In what sounds like another tall tale told by a Texan, the Lone Star State has embarked on an audacious project to build superhighways so big and so complex that they would make...

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AUSTIN, Texas — In what sounds like another tall tale told by a Texan, the Lone Star State has embarked on an audacious project to build superhighways so big and so complex that they would make the interstates of today look like cow paths.

The Trans-Texas Corridor project, as envisioned by Republican Gov. Rick Perry in 2002, would be a 4,000-mile transportation network costing $175 billion over 50 years, financed mostly if not entirely with private money. Builders would charge tolls.

But these would not be mere highways. Proving anew that everything’s big in Texas, they would be megahighways — corridors up to one-quarter mile wide, consisting of as many as six lanes for cars and four for trucks, plus railroad tracks, oil and gas pipelines, water and other utility lines, even broadband transmission cables.

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Supporters say the corridors are needed to handle the expected NAFTA-driven boom in the flow of goods to and from Mexico and to enable freight haulers to bypass heavily populated cities.

The number of corridors and their routes have not been worked out. But the Texas Transportation Commission on Dec. 16 opened negotiations with the Spain-based consortium Cintra to start the first phase of the project, a $7.5 billion, 800-mile corridor that would parallel Interstate 35 between Oklahoma and Mexico. Other potential corridors could stretch east-west from Orange to El Paso, and north-south from Amarillo to Laredo.

“Some thought the Trans-Texas Corridor was a pie-in-the-sky idea that would never see the light of day,” said Perry, who has compared his plan to the interstate system started during the Eisenhower administration. “We have seen the future, and it’s here today.”

But some have called it a Texas-size boondoggle. Environmentalists are worried about what it will do to the countryside. Ranchers and farmers who stand to lose land through eminent domain are mobilizing against it. Small towns and big cities alike fear a loss of business when traffic is diverted.

Even the governor’s party opposes the plan. The GOP platform drafted at last summer’s state convention rejected it because of its effect on property rights.

Tolls also would represent a dramatic departure for Texas, which traditionally has relied on federal highway funding from gasoline taxes to build roads. But supporters say the combination of tolls and private money would allow Texas to pour concrete at a rate that would not be possible through gasoline taxes alone.

Texas economist Ray Perryman said the corridors could generate about $135 billion for the state over the 50-year span and lure new industry by offering efficient shipping routes. “Any time we can do something better, faster and cheaper, it’s going to give us an advantage,” he said.

The new rail lines also could lower the risk of chemical spills in urban areas, Perry spokesman Robert Black said. “We have hazardous materials running through our city centers because of a rail system that was built 100 years ago,” Black said.

Officials say property owners would be compensated fairly for seized land. And a provision put in to benefit rural Texas would allow some to negotiate for a share of revenue generated by traffic.

David Stall, former city manager of Columbus, a town of about 3,800 along Interstate 10, founded Corridor Watch in opposition to the plan. He predicted an El Paso-to-Orange corridor would divert as much as a fourth of I-10 traffic.

Stall also warned that financing sounds too good to be true.

“There is no free lunch and no free road,” he said.