Friday, September 30, 2005

Central Texans don’t like toll roads.

Toll survey finds opposition, officials seek to make their case


by James A. Bernsen
Volume 10, Issue 8
The Lone Star Report

Central Texans don’t like toll roads. That’s what a new survey conducted by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority – the agency pushing the roads – has learned. In fact, 60 percent of Central Texans oppose adding new tolling lanes. A further 78 percent oppose tolling existing lanes.

And toll opponents are seizing on the results to make their case. Even more galling to them is the fact that the $56,000 study is part of a taxpayer-funded public relations effort to promote something opponents they say the majority of taxpayers oppose.

The authority conducted the survey in August through an Oklahoma-based firm, asking numerous questions pertaining to traffic congestion in the Austin area. Although the survey is characterized by toll opponents as a push poll, based on a review by LSR , the questions asked are neutral and do not in any way lead the respondents to answer for or against toll roads.

Forty percent of respondents answered that infrastructure and roads were the biggest issue facing Central Texas, ahead of schools, which was at 13 percent. The question, however, was the fifth asked, after a number of transportation-related questions. Eighty percent of the respondents said that traffic in Central Texas has “gotten worse” in the last ten years.

Although a majority of respondents answered that they opposed tolls in most forms, given an option between tolls or increasing gas taxes, tolls won – by a mere one percent, 38-37 percent. Twenty-five percent said they didn’t know.

Steve Pustelnyk , the director of communications for CTRMA, said the response to that question indicates that there is a lack of understanding of the issue.

“Everybody wants the problem fixed, but they don’t see how we can fix it,” he said. He noted that some people think there is enough money for roads, but he said that simply isn’t true. Tolling, he said, is an economic necessity.

“It’s pretty clear that when you haven’t raised the gas tax in 20 years, you have a problem,” he said.

He said however that tolls were part of the solution, but not a fix-all. Noting that 42 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement that “there is a need for toll roads in Central Texas” while 50 percent disagreed, he said there is room for CTRMA to make its case.

“We will use [the survey] to determine what areas need further information to the public,” he said.

That response, however, galls the leading toll opponent, Sal Costello , the founder of He said that it was the role of the people to tell government what to think, not the other way around.

“You’ve got these unaccountable, unelected people and their response when people don’t want [tolls] is, ‘We need to spend money on more public relations,” Costello said. “The hysterical part is that the p.r . is funded by our tax dollars.”

Costello said that the survey show that the public is united in opposition to tolls.

“A whopping 78 percent said it’s a bad idea to convert existing highways to toll roads,” he said.

Although toll roads currently exist in Houston and Dallas, they are limited roads which were built years ago and were intended to be toll roads from the beginning. The latest toll road push, including the ideas of toll conversion and tolled lanes added to existing lanes has begun in the last two years following the changes implemented by 2003’s HB 3588.

Costello said that initial opposition, which began in Austin where the first such roads were proposed, is expanding statewide.

Pustelnyk said that in addition to making its case, CTRMA is also responding to the concerns that locals had about toll roads. One of the most controversial aspects of the process is toll conversion – the turning of existing, non-tolled roads into toll roads. Officials, he said, are changing their tolling strategy to respond to citizen complaints.

“I think that’s already happening,” he said. “Most of the earlier plans to convert non-tolled roads to tolls caused some groups to complain, and those have already been dropped.”

Another survey item asked respondents what they would say is a “reasonable” price for a mile of tollway . The largest group, 37 percent, said less than five cents, although that is about half of what the average cost per mile for toll roads is in the country. O

The Lone Star Report:


Many in the area are uninformed of TxDOT's plans and wanted to know why taxpayers haven't had enough opportunities for public input.

Residents complain about Hwy. 46 plans

Precinct 2 petitioners claim TxDOT didn't given enough notice of public hearing

By KURT MOGONYE - Staff Writer
The Boerne Star
Copyright 2005

Concerned residents along TxDOT's proposed 'eastern corridors' that would link Hwy 46 and Interstate 10 crowded Kendall County commissioners' courtroom Monday morning to offer a resolution and ask commissioners to carefully consider costs and impact the road would have on the county.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Gene Miertschin placed the item on the agenda to hear from a group of his constituents and to allow the court to take action.

The residents, led by Tom Robertson, claimed the lack of public notice by the Texas Department of Transportation led many residents in the area to be uninformed of the proposal. Robertson presented a resolution entitled, 'Recall the Proposed Boerne Relief Routes' to County Judge Eddie Vogt and asked the court to adopt it.

When Robertson was called to the front of the courtroom, he asked those who supported the resolution to stand - more than 50 in the audience rose. He said that a petition was started last Wednesday and by the end of the week the group had collected over 500 signatures.

He said that residents in the area are concerned that their lifestyle could be damaged if the proposed corridor makes its way across Old Fredericksburg Road and east and north beyond Ammann Road. Robertson said many in the area are uninformed of TxDOT's plans and wanted to know why taxpayers haven't had enough opportunities for public input.

"Residents near north and south Ammann believe this road will threaten the quality of life in the area," said Rod Fowler as he spoke on behalf of the large crowd. "Structures of historic significance and wildlife habitats will be destroyed."

Following a survey of residents in the area, Fowler noted that only five of 120 people petitioned knew what TxDOT has proposed, and claimed that the highway department has a lax attitude about informing the public.

During public comment on the issue, commissioners were asked to consider carefully the full costs and impact that are associated with the proposed development.

The petition to the court states, "We recommend that the Kendall County Commissioners and TxDOT fully consider all alternatives to the 'Eastern Corridors' including: Focus on IH-10 interchange needs; expedite an upgrade of RM 3351; expedite widening of Hwy 46; upgrade Ammann Road and reexamine the proposed Herff Road upgrade."

Todd Dutson, a member of the Kendall Point Homeowner's Association board, said that his neighborhood's governing body is opposed to the corridor because it will pass through the only entrance into their subdivision and asked the court to reconsider the issue.

Harold Zuflacht, who lives on Old Fredericksburg Road, said that there is even more to lose along the proposed route than just habitat and the serenity of the land.

"Cyclists and joggers who frequent the current roads have a lot to lose," Zuflacht said, "and obtaining signatures for our petition has not been difficult."

He also warned that once more information is passed along to residents in the area and general public, there will be more diversity among those who disagree and the opposition will continue to grow.

To alleviate the costs of the proposed corridor and disruption of homes and ranches in the area, those speaking said it would make more sense to modify or expand on present roadways, instead of the state having to purchase additional right-of-way.

Another resident on Old Fredericksburg Road, Bill Thomas, said he met with Judy Friesenhahn, transportation planning director from TxDOT's San Antonio office.

Thomas said that she advised him that TxDOT was in the process of seeking public input and said it was very important to them prior to choosing a final route. Thomas was also told that TxDOT would present the selected route to the commissioners for their approval or rejection sometime later this fall.

At the conclusion of his comments, Thomas then called for the commissioners to respond to public input and asked how they stand on the corridor issue.

"It is still too early in the process," said Vogt, "but I do see traffic increasing in the future in Boerne, and see a need for a relief route. I'm willing to look at all options."

Precinct 2 Commissioner Ann Reissig said she understood the frustration residents were dealing with. "I think there are some current routes that can be fixed or improved and feel that more public input should be sought."

Miertschin said he is personally affected and concerned about the lack of participation after discovering that many in the area had not been informed.

"I want to know what the needs are and what the purpose of this bypass really is," Miertschin said, "and fall back to re-determine the need and process for planning."

Miertschin, who lives in the area, said he heard about the public hearing only a week before it was held.

"I thought this was kind of strange. I was notified basically at the same time you all were," he told the audience. "And I would like to get our other local government entities involved and gather much more public input."

Precinct 4 Commissioner Russell "Rusty" Busby also called for more public input, stating that he would definitely support the recommendations presented at Monday's meeting.

"If it were going through my precinct, I would want to go through the same five points from your letter that was presented to us," Busby said.

When contacted after the meeting, Friesenhahn said her office is conducting the planning process as they would in any other community.

"This is a standard process in the development of planning proposed routes," she said, "and we feel it is very important to gather input from residents that may be affected."

According to Friesenhahn, TxDOT has received numerous letters and her office is responding to them. Most residents, she said, are upset that TxDOT has prepared maps of several proposed routes and released them for public viewing and comment. Friesenhahn said several residents believe that because those maps were released, it will have a negative impact on their property values.

So far, TxDOT has held one public hearing June 23 in Boerne. Friesenhahn said at least one more hearing will be held, possibly two depending on how much feedback TxDOT receives. A separate hearing for proposed expansion of Herff and Old San Antonio Roads was held on July 21. As of now, no date has been set for the second hearing, but it will occur sometime this fall.

Friesenhahn said she welcomes residents to call her office with questions or more information at 210-615-2500, or call Jesse Hayes at 210-615-5860.

"There are several developments currently going on with RM 3351, Hwy 46 and IH-10 and we'd like everyone to know what we have planned," Friesenhahn said, " but we will be, as we always are, in touch with county leadership about these planned proposals."

The Boerne Star:


Anti-TTC protest in Hempstead, Texas

150 protest Trans-Texas Corridor


The Bryan-College Station Eagle
Copyright 2005

HEMPSTEAD - About 150 people showed their opposition Thursday night to the Trans-Texas Corridor, a sprawling road project that would create thousands of miles of new tollways, railways and utility lines across the state.

The corridor would create separate lanes for passenger and large trucks, along with high-speed commuter railways. An 800-mile section would stretch from Mexico through Central Texas to Oklahoma, and parts could pass through the Brazos Valley, state officials say.

But many rural landowners oppose the plan, promoted by Gov. Rick Perry, because of the land it would take up.

Eleanor Tilghman, who attended Thursday's rally at the Hempstead High School football stadium, and said she owns 27 acres of land that she fears could be ruined by the corridor project.

"I think the Trans-Texas Corridor will destroy Waller and other counties," she said at the rally - where Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who is challenging Perry in next year's Republican primary, made a campaign stop. "It's unnecessary and not needed."

Plans call for the corridor to be completed in phases over the next 50 years, according the Trans-Texas Corridor Web site. Public hearings on the project are scheduled for next spring.

• Melissa Sullivan's e-mail address is melissa.sullivan@

Bryan-College Station Eagle :


Thursday, September 29, 2005

Central Texas RMA poll backfires in open records case

Poll: Majority here dislikes toll roads

Toll road authority questions its own study but says it shows that opposition is lower than others claim

Thursday, September 29, 2005

By Ben Wear

Copyright 2005

It's official: A clear majority of Central Texans don't much care for toll roads.

This "well, duh" insight comes to us courtesy of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which builds toll roads and, in a remarkable display of bravado (or misjudgment), commissioned a $57,600 survey of local attitudes about tolls and taxes and traffic. This included a phone poll of 1,060 people in mid-August. According to that poll, which had a margin of error of 3 percentage points either way:

•Half of Central Texans said "no" when asked whether "there is a need for toll roads" here. But that includes toll roads cut through the prairie, like the Texas 130 bypass east of town and five other entirely new roads that will have tolls, and expansions of existing highways, like Ed Bluestein Boulevard, where the new lanes will have tolls and there will be free access roads. Some might accept one kind of toll road and reject the other.

•When the question is narrowed somewhat and people are asked if they approve of adding toll lanes to existing highways, 60 percent say that's a bad idea. That's precisely what would happen in the "phase two" toll road program that caused so much controversy over the past year and a half. The mobility authority would operate those five roads: Ed Bluestein, Texas 71 east of Interstate 35, U.S. 290 East in northeast Travis County, U.S. 290 West in Oak Hill, and Texas 45 Southwest, the only completely new road.

•As for conversions — taking an existing road and simply slapping tolls on it without making further improvements — 78 percent are against that. The only two pure conversions bandied about locally over the past two years — short stretches of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and U.S. 183 — were abandoned after public umbrage.

•So, if most of us don't like paying tolls for these roads, then it follows that we must support raising gasoline taxes to build road improvements, right? Well, no. Asked how to pay for improvements, 38 percent said tolls were the answer, 37 percent opted for a gas tax hike and 25 percent had no response.

"It shows us we have a lot of work to do" in the public relations and education area, said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the mobility authority.

Heiligenstein said he had some questions about his own survey, wondering if the question about adding toll lanes to existing roads might have been confusing. But, by and large, he accepted the results.

"Not all of this is great information," he said. "And, frankly, I didn't expect it to be. . . . We could have deep-sixed that survey, which I think would be the wrong thing to do."

It also would have been an impossible thing to do after Sal Costello, founder of People for Efficient Transportation and the area's prime toll road opponent, obtained a copy in recent days under the Texas Public Information Act.

Costello said Wednesday that he thought at least one of the survey questions — the one about tolls versus taxes — presented a false dichotomy. Three of the roads in the plan's second phase were entirely or partially funded even before the toll plan was introduced in early 2004, Costello pointed out, and construction has begun on two of them. No tax increase would have been necessary to build them, he said.

"It's not a fair question," Costello said.

If nothing else, mobility authority officials said, the poll accomplished two ends.

It will provide a baseline so that later, after Central Texans have begun using some of the six toll roads under construction or the four in the planning phase, the presumably more toll-friendly attitudes will stand in positive contrast to the survey.

And they said it debunks the 93 percent-hate-tolls figure often cited by Costello and other toll opponents. That was the percentage of people who came out against the phase two toll road plan, via e-mail, letters or comments at public meetings when that plan was before the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The actual figure of those in opposition now, based on the survey, appears to be in the 50 percent to 60 percent range.

Nevertheless, Heiligenstein said, "phase two has got to go forward. . . . If we miss this opportunity, we end up in a really bad place with congestion. Our job is to get that point across. And we've just got to do a better job and keep hammering away at it."

Austin American-Statesman:

TTC-69 will result in no service or economic benefits to the citizens of Waller County

Strayhorn, Hegar to speak at anti-corridor rally


Billy Dragoo, Editor

Waller County News Citizen
Copyright 2005

CBWC is fighting the proposed I-69 Trans Texas Corridor project, which if completed as proposed, will cut through the heart of Waller County. The proposed super highway and its utility easements is planned to run across Texas from the Texarkana area to the Mexican border.

According to the citizens' group, the 35-mile north-south corridor route will split the county, restrict travel and lengthen travel times, result in the loss of 5,000 acres from county tax rolls, increase air-noise pollution, cause problems for 911 and EMS service, and will result in no service or economic benefits to the citizens or county.

Strayhorn, a Republican primary candidate in next year's gubernatorial election and a vocal critic of what she calls the "trans-Texas catastrophe, said, "... you know that Texas property belongs to Texans, not foreign companies.

"We will not sit quietly by and let this governor (Gov. Rick Perry) embark on the most historic land grab in history and cram toll roads down our throats. This is not the Texas way, and it cannot continue. This is the largest land grab in Texas history ... ."

The Stalls are founders of Fayetteville-based Corridor Watch, One-hundred-seventy-three Texas counties are represented among their members and they are an umbrella organization for a diversity of interest and citizen groups.

The anti-corridor groups urge residents to learn about the TTC I-69, attend CBWC meetings, volunteer time and effort, support with contributions, and stay active and informed.

At the CBWC meeting Sept. 1, Mark Holmes and Lisa Hill of Grimes County informed the group of the impact of the CBWC efforts. "If it were not for your efforts here in Waller County, we would never have heard about this project," said Holmes.

According to Hill, a local rancher, their community will be greatly impacted because there are several historical grave yards and family ranches in the pathway of the project.

The CBWC is asking citizens to attend the various governmental meetings in their areas and ask the officials to take a position on the corridor. They are also requesting citizens to sign targeted petitions, send in comments and spread the word about the proposed corridor.

CBWC is encouraging residents to submit their public comments on the Interstate 69/Trans-Texas Corridor through: 1) the website at , 2) via mail at P.O. Box 14428, Austin, TX 78761, and 3) toll-free at (866) 554-6989.

For information on the CBWC call (936) 857-3775 or visit the website at

©Houston Community Newspapers Online 2005:


Legislative changes open the door for internationalizing U.S. infrastructure

Australia's MacQuarie Infrastructure Eyeing US Opportunities

Thursday September 29

Asia Pulse, Copyright 2005

SYDNEY, Sept 29 Asia Pulse - Macquarie Infrastructure Group (ASX:MIG), one of the world's largest toll-road owners and operators, is continuing to eye off a number of acquisition opportunities in the US.

MIG said its strategy to invest in user-pays toll roads in OECD countries remains unchanged.

"We expect to develop a number of opportunities in the next few years and our offices in Sydney, New York, Toronto and London are well equipped to deal with these," said Macquarie Infrastructure Investment chairman Mark Johnson in the company's 2005 Annual Report.

"There has been a significant increase in potential development and sale opportunities in the US market, as public entities better understand the private investor interest in these assets."

Mr Johnson said there had also been recent legislative changes in the US that have been designed with further development and sale opportunities in mind.

"MIG will also continue to monitor and track opportunities in Australia and in Europe that fulfil its investment criteria," he said.

"With fuel prices rising in the countries in which MIG operates, MIG continues to monitor the impact on economic growth in these markets.

"Most research shows that fuel prices would have to rise significantly before there would be a direct impact on people's driving behaviour."

MIG is seeking to enhance the overall value of its asset portfolio through a range of revenue management, cost management, concession management and structuring initiatives.

The Group also said today it had acquired 100 per cent of a Virginia toll road in its third investment in the US.

MIG said it had taken hold of the 13.3 per cent interest in Toll Road Investors Partnership II (TRIP II), from Kellogg Brown and Root to fully acquire the Dulles Greenway.

Having previously paid $A711 million ($US541.14 million) for 86.7 per cent of the toll road, MIG spent another $A112.0 million ($US85.24 million) for the final takeover.

Dulles Greenway is a 22 kilometre operating toll road which runs west of Washington D.C. from Dulles International Airport to Leeburg, through Loudoun County, in northern Virginia.

Macquarie Infrastructure owns stakes in 13 tollways in the UK, US, Australia, Canada, Germany and Portugal.

MIG securities closed one cent higher at $A3.96 ($US3.01).

Copyright © 2005AsiaPulse Pte. Ltd. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, September 28, 2005

"No state senator or representative is going to introduce a bill to outright stop the corridor because they know it would never see the light of day."

Editorial: Derailing train takes patience

By Dave Lewis
The Navasota Examiner
Copyright 2005

Last Tuesday evening's rally at the steps of the Grimes County Courthouse was pretty downright impressive and left no doubt in the minds of anyone there that sentiments in these parts don't favor building a mammoth transportation route through Grimes County.

Anyone who wished to speak to the issue was given an opportunity to do so by moderator Gwen Patterson, who somewhat reluctantly took on the duty of organizing the rally. Among the several who spoke, none favored the corridor plan, and only one speaker used the pulpit to campaign.

It was impressive in that 135-plus people of all ages and demographics showed up, making the rally a success if for no other reason. There was even one friendly, gregarious Beagle present, and he was heard from briefly, too.

While there are several counties and cities in Texas favoring the Trans-Texas Corridor as proposed, they have entirely different agendas. Several who favor it are economically depressed and seem to think the Mexico-to-Canada route will be a boon. Some seem to think business and industry will sprout along the corridor, bringing retail and job growth. While there might be some positive local economic impact from the route, it just doesn't make sense to think a high-speed transportation artery with limited access is going to benefit a local business.

One major objection is that I-69 wasn't designed for residents to use. I like good highways as much as the next person, but it my neighbors and I can't use it and we're taxed to pay for it, it's like they say in New Jersey - "Fagetaboutit!"

What pleased me most about the rally is what State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst told the crowd. In effect she said that while it will take a unified effort on the part of Grimes Countians, defeating the corridor won't happen through a full frontal assault, and she's right. One person might be able to derail a locomotive, but not by standing on the tracks and butting heads with it. One person can, given the time and tools, pull up a section of rail and take out the train. Legislation works the same way. No state senator or representative is going to introduce a bill to outright stop the corridor because they know it would never see the light of day.

Kolkhorst thinks the key components of the corridor plan must first be disabled, in small steps if necessary. Seemingly minor stipulations or amendments to general and appropriations bills can be worded in such a way that the big money backers and the big financial houses in New York will become nervous. When the money plans dry up, so will the corridor plans.

Nevertheless, Grimes Countians still need to let their state and national officials know they don't want the corridor, because there are others out there who do want it, and their voices are being heard, too. Write them often and faithfully, and write to The Examiner, too, whether you like the corridor or not.

Copyright © 2005 The Navasota Examiner. All rights reserved:


"You don't eat an elephant all at once. You do it one bite at a time."

Anti-corridor rally unanimous in opinion


By Dave Lewis
Managing Editor
Navasota Examiner

Chanting "1-2-3-4 We Don't Want The Corridor," nearly 150 people turned out for a late-afternoon rally Sept. 20 in Anderson to unanimously oppose the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor through Grimes County.

Betty Darby of Bedias was among those vocal about reasons she doesn't want the multi-billion dollar thoroughfare here.

"I see dope pushers coming in, people coming in of all criminal types. I see welfare leeches coming in and I am highly, highly against it," she said as people began to gather at the steps of the county courthouse.

According to a poll now running in The Navasota Examiner online edition, Darby is in the majority. Respondents to the poll are 77.1 percent against it. Only 15.1 percent like the idea and 7.8 percent say they don't care.

Darby has lived in Bedias since 1962 and formerly owned the water system in that community. "I live in the suburbs," she chuckled, "I am not in the city of Bedias."

Martha Estes has been keeping track of the corridor's history, and within a month after the Corridor Watch website was established by Linda and David Stall in Fayette County, she's not missed a move.

The first red flags she saw came out of HB 3588, which created the I-69 TransTexas Corridor and she didn't like anything she read about it, "because of the expansion of eminent domain and I didn't see any need that justified the kind of actions they were talking about," she said. "I absolutely think that they are crossing a line in the sand here in Texas when they are willing to forget that we have a free enterprise country and begin to be developers as a state. I mean developers of property and using eminent domain to secure the land to begin to do that type of development."

As for the economic impact of such a corridor, Estes sees darkness at the end of the tunnel.

"I've read about the nationalization of our roadway systems. When NAFTA came through there were factories that closed and jobs that migrated to Mexico. A hefty portion of those jobs have already migrated out of Mexico to China. I think we could have our state ripped asunder in a nanosecond - in time. We could find it was no longer serving the global corporate interest and we would be left with the aftermath from which we would never recover."

Gwen Patterson came up with the idea for the rally, and when asked who organized the event said,"Unfortunately it's me. Nothing I intended to get involved in in a leadership area but people kept saying, 'Gwen what are we going to do?' and I happened to have a group already organized and from there it has grown with interested people."

She hoped that about 200 would show up, and she didn't miss it much.

Two county commissioners, Pam Finke and Julian Melchor, spoke briefly, as did a half dozen more, including Linda Stall, who helped launch Corridor Watch on the web. She and husband David began with two affiliates and that number has grown to almost 150 now that public hearings on the corridor have been held.

"I don't see any positives," said Finke. "I can only find negatives at this point in time. If there is a positive, I'm willing to look for it and look at it, but right now I have not found one and I've done a lot of research on it. The only people who have are not in Grimes County. They're from large counties that have a lot industrial base and they could use this to bring in more revenue to their areas. These are people like Brazos County, Harris County, Williamson County - bigger places like that."

Dist. 13 State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst also addressed the crowd, noting that to tackle defeating a project as large as the corridor head-on would be doomed. To be defeated, the project would need to be rendered unmanageable by incrementally preventing its construction through other legislation.

Or, as Linda Stall said, "You don't eat an elephant all at once. You do it one bite at a time."

Both Stall and Kolkhorst urged rally-goers to write their elected officials and their local newspaper and to be vigilant on developments involving the corridor.

Copyright © 2005 The Navasota Examiner. All rights reserved:


Harris County Judge Robert Eckels pushes for proposed HCTRA pork funnel to private concessionaire

County will study leasing toll roads

Investment bank says private firms would pay billions to operate them

Sept. 28, 2005

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

An investment bank concluded that a private firm might pay up to $7 billion for the right to operate Harris County toll roads, prompting Commissioners Court Tuesday to authorize a study of the pluses and minuses of such a deal.

If the plan worked right, the multibillion-dollar windfall could be invested, and interest earned on it would pay for future road projects. Pricey road bonds likely would be a thing of the past, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said.

"This could avoid the need for bond elections and the need to go to taxpayers for tax increases," he said.

As part of the 50- to 75-year deal, the county would maintain ownership of the toll roads, decide whether the system should expand and possibly set limits on future toll increases.

The county isn't looking to turn the Harris County Toll Road Authority over to an operator that would be interested solely in the bottom line and wouldn't be flexible in helping meet the region's transportation needs, Eckels said.

"I believe it is a good idea to do something like this," he said.

Public protection
Commissioner El Franco Lee said he will wait to see the study's conclusions before deciding whether he will support the idea.

"Does it make for strong public policy? Do we have a proper amount of control to protect the public?" he said. "And can a concessionaire be responsive to the public?"

The court appointed Dick Raycraft, director of county management services, to report back Oct. 25 on what exactly will be studied.

Commissioner Steve Radack said he does not oppose studying the concessionaire concept. On one level, it makes sense — the county takes the windfall, uses the interest to pay for roads and does not float any road bonds, he said.

But it is flawed in another, he said. Taxpayers will not tolerate the county's maintaining a multibillion-dollar surplus and will demand that the money go toward lowering taxes, he said.

"I don't think it's possible to stockpile cash and not get the public riled," he said.

Spring 2007 targeted

The group that does the study would give its report by April. A deal, if it is approved, could be in place by spring 2007.

The idea of leasing toll-road operator rights has been floating around for a number of years. In 1999, county officials looked at the concept, but didn't go forward. Radack questioned it at the time, saying it deviated from what voters approved when the Toll Road Authority was created in 1983.

In a report, First Southwest Co., an investment company retained by the county, recently concluded that the Harris County Toll Road Authority has three options.

• Continue to operate the authority, a setup which limits the amount of revenue that it can raise through bonds and places all future investment risks on the authority.

• Sell the authority to a governmental body or a private firm — deals that could cause the county to lose control over toll increases, construction projects and repairs. Such a sale might net between $2.7 billion and $4.4 billion.

• Sell operating rights to a concessionaire. As part of such a deal, the county might retain at least some control of toll increases and future toll road projects.

The court is interested in exploring only the concessionaire arrangement.

First Southwest estimated the county could net between $2 billion and $5.1 billion by selling concession rights.

Goldman Sachs, another investment bank, reported that concession rights might be sold for $7 billion or more.

In its report, First Southwest says the authority is marketable because it is one of the more successful toll roads nationwide.

It took in $318 million in tolls last year and has $1.8 billion in outstanding bond debt.

Other toll roads have leased operational rights.

Chicago last year leased the rights to run the Chicago Skyway for 99 years for $1.8 billion. The deal spells out that Cintra-Macquarie Consortium can double the toll to $4 in the next decade on the Skyway, about 8 miles of elevated highway.

The Civic Federation, a government watchdog group in Chicago that often supports Mayor Richard Daley's decisions, has complained that he has frittered away the windfall gained by privatizing the Skyway, according to the Chicago Tribune.

--Hardy Toll Road
--Sam Houston Tollway
--Westpark Tollway

--Toll revenue: $318 million in fiscal year ended Feb. 28
--Debt: $1.8 billion

Source: Harris County Toll Road Authority, Harris County auditor

Houston Chronicle: