DALLAS - Congress' passage of the $101.3 billion highway bill will advance Texas' development of the Interstate 69 project to route cargo and passenger traffic from the Rio Grande border with Mexico northward to major Texas seaports and beyond, officials said.

The bill encourages development along the state's major unfinished corridors, such as I-69, by allowing for segments to be designated as interstate when they meet federal, access-controlled standards, according to a statement from the office of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

Racing to complete roads and bridges to accommodate increased port traffic expected from widened Panama Canal locks opening in 2014, the Texas Department of Transportation set a goal that "existing suitable freeway sections of the proposed system be designated as I-69 as soon as possible."

Federal legislation would allow sections of U.S. Highway 59, U.S. 77 and U.S. 281 to be signed as I-69 regardless of whether they connected to other interstate highways.

TxDOT has also submitted an application to the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to designate 75 miles of U.S. 59 in the Houston area and eight miles of U.S. 77 near Corpus Christi as I-69.

Those sections are already built to interstate standards and connect to other interstates.

In August 2011, the FHWA approved a six-mile segment of U.S. 77 between Interstate 37 and State Highway 44 near Corpus Christi.

Officials held a ceremony on Dec. 5, 2011, to unveil I-69 signs on the Robstown-Corpus Christi section.

Transportation industry and government representatives last week held their inaugural meeting of the Panama Canal Stakeholder Work Group, hosted by TxDOT in Austin.

The group, chaired by Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, will assist in obtaining input on issues and opportunities associated with the Panama Canal expansion and provide advice on short-, medium- and long-term projects to improve trade through Texas deep water ports. The work group plans to meet several times throughout Texas.

The development of the infrastructure coincides with development of the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas play south of San Antonio that is expected to result in exports of energy to China through the Port of Corpus Christi. TxDOT also has a task force working on infrastructure issues related to the Eagle Ford and Barnett Shale of North Texas.

For the major civil engineering firms based in Texas, the highway bill that funds transportation projects for 27 months will mean millions of dollars in new business.

Municipal bond financial advisors, bond counsel and underwriters will also see new business as TxDOT leverages $1.75 billion from the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program.

TIFIA provides Federal credit assistance in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees and standby lines of credit to finance surface transportation projects of national and regional significance.

TIFIA credit eases access to capital markets, and provides flexible repayment terms and better interest rates than can be found in private capital markets for similar instruments.

Each dollar of federal funds can provide up to $10 in TIFIA credit assistance - and leverage $30 in transportation infrastructure investment.

The highway bill also raises Texas' rate of return for Highway Trust Fund dollars to 95% from the current 92%.

Hutchison said the funding represents an increase of almost $2 billion annually since she took office in 1993, when Texas' return was 76%. Since then, Hutchison has played a key role in major transportation issues.

Texas' other U.S. senator, John Cornyn, also a Republican, voted against the bill.

As Congress was finally passing the highway bill before a deadline threat, the Texas Transportation Commission, which supervises TxDOT, on Thursday gave final approval to about $1.9 billion in additional transportation funds to communities across the state.

Communities selected projects that meet important local needs, while leveraging the state's resources with other available funds.

"This is a unique position for the state to be in with these funds becoming available," said commission chairman Ted Houghton. "We want to make the best use of them by partnering with local communities to insure this funding is applied where they feel it is most needed."

In Central Texas, the Interstate 35 expansion gained a $9 million award to fund new construction and design of Loop 574, a connector to I-35 in Waco.

The additional funding sources originate from Texas Mobility Fund bond proceeds, and anticipated federal funding and savings on construction projects currently underway make up the $1.9 billion in allocations.

East Texas will see planning begin for the construction of portions of I-69 in the Lufkin and Nacogdoches areas.

Passage of the federal highway funding helped clarify Texas' situation in advance of the 2013 session of the Legislature in January.

"In the next few weeks we will be analyzing what's in the bill, but we already know that there are policies that make it easier to deliver infrastructure improvements - specifically, the faster project approvals, robust innovative financing, consolidation of many programs and greater flexibility in setting priorities," TxDOT said in a prepared statement. "Overall, we are upbeat about what we've seen so far and how much good it can do for Texas." 

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