Blacklands Turnpike
8:24 pm
Thu February 14, 2013

Toll road lease details kept secret

Details about the proposed Blacklands Turnpike remain unavailable.

The developers behind the project say that aspects of the plan are trade secrets and, as such, are exempt from open-records requests.

The two big players in the Blacklands Turnpike proposal are a governmental entity, NETEX, and a private firm, Public Werks, Inc.

NETEX is the common name for the Northeast Texas Rural Rail Transportation District, headquartered in Sulphur Springs. The entity, managed by the cooperative efforts of Collin, Delta, Franklin, Hopkins, Hunt and Titus county governments, controls the old railroad right-of-way that winds its way from east of Mount Vernon - through Sulphur Springs and Commerce - down to the northeast side of metro Dallas.

Public Werks, Inc., is a Dallas-based private company that specializes in public-private infrastructural projects. Public Werks is associated with Texas Turnpike Corporation and its subsidiary, Cotton Belt Turnpike, LP.

NETEX and Public Werks signed an agreement on Jan. 9 that described conditions for Cotton Belt to lease lands along the right-of-way in Collin and Hunt Counties for the purpose of constructing and operating a toll road between the west side of Greenville, the Hunt County seat, and the small city of Lavon in southeastern Collin County. This proposed road is the Blacklands Turnpike.

Three private citizens requested in late January that NETEX make copies of the lease available. But NETEX is withholding the document at the request of Cotton Belt.

NETEX's attorney, David Banowsky of Dallas, confirmed on Feb. 14 that NETEX is willing to share the agreement with the public, but that Cotton Belt wants the document kept confidential.

Cotton Belt's counsel said that the reason for keeping the agreement's details private involves the company's legal right to guard trade secrets.

Rowland Cook, a lawyer in the Austin office of Dallas-based Winstead PC, sent a letter to the Texas Attorney General's office on Feb. 6. The letter described Cotton Belt's view that details of the lease are trade secrets and thus exempt from open-records requests.

The Texas Attorney General's office has not ruled whether NETEX must, against Cotton Belt's wishes, make copies of the agreement available. A spokesman from the AG's office said on Feb. 14 the state must rule on the open-records request by April 12.