Saturday, February 28, 2004

Texas Transportation Commission stressed that they wouldn't force toll roads or trains on regions that don't want them.

Focus for mobility fund is toll roads, trains

February 27, 2004

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2004

AUSTIN--When voters statewide agreed in 2000 to go into debt to pay for traffic relief, state leaders repeatedly said the money would be spent on highway projects they otherwise couldn't afford.

Now the state's lead transportation agency is leaning heavily toward spending money from the Texas Mobility Fund on different traffic remedies: toll roads and commuter trains.

Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, which on Thursday took its first step toward drafting a long-term plan for the mobility fund, stressed that they wouldn't force toll roads or trains on regions that don't want them.

But they said they would strongly encourage the state's most populated areas to look at alternatives to traditional highways, especially toll roads.

When the mobility plan was originally pitched to voters, toll roads and public transit were hardly mentioned as candidates for the money, commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford acknowledged.

But the continuing crush of big-city congestion and the lack of sufficient gasoline taxes to pay for new highways are leaving the state no choice but to seek alternatives.

"In retrospect, it was not talked about as much as it should have been," Williamson said during a break in Thursday's meeting. "The question is, do you want to pay for one mile of road dollar-for-dollar, or four miles of toll road or six miles of transit?"

In Dallas-Fort Worth, candidates for the fund might include toll express lanes on Airport Freeway or a toll tunnel underneath Interstate 635 in Dallas.

Or, Williamson said, the mobility fund could be used to start up a regional rail system that leaders in the Metroplex's four largest counties are pursuing.

Building toll roads with the mobility fund, which is expected to generate about $3 billion over 10 to 15 years, would give the Texas Department of Transportation a permanent alternative to gasoline taxes, traditionally relied upon to build roads, officials said.

"You in essence create a new funding source," said Amadeo Saenz, the agency's assistant executive director for engineering operations. "We want to leverage the mobility fund as much as possible."

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, decisions about how to spend the fund's proceeds will be made jointly by the state Transportation Commission and the Regional Transportation Council, which is in charge of recommending transportation projects for 16 North Texas counties.

Residents will have a chance to voice their views during statewide public meetings in coming weeks. The commission will be asked to adopt a final plan in March or April.

The mobility fund, which primarily aims to relieve traffic within big cities, is expected to generate its revenue from the sale of bonds. The Legislature increased a variety of fees last year, including fines for speeding and drunken driving, which are expected to bring in about $250 million a year to pay off mobility fund debt.

The fund is not related to Gov. Rick Perry's Trans Texas Corridor , which is a plan to build 4,000 miles of freight roads and rails across the state -- although that plan also would rely on tolls.

Four commissioners supported spending the fund on toll roads and trains. A fifth commissioner, Hope Andrade of San Antonio, said she wants to make sure that potential toll roads are carefully studied before the money is spent.

"My biggest fear," she said, "is that we give our grandchildren debt."

How to get involved

Residents who want to learn more about the Texas Mobility Fund, or voice an opinion about how the money should be spent, may:

* Contact the local district office of the Texas Department of Transportation. Call the Fort Worth-area office at (817) 370-6500 or visit

* Call the Regional Transportation Council, which recommends North Texas transportation projects to the state, at (817) 695-9240 or visit trans .

Gordon Dickson, (817) 685-3816

Fort Worth Star-Telegram:


Monday, February 23, 2004

"A polite form of highway robbery."

Private highways, Heed a flashing yellow light


Star Trubune Editorial - Our Perspective
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Copyright 2005

Accountability is a word that the Pawlenty administration is particularly fond of, and for good reason. Government should stand accountable for its spending of public money and its stewardship of public assets.

That's why overseers at the attorney general's office, the Department of Administration and the Legislature should pay close attention this week when Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau opens the process of inviting road-building companies to add private toll lanes to metro area freeways.

Privatized toll roads are a novel idea that might help relieve traffic congestion in some places. But Minnesotans need reassurance that Molnau, who doubles as the transportation commissioner, won't get swept away in some rosy ideological haze and, in some back room with some contractor, strike a sweetheart deal that takes the state for a ride.

Don't laugh. That's close to what happened in California in the early 1990s. Legislators caught in a budget squeeze and steeped in no-tax ideology saw private toll lanes as a win-win solution to rising traffic congestion in the endless suburbs southeast of Los Angeles. Under a banner proclaiming, "New roads, no tax dollars," an Omaha-based contractor was hired to build and operate four new toll lanes in the median of Hwy. 91 in Orange and Riverside counties.

When opened in late 1995, the lanes stretched 30 miles from Buena Park to Corona. Their $135 million cost was privately financed with bonds to be repaid through tolls. But those bonds would not sell unless a noncompete clause was included. The clause prohibited the state from improving the public portion of the roadway, so as to induce more drivers onto the private toll lanes. The clause also prevented any competing roadway improvement within 1.5 miles.

As often happens with road expansion, Hwy. 91 was again clogged with traffic within three years. When the state tried to add lanes to the public portion, the company sued, citing its noncompete clause.

Finally, in 2002, after a barrage of litigation, Orange County stepped in to purchase a key stretch of the toll lanes in order to make crucial road and transit improvements. The county paid the private operator $207.5 million for 10 miles, and faces a similar high-cost dilemma with three other local privatized toll roads. These roads contain no public lanes but do have noncompete clauses that prevent capacity improvements. Four years ago the county tried to persuade the state to buy the roads, but the $3.5 billion price tag was too high. Two of the roads are popular and profitable, but the San Joaquin Hills road is failing and cannot meet bond obligations.

Concepts that sound good in the halls of a think tank sometimes turn bumpy in the real world. The mission of a private road operator is to maximize profit for investors. The mission of a state transportation agency is to maximize mobility in the public interest. In Orange County, those missions collided along Hwy. 91, and the public lost. What tended to benefit private road builders and real estate developers did not benefit mobility or the public interest.

"A polite form of highway robbery" is how California Attorney General Bill Lockyer described the Hwy. 91 privatization. "A horrible decision" is how an Orange County official described it to us last week. It's the duty of overseers in Minnesota to reduce that possibility here -- to hold the Pawlenty administration accountable for its stewardship of the state's transportation assets.

Contact for more info: Jim Erkel, Land Use and Transportation Director
(651) 223-5969

© 2004 Minneapolis Star Tribune