Saturday, November 20, 2004

Commisioners wage rhetorical battle to convince Texans that toll roads are inevitable

State dollars to speed toll road rollout

Agency backs Central Texas leaders, sets aside $1.3 billion in transportation plan for area work

November 19, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

Central Texas, having endured political pain and facing pocketbook pain from toll roads, began to realize the gain Thursday when the Texas Transportation Commission approved a massive statewide transportation plan that includes the five toll roads remaining in the local plan.

About 70 percent of the $1.3 billion cost of those five roads will come from the Texas Department of Transportation, the rest from investors in the form of bonds that will be paid back with toll revenue.

State transportation officials have made it clear that Central Texas leaders' willingness to wade neck-deep into toll roads, especially in the face of fierce public resistance that put some of their political necks in jeopardy, had a lot to do with the state's willingness to finance those roads.

"And it's going to get better," commission Chairman Ric Williamson said Thursday in an interview. "Communities that are willing to help themselves are going to get the maximum partnership effort" from the commission.

Aside from the money for those toll roads -- U.S. 290 East near Manor, U.S. 290 West in Oak Hill, Ed Bluestein Boulevard (U.S. 183), Texas 71 east of Interstate 35 and Texas 45 Southwest -- the commission recently came up with $25 million on short notice to make long-needed improvements at MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and Parmer Lane.

In addition, Williamson said, agreement is forthcoming to plow a to-be-determined amount of state money into MoPac north of Town Lake, including sound-dampening walls and an expansion from six lanes to eight lanes. The additional lanes probably would be subject to tolls.

And there are other road or rail projects looming -- transportation officials aren't ready to announce them yet -- that probably will need and get substantial money from the commission.

Attention this summer focused on a $161 million share of the Texas Mobility Fund promised to Central Texas if it built all seven of the toll roads in the original version of the local plan. Supporters of the plan said repeatedly that Dallas and Houston might raid Central Texas' share if the local plan was changed.

Although one road will no longer be tolled, MoPac at William Cannon Drive, and another, Loop 360 (Capital of Texas Highway), has been shelved indefinitely, the $21.5 billion, 11-year statewide plan approved Thursday gives Central Texas that entire $161 million.

In fact, all eight Texas metropolitan areas -- even four that resisted turnpikes and in the end agreed to build one apiece -- got their promised slice of the $1.74 billion pie slated for urban areas under the mobility fund.

But Central Texas also got $57.6 million of so-called "strategic priority" funds for 2005 through 2008, money that the five-member commission disburses at its discretion. That amounts to 13.6 percent of the $422 million the commission will hand out under that category during the next four years, more than Central Texas' typical share of about 9 percent.

The Rio Grande Valley, meanwhile, with just one toll project, got no strategic priority money. And Corpus Christi, again with a single toll project, got just about half of its normal percentage.

Commissioners for more than a year have been waging a rhetorical battle to convince Texans of the wisdom, or at least the inevitability, of toll roads. Aside from the political argument that the Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry will never approve an increase in the state's 20-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax, the commissioners have said tolls will get roads built faster.

Under the plan approved Thursday, commissioners said, about $15.4 billion in new or expanded highways will be built in Texas urban areas by 2015. Without tolls, and the borrowed money that allows construction to begin sooner, they said, just $6.8 billion in such roads would have built in the same period.; 445-3698

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