Thursday, May 12, 2005

Cintra-Zachry Advances on Alamo RMA

Toll agency wants to transfer project

May 12, 2005

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Two weeks after a private consortium made a pitch to operate toll roads here, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority decided Wednesday to get moving on efforts to transfer a state tollway project to local authorities.

"It's time for the RMA to step up and say we're the tolling agency for Bexar County," said board member Bob Thompson.

Spain-based Cintra and locally owned Zachry American Infrastructure delivered a proposal to state officials to build and operate toll lanes on the northern arc of Loop 1604 and on U.S. 281 north of the loop without using public money.

The Texas Department of Transportation had planned to build part of the tollway, using $450 million in gas taxes and other public funds, and give it to the Mobility Authority, which would then use toll fees to expand the system.

The consortium would save public money upfront, but would collect toll fees for up to 50 years, money that local officials would otherwise reinvest in more toll roads.

Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said in a letter last week that local officials could either help the state evaluate the Cintra/Zachry proposal or take over the project themselves and consider the consortium's offer.

Williamson made no mention of whether or not the state would pull public funds from the project.

But Mobility Authority Chairman Bill Thornton said there's no reason for that money not to be there.

''I am confident they will keep their commitment,'' he said.

Mobility Authority board members also fretted over how much they don't know about this new twist, such as weighing the saving of public money against reinvestment of toll fees over five decades, and how construction timelines would differ.

''I feel very uncomfortable that I don't know more about it,'' said board member Bill McBride, a retired Air Force general.

The authority's staff will meet with state officials to come up with answers and report back to the board within a month.

In related news, the Texas House late Wednesday approved a bill that would expand the Texas Department of Transportation's ability to construct, with a private partner, the Trans Texas Corridor. Cintra has signed a contract to build the first 600 miles of the system.

''This bill insures that TxDOT will have the necessary tools to address congestion on our highways and push the Trans Texas Corridor ,'' said Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, the bill's author.

The bill would provide the Texas Transportation Commission and the Texas Department of Transportation additional flexibility to acquire, finance, maintain, manage, operate, own, and control rail and highway facilities in Texas and allow the agency to enter into non-low-bid contracts in connection with the Trans Texas Corridor promoted by Gov. Rick Perry.

The measure specifies that TxDOT secure the permission of county commissioners and voters from the affected counties before the agency could convert a state highway into a toll road. The bill also orders that all toll revenue collected by TxDOT be deposited in the State Highway Fund.

Staff Writer Guillermo X. Garcia contributed to this story.

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