Friday, July 01, 2005

Texas Transportation Commission and Cintra-Zachry leave Alamo Regional Mobility Authority in the dark

S.A. left out of toll road decision


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

AUSTIN — Surprised and concerned leaders from San Antonio could only stand on the sidelines Thursday as state officials agreed to pursue a private bid to build and operate toll roads in Bexar County.

But don't worry, said members of the Texas Transportation Commission, who have promised to let San Antonio officials have input on decisions.

Thursday's action just means the state will seek other proposals to start a competitive process that could last a year. There's plenty of time for San Antonio officials to weigh in.

"In the end, if the project doesn't make sense to them (San Antonio) then we're not going to go forward," said commission Chairman Ric Williamson.

Nevertheless, San Antonio officials were left out of Thursday's decision, said Bill Thornton, chairman of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority. He said he wasn't even notified that it would be on the agenda.

"So I'm a little uneasy to know where my place is at the table," he told commissioners.

In April, the Spanish company Cintra and its San Antonio partner Zachry American Infrastructure offered to take over the first 47 miles of toll roads in San Antonio. The lanes would be added to the northern half of Loop 1604 and on U.S. 281 from Loop 1604 to Comal County.

Private money would fund the $1.3 billion construction job, speeding up work and freeing up $630 million in tax subsidies. But the companies would collect toll fees of 15 cents or more a mile for up to 50 years, money that San Antonio officials hoped to reinvest in other toll projects.

Texas Department of Transportation officials told commissioners Thursday that the Cintra-Zachry proposal has merit.

San Antonio officials said they have no idea whether it does.

Confidential agreements, to protect trade secrets, must be worked out and signed before San Antonio officials can even look at the Cintra-Zachry plan. They'll also need expert help to dissect details, and the Regional Mobility Authority likely will ask the state for up to $20 million to hire staff and consultants.

San Antonio and state officials are also drafting an agreement on how to work together and decide how toll roads will be built and operated. San Antonio leaders want to make the final decisions.

"Our interest is in local control and in approval or disapproval," Thornton said.

Williamson said he didn't have a problem with that, but Richard Monroe, general counsel to the state transportation department, said he did. The state can't just turn over its legal responsibilities to a local entity, Monroe advised.

"That's turning the state constitution on its head," he told commissioners.

In other action Thursday, the Transportation Commission authorized staff to negotiate providing $120 million in funds to start work several years sooner on widening sections of Culebra, Blanco and Bandera roads.

The money will match $56.5 million to be collected from a new San Antonio sales tax that voters approved in November. A fourth of the quarter-cent-per-dollar tax is for state highways while another fourth will be spent on city streets and half will go to bus service.

The matching state funds will fulfill a promise made during the sales tax campaign.

"We've quadrupled their (tax) money, really," said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who led efforts to pass the tax. "So we're keeping our word and rocking along."

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