A 10-lane road to the future

A mammoth toll highway in Texas could bring new prosperity ... or let it pass by.

For four generations, Clarence Friedrich's family has farmed the land in Fayette County, Texas. Like many Germans who settled the area in the 1800s, the family has an attachment to the land that runs deeper than corn or cattle.

It's part of Mr. Friedrich's heritage, his story. But Texas is looking to the future, not the past, in developing a new transportation system that could slice up his 350 acres and countless farms like it.

The colossal $184-billion project would interlace the state with 4,000 miles of tolls roads - up to a quarter mile wide in some places - a Trans-Texas Corridor built entirely with private money.

Planners of the Texas-size project cite a booming state population, bustling border business, and the promise of several million new jobs. But while many praise the project as a farsighted use of public-private partnership, others criticize it as a possible boondoggle that will steal revenue from small communities and affect landowners along three corridors crisscrossing the state.

"We don't have no say-so if the state wants to take our land," says Friedrich, fresh off the tractor after a day of planting corn.

Gov. Rick Perry, who unveiled the plan in 2002, calls the Trans-Texas Corridor the most ambitious transportation plan since the creation of the interstate highway system in 1956. He says it will bring the state billions of dollars in revenue and much needed relief for overcrowded freeways - all with no taxpayer money.

In December, the Spanish firm Cintra was selected to build the first segment, a 316-mile, $7.2 billion road east of Interstate 35 from San Antonio to Dallas. The firm will charge tolls for 50 years while renting the right-of-way from the state.

Such public/private partnerships are the way of the future, says John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Already, dozens of projects are in the works in states across the nation, with the miles of toll roads expected to double to about 10,000 in the next 10 years. Projects include:

• In California, State Route 125 South, a 12.5-mile highway from the east of San Diego to the Mexican border.

• In Colorado, E-470, a 47-mile beltway along the eastern edge of Denver.

• In Virginia, the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, a 23-mile transit system through Virginia's Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

"There are many other toll projects under way in the United States, but nothing rivals the scale of what Texas is engaged in," says Mr. Horsley.

One of the most important things Texas is doing is identifying and preserving corridors to serve its transportation needs for several generations, he says. "Very few states are thinking that far out."

But identifying and preserving those corridors is making many counties nervous. Though the routes are not yet finalized, a dozen counties have already publicly opposed the corridor because it diverts revenue from their communities. The Trans-Texas Corridor has no provisions for off-ramps, and it gives developers exclusive rights to build gas stations, restaurants, and hotels to service the toll roads. Communities worry that a significant source of their revenue will dry up.

David Stall, who founded Corridor Watch to monitor the project, began questioning the project when he was city manager of Columbus, Texas. Through traffic on Interstate 10 accounted for 80 percent of the city's sales tax, he says, twice what property taxes pulled in. "Yes, we need roads. Yes, we need rail," says Mr. Stall. "But don't go out and take thousands and thousands of acres of private land to generate revenue for a foreign corporation just because the state can ride along and take a piece of the profit."

Texas economist Ray Perryman says the plan would generate more than $13 billion per year in state revenue upon completion and create some 2.6 million permanent jobs. In addition, he says, the state will be able to lure industry by offering more efficient shipping routes.

The plan calls for 10 lanes for cars and trucks, six rail tracks, and pipelines for oil, natural gas, water, electricity, and telecommunications. The price of the tolls is undetermined, but the speed limit would be 85 miles per hour.

Several legislators believe the plan is too big, too secretive, and too costly, and three bills have been introduced this session in an effort to scale it down. Environmentalists and landowners are also lining up to label the project as overkill.

Joe Maley of the Texas Farm Bureau says the 146 acres per mile allotted for the corridor is excessive. He warns about farms and ranches being split by a road with few ways across.

But for many, the protest is about more than business. Letting his mind wander back to his childhood when he would play dominoes on the porch, fish in the creeks, and hunt in the woods, Friedrich gets emotional about his family's land and the possibility of a river of asphalt running through it. "They say you can't stop progress," he says, "but this progress is going to hurt a lot of people."

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