Saturday, May 07, 2005

Cintra plans to build San Antonio toll roads

Funding confusion clogs toll road talks

May 7, 2005

Patrick Driscoll , Staff Writer
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Local leaders seeking to maintain a grip on a proposed toll-road network -- which a Spanish company wants to take over -- got a response Friday from the state but they're not sure if it's what they wanted to hear.

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said in a letter that state officials will work with local agencies to evaluate an offer from a private consortium to build toll roads in San Antonio, and won't sign a contract unless all agree.

Williamson also said the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority could assume ownership of the project, and consider the private consortium's proposal, but he made no mention of whether $450 million in gas-tax and other public funds that the state had earmarked for construction is still on the table.

''It's pretty confusing,'' said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. ''Staff is going to have to take a good close analysis in view of the previous commitments of $450 million.''

For a year, the Texas Department of Transportation has planned to build toll lanes on Loop 1604 between Interstate 35 and Interstate 10 and also on U.S. 281 north of the outer loop, then hand them over to the Mobility Authority as a financial engine to develop other tollways.

Spain-based Cintra and locally owned Zachry American Infrastructure submitted a proposal to the state last week that calls for private money to build those toll lanes and to extend them west to Texas 151 and east to I-10. Company officials also say they can do it faster.

But the companies would collect the toll fees for up to 50 years, and that's money the Mobility Authority would otherwise use to expand the tollway system.

Wolff, along with Mayor Ed Garza and Mobility Authority Chairman Bill Thornton, fired off a letter last week to the state to ask that the Mobility Authority have final approval over how toll roads are built and operated in San Antonio.

Wolff and Thornton said Friday they don't know if they got the answer they wanted. The Mobility Authority board will scrutinize options outlined in Williamson's letter, dated May 4 and received Friday, when it meets Wednesday.

''I want to compare what this immediate offer is to the original offer we had,'' Thornton said. ''Quite frankly, (over the past year) we were skipping down the road holding hands.''

Meanwhile, the two companies will wait until local and state officials work it out.

If the proposal from the companies is considered, a call for other bids will have to be made.

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