Thursday, February 23, 2006

TxDOT promotes phantom tolls and the bond fairy.

State wants to fund new roads with tolls


The Bryan -College Station Eagle
Copyright 2006

Over the next two decades, as the Texas population swells and the need for more roads multiplies, traffic congestion could become a much larger nightmare than it already is.

But state transportation officials say they have a plan - to fund the much-needed new roadways through tolls. And the strategy could make its way to the Brazos Valley.

Representatives from the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Transportation Commission - which governs TxDOT - spoke Wednesday to more than 100 county judges and commissioners in College Station at the 48th annual County Judges' and Commissioners' Education Conference.

"Texans have a problem," said Ric Williamson, chairman of the commission. "We have a plan. We'll solve those problems by 2030."

Those problems have been a long time coming. In the past 25 years, the state's population has grown by 57 percent and the use of roadways has grown by 95 percent, Williamson said. But over the same period of time, the state's road capacity has grown by only 8 percent.

Over the next 25 years, the population is expected to increase by another 64 percent, and the use of roads will climb by 214 percent, Williamson said.

"Absent a plan, our road capacity will only grow by 6 percent," he said. Across the state, congestion will worsen, air quality will plummet and potholes will spread.

"They're nothing compared to what they'll be without a plan," he said.

But Williamson, who was appointed to serve on the Transportation Commission by Gov. Rick Perry, said Perry and the Texas Legislature have accepted the mission of fixing transportation in Texas.

"It's what Rick Perry and the Legislature have done," he said. "They've made up their mind, and they're going to get it done."

"It" comes in the form of the Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposed statewide network of routes incorporating existing and new highways, railways and toll roads. Since it was unveiled in 2002, the plan has been a lightning rod for controversy across the state, including in the Brazos Valley.

Landowners have voiced concerns about losing their property to the transportation department and others are concerned about property values. Some opponents say they are concerned that the new roadways would hurt the tax revenue collected by cities and counties because the land would be removed from the tax rolls. And others say they disagree with a new plan to fund road construction through tolls.

The two main projects under consideration now are TTC-35, which would run parallel to Interstate 35, and TTC-69, which would run from the Texas-Mexico border toward Shreveport, La. Both of those highways would be built by private companies that would recover their cost and make money through toll fares.

Because of the disparity between TxDOT funding and the cost of the badly needed projects across the state, the government is looking toward toll roads to build future corridors, officials said. No longer would toll roads be limited to major cities in Texas.

Brazos County Judge Randy Sims says new lanes to combat congestion in the Bryan-College Station area are needed and likely could be supported only by tolls.

"What [TxDOT officials] reiterated, which we'd heard before, is basically the only way we are going to get any new roads is by way of toll roads," Sims said. "They don't have enough money to even maintain the roads we have."

The toll-road concept, which has long been used in major metropolitan areas such as Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, will likely spread to less-populated areas, such as Brazos County.

"We will probably see some toll roads," Sims said.

But they won't necessarily be the familiar toll roads that have booths where money is collected. In this area, the "phantom toll" concept could be used.

Phantom toll roads don't have any toll booths, and motorists don't pay to enter or exit. The toll road would funded by bonds.

A government, such as Brazos County, would issue certificates of obligation - bonds that don't require voter approval - to build new lanes to reduce congestion. Automobiles then would be counted as they crossed fixed points on the lane, and TxDOT would reimburse the county for the traffic on these roads.

In simple terms, Sims said, TxDOT would be using the county's credit to build the roads and then pay it back. In order to issue bonds, the county would have to raise its tax rate, which would be lowered once the bond payments were fulfilled.

Though toll roads have been discussed in Brazos County, there's no timetable on building any, Sims said.

"We've talked about it," he said. "We're going to have to do something before too long, due to the fact that we're starting to get behind the curve on our traffic management concerns."

Nobody wants to get behind and face traffic problems like those in Austin and Houston, he said.

Josh Baugh's e-mail address is

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