Sunday, December 04, 2005

Private pork doctors keep their patients sick to ensure profits

Toll roads will limit improvements to free roadways


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

Toll roads are being pushed as the next best thing to a road fairy bearing cash, but there's a built-in irony that many motorists don't know.

To sell bonds to build tollways to relieve traffic congestion, there usually needs to be some guarantee that there will be ... traffic congestion.

That is, to make sure a toll road returns money to investors, there must be enough congestion on nearby free roads to make drivers want to pay tolls to travel faster.

"So is it worth it?" asked Cindy Cox, who recently moved near U.S. 281 and Loop 1604, two of the half-dozen local highways slated to get toll lanes.

Whether it's worth it to motorists depends on how much they're willing to pay to save time. Early studies by the Texas Department of Transportation anticipate 14 cents a mile in San Antonio, but a recent state survey asked drivers about their willingness to pay more than twice that.

Bond buyers, probably nervous about recent toll-road failures such as the Camino Colombia bypass around Laredo, are looking for better guarantees on investments. As a result, restricting improvements to competing free roads is becoming more popular.

They're called non-compete agreements.

"Nearly all new toll road projects, in order to sell bonds to investors, must offer some degree of protection from unlimited tax-funded competition from competing free highways," Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Los Angeles, wrote in a report this year.

The pitfalls of such agreements came to the forefront in California several years ago. Officials there ended up buying four toll lanes in the median of State Route 91 so they could improve adjacent free lanes.

The Orange County Transportation Authority paid $135 million to a private consortium for the 10-mile tollway, enough to cover the bonds plus $72 million in cash, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office.

The same year California was buying a toll road, Texas officials put a non-compete clause in a contract to sell $2.2 billion in bonds for their 49-mile Texas 130 toll bypass east of Austin. But Texas officials think they made a much better deal.

"We looked long and hard to make sure there was the most flexibility," said Amadeo Saenz, assistant executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation.

Under the non-compete agreement, Texas agreed not to build road projects that would threaten projected traffic on Texas 130, which limits what can be done to Interstate 35 in the Austin area.

But there are exceptions, including projects for maintenance, safety and passenger rail.

Also, anything already planned for the next 25 years can still be done. For I-35, that means a toll-carpool lane can be added through Austin and two lanes can be built south of downtown.

I-35 is already a mess. In the decade following the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which put more trucks on roads to the border, traffic on I-35 near downtown Austin shot up by a fourth, according to TxDOT.

When Texas 130 opens in two years, some traffic will be siphoned off I-35, said Michael Aulick, director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization in Austin. But as the region grows, traffic congestion will rebound and get worse.

Motorists opting for a way to avoid I-35 traffic jams could be paying Texas 130 toll rates of 12 cents a mile for passenger cars and 49 cents for trucks.

But those prices might be too high to get a lot of trucks off I-35, said Oklahoma trucker Rudy Covarrubias, who uses toll roads in Oklahoma and Dallas to haul dog food to San Antonio and car engines to Laredo.

"I mean come on, there's got to be a benefit," he said. "For that much money, it's going to get worse. I hope I won't be driving for another 20 years."

When San Antonio resident Rob Reiter heard that non-compete clauses will likely be in bond contracts for future toll projects here, he paused to ponder.

"I guess it's hard to imagine in 25 years," he said. "I guess our public officials need to get as much as they can ahead of time into the 25-year plan."

But local officials say there isn't money for additional projects. So non-compete agreements will basically ban what officials can't do anyway.

"Where's the money going to come from?" said Tom Griebel, director of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, which will oversee local toll projects.

No bonds have been sold yet for San Antonio toll projects, so what form non-compete clauses could take here is fuzzy.

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News: