Saturday, April 30, 2005

Cintra - Zachry Wants San Antonio Toll Roads

Firm drives for S.A. toll roads

April 30, 2005

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

A Spanish construction company and its local partner -- just one month after signing a state contract to build the first segment of toll roads for the Trans Texas Corridor -- now are seeking to take over the construction and operation of San Antonio's fledgling toll-road projects.

Although the consortium would fund construction of area toll roads -- using no public money -- its takeover could leave local officials with little or no oversight and ensure that up to 50 years worth of toll revenues end up in private hands.

Spanish-based Cintra and locally owned Zachry American Infrastructure submitted a proposal this week to the Texas Department of Transportation to build toll lanes on Loop 1604 across the North Side and on U.S. 281 north of the outer loop.

The proposal would free up $450 million in public funds earmarked for the first toll lanes on Loop 1604 and could allow the toll system to open a decade sooner.

''It's 100 percent privately funded,'' Zachry spokeswoman Vicky Waddy said.

But Cintra and Zachry would collect all the toll fees, taking that revenue stream away from local officials.

State officials gave San Antonio a choice more than a year ago -- take over planned toll roads here and use the toll fees to build other local roads or let the state keep the proceeds. The decision was easy, and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority was formed to pursue toll road projects.

That's why Cintra-Zachry's latest proposal shocked local leaders.

''Local control means local control,'' Mayor Ed Garza said Friday. ''It counters everything we've been hearing for the last few years.''

Garza, County Judge Nelson Wolff and Mobility Authority Chairman Bill Thornton co-signed a letter to the Texas Transportation Commission earlier this week asking state officials to keep their promise of letting San Antonio control its toll roads.

Even if the Cintra/Zachry proposal turns out to be a better deal, the Mobility Authority should get final approval, the letter says.

''Whatever decision is made, it's best made locally by people who are driving on these roads and paying those tolls,'' Thornton said.

Transportation commission Chairman Ric Williamson said through a spokeswoman Friday that San Antonio officials will be part of the review and decision process.

''We wouldn't be making any decisions without them,'' spokeswoman Gabby Garcia said.

If state officials consider the Cintra/Zachry proposal, which was unsolicited, they would have to call for other bids.

The Transportation Commission encourages unsolicited proposals for toll roads and has received five in recent years, including pitches for projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and Austin.

''The commission has made it very clear, they want the private sector to come in with these proposals,'' Garcia said.

Zachry Construction Corp., owned by the local family that created Zachry American Infrastructure earlier this year, submitted an unsolicited proposal for a road connecting Interstate 35 to Texas 130 in Austin.

Cintra, which operates toll roads worldwide, and Zachry Construction signed a contract last month to develop plans for a 600-mile tollway segment of the Trans Texas Corridor that will run east of Interstate 35 from Mexico to Oklahoma.

Private interest in San Antonio toll roads is good news, Garcia said.

''Motorists could be looking for improvements here in a few years,'' she said. ''How can you beat that?''

The transportation department is planning to build a 22-mile toll-road system on Loop 1604 between Interstate 10 and I-35, and on U.S. 281 north of the loop, with lanes opening by 2011.

The Mobility Authority is considering extending toll lanes on Loop 1604 to Texas 151 in the same time frame. Toll lanes on Loop 1604 to I-10 on the East Side are more than 15 years away.

The total cost is $1.5 billion, with much of it coming from bonds backed by toll fees.

While local leaders say there hasn't been much of an outcry about toll roads, resentment has been building in other areas of the state.

More than half a dozen bills have been filed in the Legislature this year to stall or curb toll road plans. A group called Citizens Against the Trans Texas Corridor plans to protest at the Capitol on Tuesday, with state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn as a speaker.

If Cintra-Zachry builds the roads:

--No public funds used for construction

--$450 million in public money freed up for other projects

--Some toll segments ready for use 10 years faster

--Loss of local control

--Cintra-Zachry gets toll revenues for up to 50 years

If Alamo Regional Mobility Authority builds the roads:

--Project publicly funded with state taxes, revenue bonds

--Toll lanes take longer to complete

--Local officials in control

--Toll revenues pay for construction, maintenance, future projects

Sources: Texas Department of Transportation, Cintra-Zachry, ARMA

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News: