Texas prides itself on doing things bigger, and that applies to highways as well as hats, football players and practically anything else you care to think about.
Indiana may lease its toll road to a private operator and Virginia may widen I-81, but the Texas-sized solution is a border-to-border supercorridor of expressways, freight and passenger rails and utility lines owned by the state but built and operated by a private company.
It helps to have the land, but the thinking is pretty big, too.
According to Kris Heckmann, an adviser to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the Trans-Texas Corridor was born out of necessity. The state's population grew more than 27 percent between 1990 and 2000, from 16.5 million to 21 million, half of which live within a few miles of I-35, the major north-south route.
A 1997 study by the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration showed that it would cost $1.8 billion to add a lane to the I-35 corridor between Dallas and San Antonio. The state did not have the money. One option was to follow the usual course of dedicating a certain amount each year and starting to build. Budget $100 million a year and in 18 years you'd find that you still needed another $5 million, Heckmann said.
Or, start from scratch and figure out a new way to pay for it.
The idea was to build a new corridor parallel to I-35 and learn from the mistakes of the original Interstate System planners. That is, buy enough land to accommodate the full transportation package: highway lanes (including truck-only lanes), plenty of access, high-speed rail lines for freight and passengers, and utility lines. It would be called the Trans-Texas Corridor.
Other goals outlined by Gov. Perry in his proposal were to relieve traffic congestion and improve air quality in urban areas, provide a stable source of revenue for future transportation projects, and promote economic opportunity in less developed areas.
And the new twist: Introduce the profit motive. Ask private highway builders to come up with ways to build and pay for it. If you are begging for dollars, why not let the private sector in, Heckmann said. "The important thing is that the infrastructure gets built."
Three companies submitted proposals. The winner was Cintra, a Spain-based group of engineering, construction and financial firms, which offered to start the project by building a four-lane toll road from Oklahoma to San Antonio, a distance of 345 miles.
Cintra will invest $6 billion to build the highway and pay Texas $1.2 billion for the right to collect tolls. Texas is halfway through a four-year environmental impact analysis, after which Cintra will take five years to build the road.
In later stages of the project, the road will be extended to Laredo, and freight and passenger rail lines will be added.
In a project of these dimensions, the details are all-important. Heckmann outlined the critical items:
• Texas will own the land and the assets, and Cintra will operate it.
• I-35 will continue to be expanded and maintained through the traditional method of fuel-tax financing.
• Texas passed a law saying that it will not toll existing roads and that it cannot build the road unless there is a toll-free alternative. Also, fuel taxes for construction and maintenance cannot be spent to toll roads.
• The route will be determined through the environmental process, controlled by the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, not by Cintra.
These conditions have not silenced critics. There is considerable opposition to the corridor, mostly from rural interests whose land might be taken or whose businesses or farm operations might be disrupted.
The opposition will not be able to stop the project, though, said Bill Webb, president and CEO of the Texas Motor Transportation Association.
GAS TAX WON'T CUT IT
The association supports the Trans-Texas Corridor.
"The bottom line is, Texas is going to have to find some ways to increase our infrastructure, and the old days of just the gas tax are not the solution," Webb said. "We are not fans of tolls, but that being said, we believe that the system that's been developed allows for a business choice to be made by truckers. If you want to pay the toll and presumably get there quicker, that's a business decision."
He does not know what the actual toll will be. "The truth is, we don't really care what the tolls are going to be, within reason. Obviously we'd like them to be as low as possible. If they're too high trucks just won't use (the road)."
Webb is challenging the assumption of corridor planners that truckers will jump at the opportunity to go faster and carry heavier loads on truck-only lanes.
For one thing, many truck operations prefer lower speed for safety's sake and to save fuel and wear and tear. For another, many carriers do not haul freight that needs that type of service.
Moreover, there may be a political downside, he said. "If they build truck-only lanes and we don't use them and we don't pay the tolls, there is going to be a public backlash to the point of saying, 'Let's just make the trucks use those.' And then we have a problem."
Webb said he has told the Texas DOT that it should not it take for granted that trucks want to run faster and heavier. "If you take that out of the equation, the truck-only lanes don't quite make as much sense."