Saturday, October 30, 2004

Ric Williamson sends his sympathy to Austin tollers

South MoPac might be able to go toll free, panel hints

Barrientos, Sonleitner, Wynn get sympathy from commissioners

October 29, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

The Texas Transportation Commission sent some pretty thick smoke signals Thursday that it will go along with an emerging plan to refrain from charging tolls on MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) at William Cannon Drive. But it was still smoke.

Certainty, in the form of explicit promises to replace that lost toll revenue with state money for sound walls or other projects on MoPac (Loop 1), will have to wait for another day.

But state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, Austin Mayor Will Wynn and Travis County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner got a double helping of sympathy and bonhomie when they spoke at the commission's monthly meeting.

"It's safe to say that all five of us (commissioners) have grieved for you," commission Chairman Ric Williamson said to Wynn, who's the target of a recall effort because he joined 15 other members of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board in a July vote authorizing tolls on seven new or expanded Central Texas roads. Frontage roads on those highways would be free.

Barrientos said the South MoPac toll road "has probably been the most discussed, or cussed, part of this plan." He said a better approach has been found: tolling a fourth lane added to each side of MoPac (without widening it) from Town Lake to Parmer Lane. "To do that, we're going to need your help."

Wynn delivered much the same message.

If Barrientos and Wynn were vague in expressing just what help they wanted, the commissioners were encouraging but equally vague in offering to help.

"We're going to say, 'Look, we're your partner. We're here to do all we can," Williamson said.; 445-3698

© 2004 Austin American-Statesman:


Friday, October 29, 2004

"Local leaders learned what can happen when the public feels like toll roads have been foisted on them."

Wynn wants MoPac stretch to be no-toll zone

Mayor today may lay out proposal for alternate toll roads to state Transportation Commission

October 28, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

Austin Mayor Will Wynn and other toll road supporters have been working with state officials to find a way to remove a short stretch of South MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) from a turnpike plan approved in July.

But elements of that discussion, including imposing additional tolls elsewhere on MoPac, are so politically sensitive that Wynn treated his words like TNT on Wednesday.

"If the state grants my request and we get sufficient money, it gives us the flexibility to potentially remove the William Cannon overpass while sound walls are being constructed" on North MoPac, Wynn said. That would then allow "a sane discussion," Wynn said, about adding lanes to MoPac north of Town Lake when the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization completes the newest version of its long-range plan in the spring.

Wynn probably will be part of a delegation, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said, that will address the commission on the subject today at its monthly meeting.

Williamson, speaking in general terms, indicated Wednesday a willingness to work with Central Texas leaders to eliminate what has become a political problem for politicians including Wynn and Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry, who appointed Williamson to the commission, has been taking heat from Central Texas constituents on the MoPac question specifically and from potential gubernatorial challengers Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kay Bailey Hutchison on the toll road question in general.

Wynn, meanwhile, and two council colleagues are the targets of a recall petition campaign because of their July votes as CAMPO board members to approve creating seven toll roads, including a mile or so of MoPac at William Cannon Drive that is under construction using gasoline tax dollars.

Removing that MoPac section from the plan, and the 50-cent toll it would carry, would mean the loss of millions of dollars of revenue from the $2.2 billion plan. That money was to be used to help pay for maintenance on MoPac, future expansions of the roads, those sound walls that Central Austin residents have been seeking for years and, potentially, part of the cost of moving most of Union Pacific's freight rail traffic to other tracks well east of Austin. How to replace that revenue?

In the short run, money that Williamson and the Transportation Commission can dispense at its discretion might pay for the sound walls.

As for the long-term problem, those familiar with the discussion say talk has centered on charging tolls on added MoPac lanes from Town Lake to Parmer Lane. If Union Pacific moves most of its operations, ceding its right of way in MoPac's median to the state, then the highway could be expanded to allow a fourth lane on each side.

The assumption in transportation circles has been that those added lanes could then be so-called "managed lanes" subject to tolls.

In the short run, however, by using some of the shoulders and slightly narrowing the lanes, the existing three lanes could be turned into four. That could move up the charging of tolls by several years.

But the political groundwork, transportation officials said Wednesday, has not been properly laid for that plan. And local leaders learned to their sorrow this summer what can happen when the public feels like toll roads have been foisted on them.

At any rate, Wynn said that reports are premature that he and state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, a CAMPO member and toll road advocate, had worked all this out. Krusee could not be reached for comment.

"I would love to find a revenue source that has better acceptance than the William Cannon overpass has," Wynn said. "But a deal has not been struck."; 445-3698

© 2004 Austin American-Statesman:


Thursday, October 28, 2004

CTRMA prepares toll policies

Mobility agency to put toll rules in gear

Authority looking at giving discounts, freebies to some, charging Capital Metro, school buses

October 27, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

The agency that within a few years could be running as many as eight Central Texas toll roads probably will approve a preliminary version of its turnpike policies today, including discounts for tag users, enforcement measures for scofflaws and initial periods of free or discount travel.

The toll policies, however, do not include specifics on toll charges for the various roads. Those amounts, available now in preliminary form, would be set by the board shortly before any given road opens.

Today's action by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority board will not be final. The draft policies will be posted on the agency's Web site (, and November will be devoted to taking public comment on the policies, including a public hearing Nov. 10.

That hearing, to be preceded at 5:30 p.m. by an informational open house, will begin at 7 p.m. at the Norris Conference Centers in Northcross Mall, 2525 W. Anderson Lane.

The board will vote on the final version Dec. 8.

The board will be trying to strike a balance between the public and the Texas Department of Transportation, which will operate four other Central Texas turnpikes and is crafting policies of its own.

The goal, members of the board said at a committee hearing Tuesday, would be to have virtually identical policies for its roads and those run by the state, to cut down on customer confusion and frustration.

The mobility authority will build, or take over after the state Transportation Department has built, up to eight toll roads in and around Austin, a tollway program approved by local elected leaders in July.

However, the future of at least two of those projects -- Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360) and Texas 45 Southwest -- remains uncertain, and transportation leaders are still talking about whether to impose tolls on a section of south MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) near William Cannon Drive.

That MoPac project is under construction and, if nothing changes, would see toll charges by spring.

Here are the highlights of four pages of proposed toll policies:

* Drivers with an electronic toll tag on their cars, a card-like device that communicates with overhead detectors and debits a toll account, would get a 10 percent discount on posted toll rates.

* Every vehicle, with the exception of police and fire vehicles, ambulances and other emergency vehicles, would be subject to tolls. That includes school and Capital Metro buses, although those buses would pay the same rate as cars rather than a charge several times that amount for larger vehicles.

* Each time a turnpike opens, everyone would be able to drive on it free for four weeks. After that, toll tag users would have a second four weeks of free use, then would pay 50 percent of the posted rates for four more months. Drivers without toll tags would have to begin paying the full charges after four weeks, going through toll booths.

* After that introductory period, if someone without a toll tag, or with a toll tag with insufficient money in its account, drives down the lanes with no toll booths, he or she would have three days to establish a toll tag account or refurbish their account. After that, the violator would be subject to the toll charge and a $25 administrative fee. But that fee could be waived if the driver makes good on an account within 30 days.

* Toll tags would be provided to customers at no charge. But to activate the card, the user would have to establish an account with at least $20 in it. Each toll tag user would get $10 of free service initially. Payment could be made with credit or debit cards, money orders, checks or cash.

* The policies include no flat monthly or yearly rates for unlimited use, or any discounts for frequent users.; 445-3698

© 2004 Austin American-Statesman:


Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Cintra goes public to raise funds for Corridor bid

Cintra breaks ground in IPO market

Public works offering seen as Spain's biggest in years

By Barbara Kollmeyer CBS MarketWatch
Oct. 26, 2004
CBS MarketWatch, Copyright 2005

MADRID (CBS.MW) - It lacks the glitz of Google, but Spanish public works company Cintra could produce one of the biggest initial public offerings that country has seen in years in a debut slated for Wednesday.

Cintra is selling 38 percent of its share capital in an effort to raise between 1.53 billion euros and 1.64 billion euros ($1.96 billion to 2 billion), according to media reports.

A deal of such magnitude would be worth slightly more than the $1.7 billion Google ( GOOG :news ,chart ,profile ) raised in August, and almost twice the size of all Spanish IPOs this year. Still, the Cintra offering would rank well below the $4.4 billion raised by Belgian telecom group Belgacom ( BE:000381027 :news ,chart ,profile ) in March.

Cintra reportedly has set a price range of 8.24 euros to 8.8 euros a share, which values the company at around 4.2 billion euros. The group's parent company is Spanish construction group Ferrovial SA, which will retain majority ownership.

The toll-road and car-park concession firm recently entered the U.S. market through a joint-venture to lease and operate a Chicago toll road -- the 7.8 mile Chicago Skyway -- with Australia's Macquarie Infrastructure Group for 99 years.

Cintra already has a North American presence, chiefly in Canada, where it operates an express toll route in Toronto. With the Chicago deal, Cintra will operate 17 toll roads in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Chile, the U.S. and Canada.

"Contrary to other highway concession companies where they go public, Cintra has a fuller portfolio, and they've been operating for 10 to 15 years," said Javier Hombria, an analyst with Dexia Equities Espana in Madrid.

Spanish IPOs in the arena

Data from global investment banking research group Dealogic, shows Spain ranked fourth among European IPO markets this year. Deals total about $1.1 billion, including Banco Sabadell, real estate group Fadesa, and television group Gestevision Telecinco ( GSTVFM :news ,chart ,profile ) . Shares of all three companies are trading higher than their IPO prices.

"Obviously, the market is not the market of 2000, but I think it will come back," said Antonio Zoido, chairman and chief executive of BME, Spanish Exchanges.

A decade ago, Spanish IPOs were routinely large affairs, involving state-owned utilities and banks. And in 1999, Spanish Internet provider Terra Networks ( TRLY :news ,chart ,profile ) was one of the hottest IPOs of the year.

Investors in Spain saw three IPOs in both 2002 and 2003, and four in 2001.

CBS Market Watch


Sunday, October 24, 2004

Rail Plans Mulled for San Antonio

Wolff's rail plan tough, costly
But separate projects could help the effort of rerouting trains.

October 24, 2004

Patrick Driscoll, Staff Writer
Copyright 2004

County Judge Nelson Wolff has a dream to move train traffic away from San Antonio's core to make the city safer, but he knows it will take lots of sweat, money and patience.

In fact, there's a chance he might not be around to see his ambitious idea come to fruition.

The rosy scenario is to reroute freight trains around the city within 10 years, keeping much of the toxic cargo that travels on the rails away from heavily populated areas and reducing danger where tracks cross local streets.

But rerouting trains is a massive job involving officials from local to national levels, and it could take several decades to complete. A similar project in Brownsville - where a rail line looping around the north side of the city opened last year - took 30 years.

"Hopefully, it won't take that long," Wolff said. "I'll be almost 94. I may not make it."

Wolff and other local officials began talking about moving Union Pacific rail lines away from downtown in May after a train derailed near Brackenridge High School, injuring three men and spilling 5,600 gallons of diesel fuel along the San Antonio River. Four undamaged cars were carrying highly flammable propane.

Bexar County stepped up the pressure on UP, which owns all the tracks here, after a train collision in June left three people dead and 49 sick or injured, mostly from chlorine gas. It was the nation's deadliest chemical accident on the rails in more than a decade.

As UP and county officials played phone tag and swapped letters in the following months, at least two more trains derailed, though no hazardous materials were released.

Life has changed for those who live near railroad tracks. The wail of train whistles, whether nostalgic or bothersome, depending on the person, now signals potential peril.

"Now the sound reminds me of how fragile life is and how vulnerable my family and neighbors are," said Robert Wilson, who lives south of downtown. "I can't accept any idea that we are helpless in this community to do something about it."

Local officials agree and are enlisting the help of any heavy hitter they can find to construct new rail lines to get non-local freight traffic out of inner-city neighborhoods. Most of the 70 trains rolling into San Antonio every day are just passing through.

Strategies call for putting a new rail line south of the city for east-west traffic and adding tracks east of Interstate 35 to handle north-south trains. State officials are already negotiating with UP to move freight off a line along I-35 to free it up for commuter rail between San Antonio and Austin.

"It could take 10 years," said Bruce Flohr, a railroad consultant and chairman of the Bexar County Rail District who is helping lead local discussions with UP. "It depends on how fast you want to move on it and where you get the money."

UP, which is regulated at the federal level, would want to benefit from any changes, such as the ability to move trains faster on uncongested rural routes.

"Lots of people like to talk about relocating us but finding the means to do so doesn't often happen," said Scott Moore, UP's general manager of public partnerships. "If somebody wants to move us, they have to convince us why."

It helps that Robert Nichols, a member of the Texas Transportation Commission, is already negotiating with UP for new tracks to loop around Austin - a project that could cost $500 million.

"If they're pushing an agenda like this, then we've got some pretty powerful players on our side," Wolff said.

The trick for San Antonio is to get those tracks extended down to Luling or Seguin, and maybe south to curve along or near Southeast Loop 1604.

"We'd hit a home run," Wolff said.

That could happen with the Trans Texas Corridor , a proposed route of rails and toll roads paralleling I-35 from Mexico to Oklahoma, said state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, who chairs the House Committee on Transportation.

The winning bid from firms proposing to finance and build that route will be unveiled before the end of the year.

Local officials would still have to figure out how to fund a track through South Bexar County, which Flohr says would be at least 10 miles. Based on estimates for a once-proposed rail link to the Toyota manufacturing plant, that could run $30 million or more.

Money would likely come from local, state and federal sources. UP also would be asked to contribute.

"It's going to be a while and it's going to be expensive," Flohr said.

The first step is a study, which Flohr hopes will start next year.

Also, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R- Texas , has called on the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the railroad infrastructure here.

Brownsville has shown that successfully dealing with UP and relocating rails can be done, even if it takes a while and looks hopeless at times.

The task began as a federal demonstration project in 1973, with funds dribbling in during the 1980s and 1990s. It took $47.4 million to construct 9.4 miles of tracks, several bridges and two switching yards, according to the Port of Brownsville, which oversaw the work.

"I came in in 1990 (as a consultant) and there wasn't a blade of dirt that had been turned" for track construction, Port Director Raul Besteiro said of the slow pace. "And everybody told me I was crazy to take the job."

Things are looking better to build up to eight more miles of track on the west side of Brownsville and pay for half of a new border bridge to get the remaining train traffic out of the city. That $20 million project began four years ago and could be finished in two years.

Officials say they're moving faster because they now know the drills.

"It involves a lot of hard work and dedication but if you've got the right leadership, you can get it done," said Pete Sepulveda, transportation director for Cameron County, which is heading up the west side project.

Meanwhile, Brownsville is redeveloping an old rail yard and tracks into a park with an amphitheater and nine-mile hike-and-bike trail.

The $3 million job, expected to be completed in 2006, will help tie together museums and a historic battlefield in the Mitte Cultural District.

"To us, it's like a new entrance to our downtown," said Mark Lund, director of the Brownsville Metropolitan Planning Organization. "You've got all the ingredients for a truly special place."
San Antonio Express-News: