Thursday, July 14, 2005

Andrade: "I'm delighted to remain working together."

Toll panel chooses to keep finger in the pie


Patrick Driscoll
Express-News Staff Writer

Board members of a local toll road authority decided Wednesday not to pick up their marbles and go home just yet.

Private vs. public funding

If private companies build and operate the toll roads:
— No public funds used for construction
— $610 million in public money freed up for other projects
— Companies take on financial risks
— Some toll segments ready for use 10 years sooner
— Companies might seek higher toll fees and would share revenues with the public for up to 50 years
— Amount of local control not yet known

If Alamo Regional Mobility Authority develops the toll roads:
— Project publicly funded with taxes and revenue bonds
— Toll lanes take longer to complete
— Local officials in control

Source: Texas Department of Transportation

Friction had heated up in recent weeks between the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation over who should have the final say on a private consortium's proposal to build and operate the first toll roads in San Antonio.

Last week, authority Chairman Bill Thornton suggested to board members in an e-mail that it might be best to step back and let state officials handle the process, and play nice if asked to help.

But on Wednesday, board members said they should keep working with state officials and try to reach an agreement on how to proceed.

"Nobody has a greater interest in this project than we do," said board member Bill McBride, a retired Air Force general.

One of the biggest concerns is lack of timely communication.

The state's sudden announcement last month that the construction cost of a 22-mile startup toll system had jumped from $450 million to $600 million after more than a year of planning is a poor way to handle business, board member Cristina Rodriguez said.

And those numbers don't include another $54 million for overhead toll-tag readers and electronic signs and cameras.

Plus, if state officials transfer the tollway to the mobility authority anytime soon, they might also pass along $190 million in costs for in-house engineering, interest on bonds, overruns and rights of way.

In other words, to control the project, the authority could be looking at $844 million.

"We've gone from X to Y to Z to somewhere off of Z," board member Bob Thompson complained. "This is about the fifth change I've seen on this."

State officials had planned to build the tollway on Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 on the North Side within eight years and give it to the mobility authority, which intended to collect toll fees of 15 cents or more a mile and use the money to expand the network another 25 miles.

In April, the Spanish firm Cintra and its San Antonio partner Zachry American Infrastructure proposed building and operating all 47 miles of the network without using any public money and opening some segments years sooner.

The state's new construction estimates bolster the Cintra-Zachry offer. In fact, it now appears the mobility authority couldn't afford to expand the startup toll system as originally planned, an investment banker retained by the board said Wednesday.

Don Gonzales, executive vice president of Estrada-Hinojosa, said private companies could fare better by setting higher toll rates, raising rates faster, finishing projects quicker and putting more money and collateral up front to reduce bond costs.

Meanwhile, the Texas Transportation Commission voted last month to pursue the Cintra-Zachry proposal and seek bids from other companies, even though San Antonio officials had wanted a postponement.

Commissioners have said they won't decide anything without the blessing of San Antonio.

Hope Andrade, a commissioner from San Antonio, repeated the promise Wednesday and told the board she's glad they're still on board.

"I'm delighted to remain working together," she said.

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