Thursday, October 27, 2005

"Krusee pursuaded other lawmakers to allow large counties borrow money for pass-through toll programs without a public vote."

County, state to agree on 'shadow tolls'

Williamson County would front money for six road projects, then be paid back by state based on traffic on the roads

October 27, 2005

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2005

Today, the Texas Transportation Commission probably will approve an agreement allowing Williamson County to build -- years ahead of schedule, officials say -- six state highway expansions and safety projects at a cost of $132 million.

The county, using a combination of financial instruments, would have to front the money to design the projects, buy some of the right of way and then build them.

County staff and consultants, not the Texas Department of Transportation, would oversee the projects from beginning to end.

"This accelerates projects in Williamson County a quarter of a century," said Bob Daigh, the Austin district engineer for the state Transportation Depart- ment.

The state Transportation Department, under a still-new pass-through toll program, would pay back most of the money over the next 10 to 20 years. Based on the estimates, which include about $58.2 million in interest on debt, the county in the end would have to pay $21 million, or about 11 percent of the total cost.

Motorists would not pay tolls to drive the roads. The state will reimburse the county based on traffic the roads carry, a stipulation designed to confine investments to heavily travelled projects. The reimbursement rate is 10 cents for every vehicle-mile driven on the roads, up to a maximum of $15.2 million a year.

Once all the projects are complete (which should be by the end of 2009), the state would pay the county a minimum of $7.6 million a year. The payments to Williamson County would stop once the total reaches $152.9 million. The state will also cover 90 percent of right-of-way costs.

Under the program, two stretches of U.S. 79 east and west of Taylor would be expanded from four-lane undivided road to a safer, four-lane divided highway; northbound and southbound U-turns would be added at the Interstate 35/Texas 29 interchange; a two-lane stretch of RM 2338 north of FM 3405would be widened; FM 1660 north and south of Hutto would be straightened; and a four-lane undivided stretch of U.S. 183 north of Leander would be changed to four widely spaced frontage road lanes -- a cradle for a future toll road connecting to U.S. 183-A to the south.

The pass-through toll program was created by a 2003 state law carried by Rep. Mike Krusee, a Williamson County Republican. But because cities and counties eligible for the program have to furnish the money up front, few leaped to use it.

Outside of Dallas and Harris counties, which had the ability to borrow money and repay it with the expected revenue from the state, local officials would have had to ask voters to authorize selling bonds backed by property taxes.

Given limits on how much tax-supported debt local governments can carry, along with the costs of services they have to pay for, few could spare the money for pass-through toll projects.

Only Montgomery County and two cities -- Port Arthur and Weatherford, home of Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson -- have completed such so-called shadow toll agreements with the state.

The interest has picked up in recent months, mostly because Krusee persuaded lawmakers this spring to allow other large counties (those with at least $100 million in current debt) to borrow money for pass-through toll programs without a public vote.

Seven other counties, including Hays and Williamson, and four cities and towns -- San Marcos among them -- now have pending agreements with the state. If officials approve all of the deals, Texas would have to pay for about $850 million in projects.

Other counties, including Travis County, have been leery about the program. Improvements on state highways have traditionally been paid 100 percent by the state, so even a minimal county contribution constitutes an added cost.

Travis County has no current plans to apply for a pass-through program.

"That's one of the big questions: What's the give, and what's the get?" said Travis County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner. "Is this a secure deal? Can you take it to the bank?"

The answer is yes, say Daigh and Mike Weaver, a transportation consultant working for Williamson County on the pass-through agreement and the county's $350 million road bond program. The money for pass-through payments will come from gas tax revenue, specifically a $200 million a year account called "strategic priority" money that is dispensed at the sole discretion of state transportation commissioners.; 445-3698

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