Friday, July 08, 2005

"Local leaders didn't learn about the proposal until shortly after it was submitted to the state in April."

Toll exec says let's give wheel to state


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

If state officials insist on hijacking toll road decisions in San Antonio, such as whether to let private companies step in, then maybe it's best to back off and give them their way, local leaders say.

Let the Texas Department of Transportation take all the credit — or blame — for the toll plan that emerges for San Antonio, suggested Bill Thornton, chairman of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority.

"Efforts on our part to insert ourselves or gain control of the process are only creating friction and discomfort," Thornton said in an e-mail this week to his board members. "That isn't good for anyone."

The roots of the problem are deep, with tension budding this year.

In an effort to control toll roads here and at the insistence of the state, Bexar County commissioners created the mobility authority early last year. State officials said they would build a 22-mile starter system on Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 on the North Side to kick-start the authority.

But at the same time, the Spanish company Cintra and its San Antonio partner Zachry American Infrastructure were gathering data from the state to submit a proposal to build and operate the starter system and double the mileage.

Cintra-Zachry would pay for the $1.3 billion 47-mile network, speeding up work and freeing up $610 million in tax subsidies. But the consortium would collect toll fees of 15 cents or more a mile for up to 50 years, money that local officials hoped to reinvest in other toll projects.

Local leaders didn't learn about the proposal until shortly after it was submitted to the state in April. Thornton, the county judge and the mayor quickly shot off a letter to ask that any final decisions be made locally, and the discussion has continued since.

Texas Transportation Commission members were surprised, even dismayed. At a meeting last week, Commissioner Ted Houghton told Thornton that the state can put in the hard work needed to evaluate private proposals, and besides, Austin and Dallas officials haven't taken such stiff stances.

"We were all taken aback by the position the RMA (in San Antonio) started taking," said Hope Andrade, a state commission member from San Antonio.

Transportation commissioners have repeatedly promised not to decide anything without the blessing of San Antonio officials. But, as the agency's general counsel advised at Thursday's meeting, the state cannot and should not abdicate its responsibility to a local entity.

For San Antonio, it's a promise without a contract.

"It's never healthy to get into a deal, especially a deal like this, and not have no vote on it," said County Judge Nelson Wolff.

At the same meeting, commissioners voted to pursue the Cintra-Zachry proposal and seek bids from other companies, even though San Antonio officials wanted a postponement.

Nevertheless, state officials maintain that San Antonio is at the table, with plenty of time to weigh in as proposals are evaluated over the next year.

"As far as I'm concerned, we're still skipping along together," Andrade said. "I'm still holding hands."

Thornton said twice in his e-mail that local officials will help if asked but it's now clear that San Antonio doesn't have a final say in decisions.

"We wish them well but we're not going to continue knocking on their door," he said.

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