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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 69 · No. 1 > Trans-Texas Corridor|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-05-006
by Antonio Palacios
The Lone Star State is pioneering innovative approaches to developing and financing major transportation projects.
Texans pride themselves on doing things in a big way, and the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor is no exception. The 6,400-kilometer (4,000-mile), multiuse transportation system, projected to take 50 years to develop, is the State’s most ambitious transportation project to date.
The proposed system will be a network of transportation corridors (routes) incorporating separate lanes for passenger vehicles and trucks, rail lines for high-speed passenger and freight rail, and a dedicated utility zone. Components in the system may incorporate existing and new highways, railways, and utility rights-of-way where practical. Up to 366 meters (1,200 feet) wide in some places, the corridor is designed to move people and freight faster and more safely through Texas, from Mexico to the Oklahoma border.
Transportation officials expect the project to improve the existing Texas transportation network and provide congestion relief for the State’s busy metropolitan areas. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) plans to use public-private partnerships to finance much of the development of the corridor, which has an estimated price tag of $145.2 billion to $183.5 billion.
The Trans-Texas Corridor joins two other Texas projects on the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) list of megaprojects—the $2.7 billion, 37-kilometer (23-mile) Katy Freeway from Katy to Houston and the $2.5 billion, 193-kilometer (120-mile) Central Texas Turnpike near Austin (this estimate is for Phase I only, with Phase II now known as U.S. 183A, and no current estimate for Phase III)—making the State one of a handful with experience in developing multiple major projects.
Megaprojects are major transportation projects that cost at least $1 billion or attract a high level of public attention or political interest because of their impact on the community, environment, and State budgets. The Trans-Texas Corridor qualifies for the designation on both counts, because of its size and potential long-term impact on the State and its residents. (See the July/August 2004 special issue of PUBLIC ROADS, which highlights the challenges and complexities of megaproject development and management with examples from across the Nation.)
“The Trans-Texas Corridor is an innovative concept for moving freight and people, as it incorporates unique public-private partnerships in financing and offers an excellent opportunity to use a collaborative environmental review process,” says Highway Engineer Jim Sinnette with the Major Projects Team at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
Meeting Tomorrow’s Needs
TxDOT has not determined specific locations for the Texas Corridor, but the proposed routes would generally parallel interstate routes. As currently envisioned, each corridor will include as many as six lanes for passenger vehicles and up to four lanes for large trucks. Corridors also will have up to six rail lines for high-speed passenger rail between cities, high-speed freight, and conventional commuter and freight transit.
Another unique component of each route will be a 61-meter (200-foot)-wide dedicated utility zone for water, oil, and gas pipelines, and transmission lines for electricity, broadband, and other telecommunications services.
“We need a transportation system that meets the needs of tomorrow, not one that struggles to keep up with the needs of yesterday,” Texas Governor Rick Perry said in announcing the corridor concept in 2002. “[The Trans-Texas Corridor] is a plan to ease traffic congestion and increase the safety and security of Texans living in crowded cities and suburbs, near congested border crossings, and in our smallest communities in rural Texas.”
Plans call for developing the Trans-Texas Corridor in phases over the next 50 years, in contrast to the typical 25-year timeframe for planning and developing large transportation systems, with routes prioritized according to the State’s transportation needs. TxDOT will oversee planning, construction, and ongoing maintenance, but private firms will provide financing and be responsible for much of the daily operation of the transportation system, recovering their investment by charging tolls.
Says Gaby Garcia, TxDOT spokesperson, “We’re looking ahead to the future of State transportation needs and, with a limited amount of money, figuring out how to plan systemwide roads and rails together in one corridor.”
Projected increases in the Texas population and freight traffic triggered development of the Trans-Texas Corridor concept. Forecasters expect the State’s population of 22 million to grow to 36 million by 2030. The majority will live in urban areas, where limited room and high costs make it difficult to expand existing highway systems to accommodate growing transportation demands.
Most U.S. imports from Mexico and South America travel through Texas, as do most exports to Mexico and South America. In fact, 79 percent of U.S.-Mexico trade passes through Texas ports of entry, and trade flows are expected to increase in the coming years as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Keeping Texans Moving
Transportation officials expect the corridor project to improve the mobility of the growing Texas population by adding additional capacity. By routing passenger and freight traffic around metropolitan areas, the corridor should relieve urban traffic congestion, improve air quality by reducing emissions, and keep hazardous materials out of populated areas by providing transportation alternatives. “Overall, we’ll have a more efficient and reliable transportation system,” Garcia says.
So far, environmental studies are underway for two sections of the corridor. TxDOT expects to identify and study other potential sections in the future.
The first study, begun in early 2004, focuses on the section from Oklahoma to Mexico and the Gulf Coast, known as Trans-Texas Corridor 35 (TTC-35) because it roughly parallels Interstate 35 (I-35). The proposed 1,290-kilometer (800-mile) section extends from north of the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area, through central Texas, to the Rio Grande Valley and possibly the Gulf Coast.
Today, nearly 9.5 million people—about 45 percent of all Texans—live within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of I-35. Forecasters project this population group to increase to more than 15 million by 2025, putting even more demands on this heavily congested interstate corridor.
The second section under study, I-69/TTC, extends from northeast Texas to the Mexican border, incorporating about 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) of the planned I-69 corridor. Although part of a national project, I-69/TTC is being developed in Texas under the Trans-Texas Corridor master plan. I-69 is a 2,570-kilometer (1,600-mile) national highway that, once completed, will connect Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Other States involved in the I-69 project include Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The planned location for I-69, designated by the U.S. Congress in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), was chosen because of the economic opportunities that could be created along the north-south corridor, specifically those related to increased trade resulting from NAFTA.
To pay for the Trans-Texas Corridor, TxDOT is looking at a variety of financing methods. The agency expects public-private partnerships, such as those that tap into funding resources from the private sector in return for toll revenues, to play a key role in financing and constructing the system. Other options include right-of-way leasing and State and Federal funds.
“We don’t have enough revenues from the State fuel tax and other traditional sources to meet all of our transportation needs, so we need infusions from other sources,” Garcia says. “In looking to the private sector, we see investors who are willing to put money up front to give us the infrastructure we need and let it be a State-owned project.”
For the TTC-35 corridor, FHWA is partnering with Texas to plan and develop the route through an innovative contracting agreement. This corridor qualified Texas for a special experimental project (SEP-14/SEP-15), allowing the State to reach a comprehensive development agreement with a developer before the environmental analysis—Tier 1 of the environmental impact statement (EIS) —is completed.
SEP-14 permits States to evaluate project-specific innovative contracting practices that have the potential to reduce the life-cycle cost of projects while maintaining product quality. The objective of SEP-15 is to evaluate and document public-private partnership approaches that advance the efficient delivery of transportation projects while protecting the environment and taxpayers.
The approval under SEP-14 cleared the way for TxDOT to proceed with the arrangements for contracting a private developer who will assist the department in planning, designing, constructing, financing, maintaining, and operating projects in the TTC-35 corridor. Without SEP-14, Texas would not be able to use Federal funds on the comprehensive development agreement until after the environmental process is complete. According to Garcia, the agreement sets the general framework between TxDOT and the developer. The agency and the developer will produce a master development and financial plan that will outline the phasing, planning, and construction of TTC-35.
“Because of the size and scope of the project, we need to develop a strategy or master plan of how to go about implementing it, subject to environmental clearance,” Garcia says.
Although the agreement permits TxDOT to develop the master plan concurrently with federally required environmental studies of the corridor area, Garcia emphasizes that the agreement does not circumvent or shortcut the environmental review process. The developer has no influence in route selection and cannot begin construction until the environmental review process is complete and FHWA has approved a route. The comprehensive development agreement does, however, allow the developer to provide support services to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.
The benefit of the agreement is having a development plan ready once environmental work and route selection are complete, instead of waiting until the environmental process is finished to start planning, which may add years to the corridor’s overall development process. “We’re looking to save time on a process that can be quite lengthy,” Garcia says.
Planning the Oklahoma-to-Mexico Corridor
After soliciting proposals from private consortia on how to develop the TTC-35 section of the corridor, in December 2004, the Texas Transportation Commission chose a $7.2 billion proposal from an international group of engineering, construction, and financial firms. An evaluation, review, and selection committee of TxDOT staff recommended the proposal, one of three submitted for developing the TTC-35 corridor, as the best long-term value for the State.
The selected proposal contains plans to invest $6 billion in developing a number of projects between Dallas and San Antonio and to contribute $1.2 billion to the State for additional transportation improvements between Oklahoma and Mexico, in return for the right to operate and maintain the system and collect tolls for 50 years. Although the developer may perform the proposed projects itself, TxDOT retains the right and expects to develop projects for the corridor by traditional means outside of the agreement with the developer.
“This is a historic change in the way major transportation assets are built and paid for in Texas,” says Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. “Private investment, not taxpayer dollars, will be where we look first for funding.”
The first phase of the 50-year proposal calls for developing $6 billion in new roadways roughly paralleling I-35 to ease congestion on that route. This includes building 509 kilometers (316 miles) of new four-lane divided highway from Dallas to San Antonio.
The proposal also includes funding options for a route connecting southeast San Antonio to State Highway 130 and for relocating the existing Union Pacific Railroad between San Antonio and Austin.
TxDOT plans to use a public-private arrangement to develop the I-69 portion of the corridor as well. “The private sector is willing and able to invest in transportation improvements to reduce congestion, improve safety, provide economic development, and protect our quality of life,” says Williamson.
Two-Tiered Environmental Process
The Trans-Texas Corridor project is being developed using a tiered EIS process, which streamlines documentation for extraordinarily large projects required under NEPA. NEPA directs Federal agencies, when planning projects or issuing permits, to conduct environmental reviews to consider the potential impacts of their proposed actions on the environment.
The tiered process involves breaking up a complex study into a series of steps or tiers to address broad issues first and consider more detailed, location-specific issues in subsequent steps.
The environmental studies on the two Trans-Texas Corridor sections now under consideration include two tiers. Tier 1 consists of an EIS for each corridor to consider broad issues, such as general location and areawide air quality and land use issues, while Tier 2 will consist of a series of studies addressing site-specific details on project impacts, costs, and mitigation efforts.
Tier 1 for TTC-35 began in early 2004 with the preparation of a corridor study report that assessed an area 32 to 160 kilometers (20 to 100 miles) wide to reduce it to 6 to 16 kilometers (4 to 10 miles) wide. A final route for the corridor will not be selected at this phase. The purpose of the Tier 1 EIS is to help agencies make a decision between alternatives with significant impacts. A no-build option could be identified at any time in the process or if the environmental impacts were so severe that it would not be a prudent decision to move forward with the project, even though there might be a need.
When the team identifies a preferred corridor, a second tier consisting of numerous environmental studies will help determine alignments for specific facilities, such as rail lines and lanes for trucks and vehicles. Tier 2 studies will begin only if the team rejects the no-action alternative in the Tier 1 EIS. It may take decades to complete the Tier 2 studies for all the individual projects that comprise the TTC-35 corridor.
TxDOT officials hope to identify sections of the final routes for the two proposed corridors sometime between 2007 and 2010. Once all required Federal studies are completed and the Tier 1 EIS has identified a final alignment for the proposed corridor, Tier 2 studies will be prepared before construction of projects selected by TxDOT and the developer can begin.
“The two-tiered process is designed to allow us to make decisions at appropriate times,” says Sandra Allen, I-69 environmental manager for FHWA. “It allows us to work in stages. If we were to try to do a [1,610-kilometer] 1,000-mile project using the standard NEPA process, it would be much harder to reach a decision.”
The environmental review for TTC-35 covers an area about 1,290 kilometers (800 miles) long and 80 to 96 kilometers (50 to 60 miles) wide and includes 77 counties. Expected to be complete by spring 2006, the Tier 1 EIS will result in a preferred corridor about 16 kilometers (10 miles) wide or a no-build alternative.
The initial environmental study for I-69/TTC covers an area about [1,600 kilometers] 1,000 miles long and includes 46 counties in Texas and 2 parishes in Louisiana. Planned for completion in the winter of 2006, the study will result in a preferred corridor about 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) wide or a no-action option.
As part of the environmental study process, TxDOT is conducting a series of public meetings to solicit input on the two corridors. The meetings, more than 100 of which have been held so far, enable interested citizens and organizations to review preliminary corridor alternatives, ask questions, and submit official comments for the record.
Streamlining the Environmental Review
Because projects on the scale of the Trans-Texas Corridor take years to complete, involve many stakeholders, and cost billions of dollars, ensuring that the process is efficient and effective is very important. As directed by Section 1309 of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, FHWA is committed to using environmental streamlining to ensure timely delivery of transportation projects while protecting the environment.
Environmental streamlining requires transportation and environmental resource agencies to establish realistic timeframes to develop projects, and then work together to adhere to those timeframes. A key element of environmental streamlining is communicating with and gathering input from the public and other stakeholders.
To facilitate environmental streamlining on the I-69 project, TxDOT and FHWA created an I-69/TTC steering committee, which includes executives from the Federal and State transportation and resource agencies involved in the project. The project team also formed a technical advisory committee involving TxDOT, FHWA, State and Federal resource agencies, and metropolitan planning organizations affected by the project.
An important function of the technical advisory committee is to review project deliverables, such as required environmental documentation, at key points in the project and make recommendations to the steering committee.
“Gaining input from all participating agencies during the early stages of the project development and NEPA documentation processes will save time and eliminate the need to revisit certain issues at later stages,” says FHWA’s Allen.
The technical advisory and steering committees began meeting in late 2001 to formulate an overall approach. In October 2003, after months of work, the committees approved a key to streamlining the I-69/TTC project, the I-69/Trans-Texas NEPA and Project Development Process Manual.
The manual, which is undergoing periodic adjustments as the project proceeds, provides guidance for each step of the project development process, including how to manage working relationships effectively between many agencies. It is modeled after the Mid-Atlantic Transportation and Environmental Streamlining Process—A Framework for Change in the 21st Century, a guide developed in 2000 by Federal and State transportation and environmental agencies in the Mid-Atlantic Region.
The I-69/TTC manual emphasizes that collaboration will not infringe on any agency’s individual jurisdictional responsibilities, and clarifies that the process requires flexibility and will evolve as the project moves forward.
To meet the streamlining goal, the I-69/TTC process manual contains a framework for making decisions, addressing organizational structure, providing evaluation methodology and processes, resolving conflicts, and developing an EIS.
The section on organizational structure explains the roles and responsibilities of the steering committee, which provides policy-level oversight, and the technical advisory committee, which is involved in the technical aspects of the review process.
The technical advisory committee reviews the information available at each concurrence, or decision point, and develops a written recommendation on whether to advance the project to the next stage. The steering committee reviews the recommendation and either approves it or returns it to the technical advisory committee for reconsideration. FHWA, as the lead Federal agency involved in the project, makes the final decision on proceeding to the next step in the development process.
The decisionmaking process section provides an overview of concurrence points, which include the purpose and need for the project, evaluation criteria that will be used, and an analysis of corridor alternatives. The section also explains the type of written statement that members of the technical advisory committee should provide if they do not concur with a committee recommendation, such as stating that a recommendation appears to conflict with the regulations or policies of a participating agency.
Finally, the section on conflict resolution describes procedures to follow if the steering or technical advisory committees cannot develop a consensus. The chair of the technical advisory committee, for example, can appoint a working group to try to reach a resolution on an issue and report back to the full committee. If the working group is unable to resolve an issue, the steering committee can assign its own working group to study the problem and make a recommendation, or it can redefine the problem and send it back to the technical advisory committee for reconsideration.
The process manual also provides specific instructions for developing a tiered EIS. The process is broken down into stages, and for each stage a detailed flowchart outlines all of that stage’s requirements. Each stage is broken into smaller steps, and for each step a user-friendly table denotes each agency’s responsibilities at that step.
As outlined in the process manual, the team will use technological tools in Tier 1 of the environmental streamlining process for I-69/TTC. One tool is the Geographic Information System Screening Tool (GISST), which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency developed to identify and rate priority areas according to their degree of environmental concern.
The technical advisory committee will combine the functionalities of the GISST with the Texas Ecological Assessment Protocol—a tool that evaluates natural resources by diversity, rarity, and sustainability to identify the most ecologically important areas across Texas—and geographic information system (GIS) software to develop a map of a preferred corridor that avoids substantial environmental impacts.
“Using all of these tools enables us to identify and avoid [negative impacts on] important resources as we develop a corridor-level map,” Allen says.
The benefits of using the manual in the environmental streamlining process, she says, are that it encourages early involvement by stakeholder agencies, helps build interagency relationships, and ensures that all participants are committed to working together to review and concur on key decision points.
Another advantage, particularly on a long-term project like I-69/TTC, is that future participants will be able to review and refer to key decision points. “Everything is documented, so when new agency staff people come onboard, we don’t have to revisit old decisions,” Allen adds.
Although the I-69/TTC project is still in the early stages, the team expects the manual to help save both time and money over the long term. A similar manual will be used in developing the TTC-35 project.
Several aspects of the Trans-Texas Corridor make this megaproject unique: size and scope; 50-year outlook; multiuse corridor concept with zones for cars, trucks, trains, and utilities; public-private partnerships to finance project elements with investors’ dollars; and the tiered environmental review process to narrow down corridor options for future development.
As a result, the project is generating a good bit of interest outside of Texas. In particular, the project has attracted the attention of other States faced with similar challenges of traffic congestion, population growth, and limited budgets for developing new transportation infrastructure.
“We’re getting requests for presentations on how we’re developing this project from DOTs that might want to put some of these concepts into practice in their own States,” Garcia says.
By building on and sharing its successful practices and lessons learned, the Lone Star State is leading the way in planning major transportation projects of this type.
Antonio Palacios, an engineer in FHWA’s Texas Division, oversees development of the TTC-35 element of the Trans-Texas Corridor for FHWA, including the procurement process for selecting the developer and management of the environmental review processes. Palacios has been with FHWA since 1974, working in engineering positions in Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia. He has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso.
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