Friday, November 05, 2004

Mammoth project. Few answers.

Corridor plan specifics are few

Mega-project is still far into future. 60 people attend public meeting.

November 5, 2004
Patrick Driscoll, Staff Writer
Copyright 2004

The ambitious mega-project known as the Trans Texas Corridor , a planned network of superhighways and rail lines to speed up cross-state traffic and fuel the economy, seems to be morphing almost as fast as people can ask questions.

More than 60 people showed up at a public meeting Wednesday in San Antonio to wrap their minds around the still nebulous concept - peering at dozens of maps and charts and chatting with Texas Department of Transportation officials and their hired consultants.

There were many questions about the mammoth project, but few clear-cut answers. The concept is so big - the state's largest ever - and too far into the future to know its eventual shape or scope.

"It just blows my mind," said one resident among those who milled around for a while before leaving with a twisted look of confusion. "All I can do is ask questions."

The network, as proposed by Gov. Rick Perry several years ago, would stretch 4,000 miles, cut a swath up to 1,200 feet wide and include toll roads, high-speed passenger and freight rail tracks and a utility zone. Corridors would slide around urban areas rather than go through them.

It could cost $184 billion in public and private funds and take as long as 50 years to build - plenty of time to tweak the vision before chiseling out the final form, said Doug Booher, an environmental manager with the transportation department.

"It's adaptable through time," he said. "It's all based on need."

For example, the Mexico-to-Oklahoma route that would parallel Interstate 35 might not keep the toll roads and railroad lines together, he said. At some points, one mode could peel out in a different direction.

It might also make sense to use segments of freeways south and east of San Antonio and add the toll lanes there, Booher said, while new freight rail tracks could follow alongside or connect parts of existing lines.

And it could be that passenger rail would work best by directly linking downtowns rather than mostly zipping through open countryside as the toll roads and other rail lines would.

Public opinion, political pressure and financial realities will forge the ideas, which means feedback is crucial, Booher said. The study area for the route along I-35 has already been nudged closer to cities as a result of comments from public meetings this year.

Many more meetings are ahead, with the next round set for spring. Also next year, state officials expect to narrow the width of the study area to 10 miles and select a private consortium to construct the route running past San Antonio.

The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, formerly named the Bexar County Regional Mobility Authority, may consider building and operating a portion of the corridor if it sweeps along southeast Loop 1604.

"That's the ideal situation we'd like to see come out of it," said Tom Griebel, director of the authority.

San Antonio Express-News:


Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Mobility Fund Switcheroo

Road fund is a bit short: $135 million

November 1, 2004

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2004

By now, the Texas Mobility Fund was supposed to have about $175 million in it.

Instead, that fund, created by Texas lawmakers to be the primary seed money for toll roads, had just $39.7 million on hand as of late last month.

Oddly enough, however, that almost 80 percent shortage will have no effect on the ever-growing move in Texas towards turnpikes. Instead, it's more likely to affect prisons, or education, or children's health care, or any of the myriad other things that Texas government does besides build roads.

Hang on, this gets a little complicated.

Texas voters created the mobility fund in 2001 by approving a constitutional amendment. But the fund had no funds, or any way to get some, until the Legislature passed another law in 2003 to channel new, and then old, state money into it.

That flow of money was supposed to start in September 2003.

One thing you have to know to understand all this: The actual money going into the mobility fund was never intended for roads. Instead, the idea was to get a regular source of annual money, something like $250 million, and then go borrow $3 billion or so on the bond market.

That borrowed money is what would be spent on roads, including in Central Texas. The annual state revenue would then go to pay back the bondholders.

But bond investors are exacting, self-centered types who really like to be sure they'll get paid back.

So legislators knew that the money dedicated to the mobility fund would have to be pretty solid and predictable, revenue with a history of coming in like clockwork, or the bond market wouldn't lend the big money to the fund. They settled on fees that we all pay to the Department of Public Safety for driver's licenses, driver's records (our insurers tend to pay that) and vehicle inspections.

The problem is, those fees go into the state's general pot of money for all those other needs. If you take them for roads, you have to replace them with something.

So in 2003, the Legislature created two new sources of money, putting a $30 surcharge on all moving violations and creating something called the Driver Responsibility Program. That program, to be managed by the DPS, created another set of fines for drunken drivers, people with multiple moving violations and drivers without insurance or a valid license.

Backers of this law, but not the Texas comptroller's office, said these two sources of money would raise $138.7 million in fiscal 2004, which ended Sept. 30, and $211.8 million this fiscal year. Because the comptroller didn't agree, legislators agreed to channel that money to the mobility fund for these first two years, then switch to the more reliable old DPS fees in 2006.

What does all this mean? Well, starting next October, in fiscal 2006, the mobility fund will have its steady -- and bondholder-friendly -- source of money. The Texas Department of Transportation should have no trouble borrowing, or paying back, its $3 billion. Toll roads, here we come.

The general fund, meanwhile, will get that other money, you know, the fees that have fallen a wee bit short.

To be fair, the longer-term performance of those new fines should be better than what has happened so far. That $30 fee on moving violations, collected by local agencies and sent on to the state, was expected to have brought in about $80 million the first year. Instead, it brought all of the $39.7 million currently in the mobility fund, or about half of its target.

The Driver Responsibility Program, on the other hand, brought in bupkus: zero. That's about to change.

That program, unlike the $30 fee, required considerable work to get up and running. The DPS had to figure out how to keep track of it, to bill the offenders and enforce it.

The letters to the miscreants, 200,000 of them so far, have started going out only this past month. The DPS estimates that it is owed $73 million for fiscal 2004 under the program.

But the mobility fund, by law, gets only 49.5 percent of that money. And the DPS estimates it will be able to collect just two-thirds of what it is owed. That means that at best, the mobility fund will get $24 million or so for fiscal 2004 from that source. That's about 40 percent of the predicted number ($58.7 million).

The DPS has rosier predictions going forward, but the comptroller's office has yet to examine those figures.

In the short run at least, the two new revenue sources will be lucky to generate $100 million a year, far below the $223.2 million that the long-standing DPS fees brought in during fiscal 2004. The general fund, starting next year, almost certainly will take a significant hit.

Transportation leaders are likely to be unsympathetic to this state of affairs. Already, a quarter of the gasoline tax goes to schools, several hundred million dollars a year from that tax goes to fund the DPS, and other transportation-related fees go into the state general fund. Roads have been taking their own hit for a very long time to finance other state needs, they say.

But this mobility fund switcheroo was not supposed to be a way to redress that situation. It was supposed to be an even swap. That's not going to be the case, it appears, unless the next Legislature finds some more money. We'll see.

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