By Reed Black
They do things big in Texas - big ranches, big barbecues, big football programs. But if Gov. Rick Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor is ever completely developed, it could mean 4,000 miles of transportation corridors featuring toll roads, railroad tracks, pipelines and power lines.
It's a 50-year plan and the conservative cost estimate is $186 billion. Most of that would be paid by private companies - called concessionaires - who would build and operate the corridors, then profit by keeping the lions' share of the tolls, as well as the concession income from truck stops and the like.
"It is a big project, but we are a big state with a big population that's growing and has big needs. And we need big thoughts and a big vision to prepare the state for the future," said Kris Heckmann, an aide to Gov. Perry who specializes in transportation.
A big project for sure.
There wouldn't be just one corridor, but many - at least two running north-south, possibly others going east-west. Each corridor would be a quarter-mile wide with the land to be acquired by eminent domain.
If all 4,000 miles of corridors were developed, more than half a million acres of private land would become state-owned.
The corridors would run through rural areas and would skirt the states' large cities by 30 miles or more - with city dwellers relying on connecting highways to get to the corridors.
In a fully developed corridor, there could be six lanes of vehicular traffic, including trucks, traveling at 85 mph and four lanes of truck-only traffic moving at 80 mph. There could be up to up six rail lines - both freight and commuter. Pipelines and power lines would run alongside.
But Heckmann said there's a misconception that all of the corridors would be fully developed all at once.
"The better description of it is that it is a vision with a set of tools to allow us to build what we need, to build it faster and cheaper and better. And that's what the corridor really is," he said.
No exact corridor routes have been designated yet. But Cintra, a Spanish firm, and its Texas partner Zachry Construction has a $3.5 million contract to develop a master plan for the corridor from the Oklahoma border to Mexico.
Heckmann said plans for that corridor call for full development - with rail, utilities, pipelines, passenger toll lanes and eventually separate truck toll lanes.
He said the concessionaires on the first proposed project would set the toll rates "in conjunction" with the Texas Department of Transportation.
Based on current experience with toll roads, he said he expects the tolls to be 10 cents to 15 cents per mile for passenger vehicles and about 40 cents per mile for trucks.
But the head of a group that's opposed to the whole Trans-Texas Corridor plan says there have been discussions of setting the toll for trucks at 65 cents to 80 cents per mile.
David Stall, who founded the group "Corridor Watch" doesn't find those discussions surprising. Stall, a former city manager, is convinced that the whole corridor plan is just a way for the state, and a few private companies, to make a lot of money. In fact, he calls it "highway alchemy."
"In the Middle Ages there were constant attempts to turn lead into gold," Stall said. "Right now, we have legislators who believe they have found a way to turn asphalt into gold to generate revenue off of roads."
Stall thinks this might be a bigger revenue producer than the state needs just to maintain highways. And although the governor's transportation aide disputes it, Stall said the law authorizing the corridors clearly says that, besides using eminent domain to acquire the corridors themselves, the state can also acquire land adjacent to the corridors for commercial or industrial development.
He said both the state and the concessionaires could profit from developments like hotels or industrial parks.
As for the dedicated toll lanes for trucks, Stall said those lanes would be built first - with the passenger vehicle lanes added later.
"The project does include four lanes - two in each direction - dedicated for tractor-trailer use, but the reality is those lanes are going to be built first and they will be shared with passenger cars," Stall said.
"So, you're getting the narrower set of lanes (first). The truck lanes are wider per lane, but you're going to be sharing them with vehicles. And until the economics are there to split cars out of there, there is no separation between passenger vehicles and tractor-trailers."
And Stall questions how many truckers - or four-wheelers for that matter - would want to use a corridor that's 30 or 40 miles from a major city.
"There's not been one traffic study that indicates the need for the corridor, nor has the state directed where the corridor should specifically go and what communities it should serve. What they have done - is they said the corridor does not go to any specific communities in Texas. So we're building a highway that goes from nowhere to nowhere," he said.
Currently, Cintra-Zachry is still in negotiations with the state. No ground-breaking has been scheduled, but the concessionaire has pledged to spend $6 billion on the first leg of the corridor and give the state another $1.2 billion to spend on transportation near the corridor.
And while the corridor's exact route hasn't been determined, an environmental impact study is underway.
Meanwhile, a group of Texas Republicans - people from the governor's own party - are now threatening to try to repeal the Legislature's authorization of the corridor. But the Legislature doesn't re-convene until a year from now.
The governor and officials from Cintra-Zachry have said they hope to start construction on the Dallas-to-San Antonio portion of the corridor within the next 12 to 24 months.