Thursday, June 09, 2005

Cintra- Zachry' s secret unsolicited bid

Toll panel runs into roadblock

June 9, 2005

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

Mum's the word on details of a proposal by a private consortium to take over planned toll roads in San Antonio, and it's driving local officials crazy.

The unsolicited proposal from Spain-based Cintra and locally owned Zachry American Infrastructure must be confidential to ensure fairness if the Texas Department of Transportation seeks other offers.

But that policy is running headlong into a promise from the state that local officials can help evaluate the Cintra- Zachry proposal, as well as other bids.

''It's bad. It's a policy collision,'' said Bill Thornton, chairman of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority. ''Something has got to be resolved.''

At stake is local oversight of construction and operation of 47 miles of toll roads on Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 on the North Side, including toll fees of 15 cents or more a mile. The system could cost $1.3 billion.

Here are some problems outlined Wednesday at a meeting of the Mobility Authority:

--Authority director Tom Griebel can view the Cintra- Zachry offer after he signs a confidentiality agreement today. But he won't be able to talk to board members about it.

--Authority board members also could sign confidentiality agreements. But they wouldn't be able to discuss the proposal as a board -- not in a public meeting or, under current laws, in a closed-door session.

--Local elected leaders, and motorists who will pay the toll fees or face increasingly congested roads, likely will be left in the dark when officials decide whether to let private companies take over tollways here.

''If that's the process, that's the craziest thing I've ever heard of,'' said board member Bob Thompson. ''We just have to stop right here and say no, that doesn't work.''

For the past year, the state transportation department had planned to use gas taxes and other public funds to build 22 miles of toll roads and hand them over to the Mobility Authority, which intended to then double the network.

At the same time, the Cintra- Zachry team developed its plan to use private investments to construct the whole system faster. But the companies would collect toll fees for up to 50 years -- money the Mobility Authority otherwise would use to continue expanding tollways.

Cintra- Zachry officials submitted their proposal to the state in April. If considered, a call for other bids would have to be made.
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