Friday, July 15, 2005

More Toll Road Secrets

Local panel works to redefine toll role


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

Local toll road officials, still a little stunned by an abrupt change in state toll plans for San Antonio, are now starting to map out how to get what they want in a kinder, gentler way.

"It may require that there be some softening on local control," Bill Thornton, chairman of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, told the Express-News Editorial Board on Thursday.

The surprise that threatened to derail the authority's yearlong joyride with the Texas Department of Transportation was an announcement in April that a private consortium had proposed building and operating the first 47 miles of toll roads in San Antonio.

The Spanish firm Cintra and its local partner Zachry American Infrastructure say they can build the system quicker and free up $610 million in tax dollars. Public officials speculate that the companies would seek higher toll rates and collect the fees for up to 50 years.

State officials decided to pursue the proposal and seek other bids, which put the Mobility Authority's role in question. The state originally had planned to build half of the tollway and give it to the authority, which would then have expanded it.

Regardless of what happens, either the state or the Mobility Authority will own the network. And authority officials, promised input on evaluating bids, are now focusing on staking out what they might want, such as:

Charging a one-time franchise fee and annual payments.

Capping and sharing profits.

Overseeing road designs and ongoing maintenance.

Controlling formulas that set and increase toll rates.

Ensuring that nearby roads can be improved as needed, since private nvestors like to restrict such projects to make sure enough drivers use toll roads.

Three of the authority's seven board members, staff and consultants will likely sign confidentiality agreements in order to see bids and follow negotiations. They wouldn't be able to tell the rest of the board about what they learn but could report on whether criteria are met.

With San Antonio's traffic growing, letting a private consortium develop toll roads could end up being a good deal, said board member Bil McBride, a retired Air Force general.

"That might be the answer," he said.

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