Monday, January 30, 2006

Political appointees and private corporations will set toll road rates in Texas

Toll road rules aren't shady, just unclear

January 30, 2006

Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2006

State Rep. Mike Krusee sought me out last week to say he didn't particularly care for my Jan. 23 column.

Krusee, a Williamson County Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee, hated the headline: "Hey, buddy, wanna buy a toll road?"

He said, with some justification, that it implied something crooked was going on.

But Krusee especially didn't like the last sentence.

In a quick discussion of who might get to set toll rates on a privately run toll road, I pointed out that Texans don't vote on who serves on the board of directors for Cintra.

Cintra is the Spanish company that, with minority partner Zachry Construction of San Antonio, will build a toll road alternative to Interstate 35 and operate it for the next 50 years.

Foul, Krusee said.

The Legislature last year, he pointed out, passed a statute, HB 2702, preventing Cintra or any other private toll road operator from imposing whatever toll rates it pleases.

Fair enough.

But the changes in HB 2702 are, uh, vague. What the bill said was that if the state or other Texas governments (such as a regional mobility authority) make an agreement for a private company to run a turnpike, the government must "approve a methodology" for setting or changing those tolls.

That's it. No guidance on what that methodology might be. With the forbearance of the Texas Transportation Commission, Cintra could in theory set toll rates based on a percentage of the passing yards the Longhorns get against OU each year.

Unlikely, sure. But possible under the law.

The actual method that I've heard officials toss around would be to tie toll rates to some sort of acceptable rate of return for the company's investment.

Sounds reasonable. But in practice, that would create a very large and complex black box of accounting that the public would have a hard time scrutinizing.

By the way, it's worth pointing out that we voters likewise won't get a chance to elect those who set rates on publicly run toll roads.

Rates for the three toll roads being built by the state north and east of Austin are under the control of the Texas Transportation Commission. And the board of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority will set rates on U.S. 183-A, the toll road that agency is building in Cedar Park and Leander.

Those boards are appointed, not elected. Appointed by elected officials, to be sure.

But if you hate toll rates on Texas 130, you won't be able to fire Chairman Ric Williamson or the other four commissioners. Only the governor can do that, and he's hard to fire. Just ask Tony Sanchez.

And then there are managed lanes, where toll rates can vary by the minute based on traffic. You'd have to fire a computer in that case. Very sticky.

Anyway, my apologies, Rep. Krusee. Cintra-Zachry will indeed have a leash on it.

Just how long and how strong that leash will be, however, won't be clear until the state and Cintra make that toll rate methodology public. And until someone explains that method to the rest of us.

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