DALLAS - Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused legislators of an "abdication of responsibility" on transportation funding, as a state Senate committee continued to study toll issues halfway through a two-year moratorium on privatized highways.

"The Legislature must understand that 'no' is not a solution," Perry said Tuesday in his first major speech on transportation this year. "It is an abdication of responsibility."

Perry, whose transportation policy is built on the use of private developers to build toll highways such as the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor, lost a major advocate with the death of ally Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, last December.

"There remain many, many financial institutions who are ready, willing, and able to invest their money to build the roads we need," Perry said.

While critics of privatization have urged more bonding authority and an increase in state fuel taxes, Perry rejected that approach.

"Until a greater solution, and by that I mean a long-term solution, becomes clear, I am not willing to allow this state to simply go further into debt," Perry said.

But lawmakers have questioned why developers such as Spain's Cintra Concesiones Infraestructuras de Transporte can build toll highways profitably and the state cannot.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, a Plano Republican whose district is a major center of toll-road development, said she has heard complaints from landowners in her district who are appalled at the amount of land the state would take for right-of-way for the Trans-Texas Corridor that could be financed by private investors.

Shapiro is a member of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee that met yesterday to consider toll-road issues as required under SB 792 enacted last year. The law halted all but a few proposed private toll roads and gave the regional toll authorities first shot at all toll projects.

In public hearings around the state, landowners and others have angrily denounced plans to develop open land into a TTC superhighway that would bisect farms, ranches, and communities.

Phil Russell, assistant executive director of Texas Department of Transportation, told the committee that the 1,200-foot-wide right-of-way shown on the draft environmental impact statement represents maximum use of the land, complete with tollways, rail lines, and related development.

"People see that wide, blue line on the map and assume it's going to be that wide," he said.

Thomas Paben, a director of the Texas Farm Bureau, told the committee that plans to build the massive Interstate 69 as part of the $150 billion Trans-Texas Corridor favor developers by guaranteeing return on equity and that the process lacks transparency.

In comments filed with TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, the Texas Farm Bureau wrote that the draft EIS for the proposed I-69 corridor "would not withstand judicial scrutiny."

"The completely new route, of course, would be the most disruptive in terms of displacing families and impacting the environment," said Kenneth Dierschke, president of the bureau. "Once again, it seems that TxDOT is trying to influence policy rather than implementing it, this time by pretending that there is only one way to build the Texas portion of I-69."

Another problem, according to the document submitted by the farm bureau, is the insistence by TxDOT and the FHWA that I-69 be "multimodal," complete with space for separate truck lanes, rail, and a multi-purpose utility corridor. The farm bureau charges that the two agencies have failed to demonstrate the need for this kind of space-eating approach.

"I-69, as proposed, will pass through seven states. Of these, Texas is the only one to mention, let alone require, a multimodal corridor in connection with I-69," Dierschke said.

 

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