The NAFTA Superhighway
Texas Transportation commissioner Ric Williamson is one of those Texas personalities who seem almost self-consciously to will themselves toward caricature. One Democratic staffer in the Capitol casually referred to him as Darth Vader; Texas Monthly recently called him "the most hated person in Texas." Owner of a natural gas production company before becoming a state legislator in 1985, he has lately been reincarnated as a transit policy wonk, a role he plays as a cross between mid-twentieth-century road builder Robert Moses and J.R. Ewing from Dallas: the planner as good old boy. He does not suffer from a lack of confidence. "We're the greatest state agency you'll ever interview," he told me at one point. With his good friend Governor Perry hemorrhaging political capital, it's fallen to Williamson to advocate for the corridor and draw fire from its opponents.
At first the press contact for TxDot told me Williamson wouldn't be available, but after I informed her I'd lined up dozens of interviews with TTC opponents, she called me back a week before my trip to Texas for this article to set up an interview. When I was ushered into Williamson's office, he was in the midst of a discussion with one of the four staffers who flanked him. At my appearance in the doorway, he made no move to acknowledge my presence other than slightly pulling out the chair next to him, where, apparently, I was to sit.
Williamson's case is straightforward: The state needs a whole lot of new roads it can't pay for. The sheer population growth in Texas, particularly in the urbanized area in the eastern part of the state that contains San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Austin, combined with the projected increase in commercial traffic, has precipitated what Williamson says is an impending crisis. The TTC would provide the necessary increase in capacity at the low, low price the state can afford. "Our view is, you can run from the corridor if you want to," he told me, smiling, "but that's eventually what we'll build. Because that's where the fricking people live!" At that he shot up to walk over to a map of the state hanging on one wall, patting my shoulder with paternal authority as he passed. "It's so logical to me it drives me nuts."
He's right about the challenges the state faces, but it's a long jump from the diagnosis to the cure. Opponents of the plan point out that, as conceived, the corridor will run parallel to the existing Interstate, possibly far from the same cities where it's supposed to relieve congestion. (TxDot says state law will require the roads to connect to Interstates, which connect to cities.) On top of that, the current plan employs a novel privatized financing mechanism that has many crying foul.
Under a comprehensive development agreement (CDA) signed in March 2005, the Spanish concern Cintra (in partnership with Texas-based Zachry Corp.) will pay the state for the right to develop the roads along the corridor, where it will be able to collect tolls and establish facilities within the right-of-way for fifty years. This kind of road-building deal is commonplace in other parts of the world, often in places where government lacks the ready capital necessary to develop large infrastructure projects. It's called a BOT, for build, operate, transfer. Until recently it was unheard of in the United States.
The arrangement has been heavily criticized for a number of reasons. The CDA includes a noncompete clause that could conceivably prevent the state from building necessary roads in the future because they would "compete" with a stretch of the privatized TTC. It's also expensive. A recent state auditor's report estimated the cost for just the first section of the corridor at $105 billion. TxDot portrays the deal as a clever way of getting the private sector to pay for public roads, but eventually the total cost of the project, plus a layer of profit for Cintra-Zachry, will be coming out of the pockets of Texas drivers. Finally, the timeline for development of the project, which will be constructed piecemeal, is based on which sections of the corridor Cintra has identified as "self-performing," according to Williamson--in other words, those sections that contain a high enough volume of toll-paying passengers that they will turn a profit.
Williamson argues that the state simply has no choice. Or, as he put it to one reporter, "If you aggressively invite the private sector to be your partner, you can't tell them where to build the road." But this seems, to put it mildly, pretty ass-backward. The point of transportation planning is to provide the infrastructure for people to move efficiently, safely and quickly from point A to point B, not to maximize the profits of some conglomerate that managed to win a state contract. You wouldn't want to place, say, fire stations across a city using the same logic that guides the placement of Starbucks. But that's more or less the way the TTC is unfolding.
"I always think of the corridor as a payday loan," said Kolkhorst's chief of staff Chris Steinbach. "You're going to get a little money up front, but you're losing the long-term gain you're charged by the people to oversee." As he said this I noticed his computer's screensaver, which featured an image of the Texas Capitol dome with a bright red banner Photoshopped in that read Everything Must Go!