Friday, August 26, 2005

New details emerge about the future of U.S. 290 East and Central Texas' second wave of toll roads.

Mobility authority handed second toll project

But toll road designation, financing for the U.S. 290 East expansion still up in the air.

August 26, 2005

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2005

Central Texas' homegrown toll road agency Thursday was officially given a second turnpike project to build: the expansion of U.S. 290 East from Ed Bluestein Boulevard to the future junction with Texas 130.

The unanimous decision by the Texas Transportation Commission was not a surprise, given that U.S. 290 East is one of five additional toll roads that the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is scheduled to operate. The agency is already building its first turnpike, U.S. 183-A in Cedar Park and Leander, which is scheduled to open in 2007.

But the move was notable for its timing, coming as the transportation commission and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority have been tussling over who will build similar expansions in Bexar County. And with Thursday's action, new details emerged about the future of U.S. 290 East and Central Texas' second wave of toll roads.

•The U.S. 290 East project, as envisioned, would run 5.6 miles, would extend unobstructed expressway travel from Interstate 35 to Texas 130 and would be complete in 2009. The road would have six toll lanes and four or more free frontage road lanes, which would be interrupted by traffic lights. U.S. 290 in this stretch currently has four lanes and five traffic lights.

•Mobility authority officials would like to build the expanded road another three miles or so east to get it past Manor. But Thursday's action did not confer that authority, and the road east of Texas 130 has not yet been designated a toll road by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board.

"I would like to make the (construction) disturbance just once between here and Manor," said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority.

•The U.S. 290 East toll road would be all electronic, that is, with no toll booths for cash customers. Drivers without electronic toll tags would have to use the frontage roads.

•Because the road would remain technically on the state road system (U.S. 183-A is not), the Texas Department of Transportation, rather than the mobility authority, would maintain the frontage roads. That would address the concerns of some toll road critics, including Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken, who say that the state is using toll roads to transfer to local taxpayers the cost of maintaining urban highways.

•Acquisition of right-of-way for widening U.S. 290 East, Heiligenstein said, will commence soon. The money for buying the extra land, much of it already developed along the road, will come from the state Transportation Department, not the mobility authority.

"It will be quite expensive," Heiligenstein told the commission Thursday.

Despite Thursday's action, several roadblocks remain for the project.

McCracken, first of all, is close to rounding up from various local governments (including the mobility authority) the $350,000 needed for a comprehensive study of the area's second wave of toll roads. Four Central Texas toll roads, including U.S. 183-A, are already under construction and have caused little controversy. But the second wave, all but one of them expansions of existing roads, kicked off a vigorous local debate after the CAMPO board decided last year to make them toll roads.

In theory, at least, the results of that study could cause local leaders on the CAMPO board to remove the toll road designation for U.S. 290 East or any of the other four roads in the plan.

At this point, the financing for the project is mostly smoke.

The mobility authority is in final negotiations with URS Corp. to do a detailed traffic and revenue study for the Phase 2 toll road plan at a cost of at least $1.5 million.

Based on that study, the authority will find out how much of the $355 million cost for U.S. 290 East it might be able to borrow on the bond market.

Given the handy presence of the free frontage roads, which lowers the percentage of drivers willing to pay tolls, Heiligenstein said it is likely that the agency could borrow only 40 percent to 50 percent. The rest probably will come from the state Transportation Department.

The chance remains that the mobility authority could farm out the job to a private roadbuilder, much as the state has done with the Trans-Texas Corridor toll road alternative to I-35 and is contemplating doing with two San Antonio roads.

Doing so, however, would assure that at least a small percentage of the tolls paid on such a road would leave Central Texas in the form of profit for the private concessionaire.

Heiligenstein said the agency will have that element in mind should any private companies approach it about U.S. 290 East.

"We have marketed toll roads to the community as a long-term opportunity to sustain our local transportation system," Heiligenstein said. "In that respect, we feel we need to keep the money at home. Depending on the final financial arrangement (with a concessionaire), it would have to be a good deal for the community."; 445-3698

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