Monday, January 21, 2008

Hearings on Trans Texas Corridor

My local newspaper reported on 11 public hearings to be held the next several weeks in communities impacted by the planned Trans Texas Corridor. It stated two major concerns regarding the project:

About 580,000 acres would be seized through eminent domain to build the corridor, which would include separate highways for cars and trucks, rail lines, pipelines and utility lines stretching a quarter-mile across.

Another legitimate complaint is the cost - nearly $200 billion by the end of the project some 50 years from now. Our own concern is that it will be funded through tolls instead of the pay-as-you-go method always used in the past and that the tolls would be permanent.

The article didn't mention the setup by folks involved in the project and the likely futility of loud public protest. Recall the widespread public opposition to the FCC's relaxation of media cross-ownership? Just because they hold a public meeting, doesn't mean it will change any plans already in the works.

What chess pieces have been put in play to further this project? First, Governor Rick Perry's office worked with two firms to study the toll road, Zachry American Infrastructure and Cintra, a Spanish company with toll interests elsewhere in America. Cintra partnered with a huge Austrailian investor Macquarie, on the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road. This leads to the second move.

In January 2007, Macquarie purchased 40 small town Texas newspapers whose readership overlaps nicely with the planned routes of the I-35 Trans Texas corridor. But the Trans-Texas corridor covers multiple east-west and north-south routes throughout the state.

The third move enables the corridor to set higher speed limits and virtually requires its "competition", regular interstates to travel at slower speeds. Governor Rick Perry's own website promotes the corridor's 85 mph speed limits. Developers want at least a significant speed differential favoring their product and placed incentives in the contract for that to happen.

The public meetings for the I-69 route will run during February, but guess what needs to be submitted on March 5th, 2008? It's the due date for the Zachry and Cintras led coalitions to submit their detailed proposals on developing and financing the I-69 project to TxDOT. A member of the Texas Transportation Commission had this to say.

“This corridor is a top priority not only for TxDOT but for Governor Perry as well. We’ve met with leaders along the corridor in recent weeks explaining the work we have underway to accelerate this long overdue project,” said Ned Holmes, a member of the Texas Transportation Commission. "The I-69 corridor has been a work in progress for the past 16 years and it is high time we pour some concrete. In fact we are ready to proceed to the next step."

I feel a Kevin Martin-FCC like series of public meetings coming on, especially given his transportation counterparts in the Bush administration. Secretary Mary Peters and Undersecretary D.J. Gribben primed the pump for the public meetings. Right after a Congressional Committee proposed a sore raising federal gas tax increase of 40 cents a gallon, Mary quickly offered the balm of privitization via a Wall Street Journal op-ed. It happens her number 2 in the department recently worked for Macquarie, a keen developer of toll roads wanting to expand their business.

While the boys at Freedom's Watch sat on their hands over beatings of Burmese Buddhist monks and protesting Pakistani lawyers, they did come off the sidelines to favor "free market" highways. The public may end up more like those beaten and bruised monks and lawyers by the time this is all over.