Ghost Road

| May 16, 2007

But by 2003, TxDOT had conjured and proposed what it called the “Trans-Texas Corridor” project. Governor Rick Perry has described the TTC as a “vision,” a statewide system of multimodal corridors designed to alleviate congestion over the long term.

Their thinking continues to be Texas-sized. TxDOT Turnpike Authority public affairs officer Gabriela Garcia says environmental studies are well under way for two possible projects, TTC-35 and I-69/TTC. Even the beginning of construction is far in the future, but what TTC-35 might look like is less than hazy in the minds of planners: an alternate highway roughly running parallel to I-35 but in its own right-of-way.

At full build-out, according to the plan, it might have four dedicated lanes for trucks and six for cars, in addition to further utilization of the corridor for pipelines, electricity and rail, including high-speed passenger trains. Where it connects with existing four-lanes, those roads would be expanded to six lanes. Combined with relatively new intermodal facilities in San Antonio and Dallas-Ft. Worth, it could serve as the beginning of what comes to the minds of many truckers when they hear “NAFTA Superhighway”: a high-speed alternate to slower local highways and other interstate-like roads, without the thick commuter traffic.

SAFETEA-LU (passed in 2005), the most current reauthorization of ISTEA, put more onus on states to determine funding sources for major corridor projects. It nearly doubled the number of high-priority-designated corridors and further enabled public/private partnerships to increase funding capacity, with private investment, for new projects nationwide.

The current master development plan for the TTC, says Garcia, is being provided on a $3.5 million contract by Cintra-Zachry, a partnership of Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction. Cintra is the Spanish company that in early 2006 partnered with Australia-based Macquarie Infrastructure Group to become the lessee of the Indiana Toll Road southeast of Chicago, igniting a firestorm of criticism from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, among others. Other groups, including the Indiana Motor Truck Association, backed the move for the funding it would provide the state for new-road and rehabilitation projects elsewhere. One was the proposed I-69 extension from Indianapolis to Evansville, which would be a toll road as well.

ISTEA made it possible for the first time for private entities to own toll facilities along interstate highways, and since then tolling has been utilized nationwide in a much more prominent way. After SAFETEA-LU further relaxed restrictions on federal funding for toll roads (in part by launching a grant program for various pilot projects), the Federal Highway Administration even launched a website dedicated to information about tolling best practices, regulations and opportunities (www.ops.fhwa.dot.gov/tolling_pricing/).

On Halloween last year, the American Trucking Associations came out against the private operation of existing toll facilities. ATA President and CEO Bill Graves told members, “ATA is prepared to lead a national coalition of highway users in opposition to these financing schemes that offer a short-term windfall but a long-term recipe for disaster.” As far as new toll roads are concerned, ATA supports a toll-free highway system.

Like the Indiana Cintra operation, TTC-35 and I-69/TTC are being proposed as tollways that will pay for their own upkeep and at the same time bring in revenue for the cash-strapped TxDOT.

But contrary to what many of the project’s local critics have been saying, says Garcia, if TTC-35 made it through the environmental studies and was approved for construction, it would go out for bidding like any other highway.

Backers of the Texas project stress its local nature – “It is solely a state project,” says NASCO’s Tiffany Melvin. “We’ve supported the creation of the new infrastructure because the congestion problems are so crucial in Texas.” But she likewise stresses that NASCO is still primarily committed in America to increasing efficiency all along the existing I-35 (and I-29 and I-94 along the northern segments of the corridor). Melvin points out that there is no plan to extend the future TTC-35 into Oklahoma.

Longtime Houston area-based owner-operator Danny Cochran, who’s leased to Waggoners Trucking and hauls cars mostly between his hometown and the Spartanburg, S.C., BMW facility, says he’s seen a lot of change in Texas. “It’s not like it used to be, when you could get a place to park traveling that area down by Laredo,” he says.

The I-69/TTC study area runs along Highway 59 right through his neighborhood between Nacogdoches and Livingston, but he says the roughest traffic is along I-35.

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