June 27, 2005, 8:33AM
Contractor sues to keep Trans-Texas details hidden
By RAD SALLEE
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
The controversial Trans-Texas Corridor project continues to travel a hard road.
On Friday Cintra Zachry, the only developer under contract with the state for a leg of the project, asked a court in Austin to block release of its development and financing plans, which Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has said are public record.
The Houston Chronicle sought Abbott’s opinion after the Texas Department of Transportation refused to reveal its plans for the project, called TTC-35.
It includes a $7.2 billion toll road from Dallas to San Antonio that could eventually reach from Oklahoma to Mexico.
Rail tracks and pipelines could come later.
Under a March 31 agreement with TxDOT, Cintra Zachry has the inside track to build the facilities and operate them for the state for the next 50 years. When the agreement was signed, its contents were made public except for the nuts and bolts contained in the conceptual plans.
The lawsuit, filed by the company and TxDOT against Abbott, contends that these plans “represent the core of Cintra Zachry’s proprietary information” and that the company would be harmed by their release because TxDOT may still choose another developer who comes up with a better idea.
Abbott’s opinion had rejected similar arguments. Attorney Joe Larsen, who represents the Chronicle on open records matters, called the lawsuit “a waste of taxpayer money” and “simply a further effort to conceal the terms of a contract that the Texas taxpaying public will have to live with for the next 50 years.”
Cintra Zachry also took heat last week for inquiring about a low-interest loan of $320 million from the Federal Highway Administration.
The corridor idea was sold to the public as costing nothing to taxpayers.
Although a loan is very different from a taxpayer-funded grant, this type of loan carries interest rates well below market levels.
Meanwhile, the Texas Legislature may have helped project backers over one early hurdle — opposition from the Texas Farm Bureau to having rural land divided by the broad corridors.
A transportation bill from this year’s regular session says the state must compensate owners for loss of value when access to part of their property is reduced by the corridor.
The bill also bars withdrawing underground water from the corridor and taking it off-site.
Addressing another issue that caused anxiety for officials and business people along the planned route, the bill limits development on the corridor to gas stations and convenience stores.