The roads would be built over the next 50 years at a cost of up to $185 billion, mostly with private money.
The network eventually would crisscross the state, diverting long-distance traffic onto superhighways designed to skirt crowded urban centers. Trucks and trains carrying hazardous materials also would use the highways.
The state's goal: relieve some of the nation's worst traffic congestion, fed by Texas' booming population and the exchange of goods with Mexico that has been accelerated since 1994 by the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Gov. Rick Perry, creator of the Trans-Texas Corridor, calls it a "visionary transportation plan" that could become a national model. Perry touts it as the USA's most ambitious transportation project since President Dwight Eisenhower and Congress launched the interstate highway system in 1956.
"We looked at our interstate system and thought, 'This system is 50 or 60 years old.' At the choke points in our cities, it has basically reached the end of its useful life," says state Rep. Mike Krusee, an Austin Republican and author of the legislation authorizing the corridor. "We thought it was time for us to think 50 years in advance."
But criticism is rolling in from farm groups, environmentalists and some local politicians, targeting the project's proposed route, width and financing — and even the need for it.
"We think it's financially ... irresponsible," says Dick Kallerman, transportation issues coordinator for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. "We're a sprawl state. The whole state should be making efforts to build in more compact ways."
The state is holding 640 public meetings, and initial federal approval is expected in the spring of 2006.
A private consortium led by the Spanish firm Cintra has been selected to build the first segment, a 316-mile, $7.2 billion toll road that would roughly parallel Interstate 35 from Dallas to San Antonio. The precise path has not been determined but initial plans put it 30-50 miles east of I-35.
An I-35 parking lot
I-35 between here and San Antonio is one of the most crowded, deadly stretches of interstate in the country. More than 210,000 vehicles a day — many of them 18-wheelers — travel along the portion that runs through Austin, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. That number is projected to grow to 234,000 in 2030 and 320,000 in 2050.
The metropolitan areas linked by I-35 — also including Dallas, Fort Worth, Waco and Laredo — are home to about half of Texas' 22.5 million people. "In the next 20 years, we'll add 9 million more, and about half of them will also live in that corridor," says Robert Nichols, one of five members of the Texas Transportation Commission overseeing the project.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the plan: Private contractors would bankroll and build the highways, then charge tolls for up to 50 years. The contractors would rent the right of way from the state. Highways traditionally have been financed by federal and state governments.
This way of paying for roads is the wave of the future, says Tim Lomax, a research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University who studies national traffic congestion and commuting.
Mary Peters, head of the Federal Highway Administration, says a $284 billion transportation bill pending in Congress gives state and local governments more flexibility to use toll roads. "Giving drivers a choice between sitting in congestion or spending about what it takes for a good cup of coffee helps people who need a quick route to work, their errands or a child's ballgame, and it helps free up traffic for everyone else regardless of which lanes they choose," she says.
Farmers, ranchers object
Not all Texans buy this vision of the future. Among them:
•The 385,000-member Texas Farm Bureau opposes the project, saying it would consume 140 acres of prime farm- and ranchland per mile. "If the corridor splits your farm right down the middle, how do you get farm equipment from one side of the corridor to the other?" asks Steve Pringle, the bureau's legislative director. "You might have to go 20 or 30 miles one way or the other to get across." The farm bureau is supporting legislation that would cut the highways' width by 40% and require an exit for every state highway and local road.
•David Stall founded Corridor Watch to monitor the project and says it has "hundreds and hundreds" of members in 133 of Texas' 254 counties. "It's not being taken on as a transportation project, it's a revenue scheme," he says. The state can condemn private land for the corridor, then sell or lease it to private businesses such as gas stations or restaurants. "There was no traffic study that says any community was clamoring for a project like TTC."
Like other opponents, Stall acknowledges that Texas has traffic problems, but he says this is the wrong way to fix them. "It's being rammed through," he says, "and the people of Texas don't know what it is."
•Some environmentalists oppose the corridor because they believe the demand for it will fade in coming decades. "The age of cheap fuel is over," says Kallerman of the Sierra Club. "Expensive fuel will mean fewer vehicles. People will find alternatives. If they turned TTC to just rails, the Sierra Club would stand up and cheer."
•Communities along I-35, including Dallas, Laredo and others, have formed the River of Trade Corridor Coalition, worried that the project would siphon thousands of trucks off I-35. They want the truck and car lanes built within 3-5 miles of I-35, says Dallas City Council member Sandy Greyson, who chairs the group.
"If it's 30 to 50 miles out, it would just devastate the cities and towns along I-35," Greyson says.
Take Pearsall, a town of 8,000 between San Antonio and Laredo. It's partnering with a local company to build a truck stop that could generate $100,000 a year in sales tax revenue for the city, City Manager Albert Uresti says. That's a sizable chunk in Pearsall's $6 million annual budget.
"Since NAFTA, we've done a lot of investing along I-35," Uresti says. "If you build another road parallel to this road, it's going to have devastating consequences. The tax base will be hurt. Jobs are going to be lost. I just don't see a big need for it. Maybe you need it around Austin, but to build a second road here doesn't make sense."