, it doesn't need the state to make its publicly owned free roads less attractive.

I should note that I don't necessarily oppose the idea of allowing SH130 to have higher speed limits, which is something we've discussed before, in return for greater toll fees. I personally would be less likely to drive such a road, and there are certainly good arguments from a safety and environmental perspective against such a thing, but I don't have any philosophical qualms about it. It's all the other stuff that's designed to drive traffic to that road by making all other options less viable that makes me mad, and should make you mad, too. Link via Eye on Williamson.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 06, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles