Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Bexar County Tempted by Cintra's Bait

Added cost for toll roads may benefit private bid

June 7, 2005

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

A private bid to take over proposed toll roads in San Antonio suddenly looks brighter for a Spanish company and its local partner because state officials have revised their cost projections for the projects.

Building a 22-mile toll road system on Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 on the North Side would cost a third more and take two years longer than originally planned, according to the latest numbers from the Texas Department of Transportation.

Officials are tripping over several problems, including changing traffic patterns and higher-than-expected increases in the costs of oil, steel and cement.

The new estimates bolster claims by Spain-based Cintra and locally owned Zachry American Infrastructure that they can build the toll network faster and without public money -- an offer state officials are now taking even more seriously.

''The state doesn't have enough money to meet the needs,'' said Hope Andrade, a San Antonio resident on the board of the Texas Transportation Commission. ''So for us, this is what we look for.''

But the state won't move forward without the blessing of local officials, who had expected to take over the tollways and use toll fees to expand the system, Andrade said.

Yet local leaders, who have scant details on the Cintra- Zachry proposal submitted to the state in April, aren't applauding.

''Until we know what it does, it's hard for us to say whether this is good or bad for the county,'' said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

Complicating matters further is that officials from another consortium recently told Wolff they are considering making a proposal to build and operate toll roads in San Antonio.

''They asked me what I thought, and I said get in it,'' said Wolff, who declined to name the group. ''I think competition's good.''

For a year, TxDOT had planned to use gas taxes and other public funds to build toll lanes on Loop 1604 between interstates 35 and 10 on the North Side and on U.S. 281 from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Parkway, then hand them over to the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority.

The authority intended to extend Loop 1604's toll lanes west to Texas 151 and east to I-10 on the East Side, and the U.S. 281 lanes north to the county line.

Over the past year, the Cintra- Zachry team developed its plan to use private investments to construct both the startup toll road network and the extensions, and open them to motorists sooner.

In return, the companies would collect toll fees of 15 cents a mile or more for up to 50 years -- money the mobility authority would otherwise use to continue expanding tollways in San Antonio.

State officials are weighing the two options and could decide, with input from the authority, by the end of this month. If the private proposal is considered, a call for other bids will have to be made.

Last month, TxDOT increased the projected $450 million cost for the startup toll system to $600 million. Toll revenue would make up the difference, which means construction would be delayed while bonds are sold -- pushing back completion from 2011 to 2013.

The latest estimates aren't final -- they could be off by 15 percent, said David Casteel, TxDOT's head engineer for this region.

''You make decisions based on the data you have,'' he said. ''When data's updated, estimates are updated.''

Some local officials aren't ready to let toll roads slip from their control, and they suggest scaling back the startup project and slowing down the extensions so that toll fees are invested into more tollways instead of padding profit.

''I don't want to give away local control because we took the easy money from the beginning,'' said mobility authority Chairman Bill Thornton. ''I'm looking at this over the next 30, 40 or 50 years.''


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