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Texas Governor Seeks Alternatives for I-69 Funding

Sat December 24, 2005 - West Edition
CEG



HOUSTON (AP) Gov. Rick Perry, acknowledging the federal highway construction spigot has run dry, is ordering work to begin on a joint private-public project to build the long-stalled Interstate 69 highway from the Rio Grande Valley to northeast Texas.

“We all realize the federal funding genie is dead,” Perry said Dec. 8 to members of the I-69 Alliance, a group of officials representing cities and counties in the areas the road would serve. “By the time Washington funds I-69, we’ll be driving around in hover cars or whatever.

“The harsh reality is we cannot wait for Washington, D.C., to solve the problems of this state.”

Under his proposal, which he said would go to the Texas Transportation Commission, Perry wants an interstate-quality highway to connect the lower Rio Grande Valley to I-37 south of San Antonio.

The project would include consideration of separate lanes for commercial truck traffic, and Perry wants the panel to begin soliciting from the private sector proposals from the Valley to Houston through East Texas to the northeast corner of the state.

“Texas has never been a state to wait for others to lead or innovate, and we’re not going to be afraid to try something new when the old ways just won’t work any more,” the governor said.

The highway would become part of the Trans Texas Corridor, unveiled in 2002 as Perry’s ambitious $184 billion vision of thousands of miles of tollways, railways and utility lines crisscrossing the state.

“Let’s resuscitate I-69 as TTC-69, using tools of the private workplace and private marketplace to advance the project without waiting on Washington,” he said.

The alternatives, according to the governor, would be new and higher gasoline taxes, continuing to wait for federal money or simply doing without the road.

“I will tell you those three options are not options,” he said. “Those are not the Texas way. We have no better choice than public-private partnerships. They’re the wave of the future.

“We can do this ourselves.”

Perry and Ric Williamson, chairman of the transportation commission, said they were confident environmental studies continuing under the original federal plan could be used in this latest idea.

No route for the highway will be specified until environmental studies are complete.

Neither Perry nor Williamson could put a price tag on the project or the amount to be covered by the private investment.

“It’s difficult for anyone to say now much we need until we develop a plan,” Williamson said.

Perry said the beauty of allowing the private sector to pay for a substantial proportion of the project “is they are very, very good at doing the bottom line.”

The governor also said the legal problems of U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, who long has favored I-69 as an upgrade to U.S. Highway 59 in his suburban Houston district, had nothing to do with the lack of federal money for the project.

“Broke’s broke,” he said. “We just look at the realities, and whether someone has perceived, real or made-up political problems has nothing to do with the transportation infrastructure vision that we’re putting in place. This was always bigger than one person and always will be bigger than one person.”

Robert Eckels, the Harris County judge who serves as chairman of the I-69 Alliance, said he welcomed the proposal.

“This is probably the only opportunity to build the road,” he said.