Friday, May 05, 2006

Harris county officials are incensed at the "surprising and outrageous" price.

Toll road proposal draws fire

Radack says taxpayers would be hit with $3 billion bill for 3 roads

May 5, 2006

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2006

The Texas Department of Transportation wants Harris County to pay more than $1 billion for permission to build three planned toll roads, and continue paying an undetermined share of their revenue for 40 years.

Although the Harris County Toll Road Authority expected to pay TxDOT for right of way and its service in obtaining environmental clearance for the projects, some county officials were incensed at the proposed price.

In effect, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said, TxDOT is telling the county: "If you want to do these toll roads you've been proposing, you ought to send us a check ... for the privilege of trying to clean all the congestion off of our freeways."

The payment to TxDOT, plus construction expenses, "would cost the taxpayers over $3 billion and we'd still have to pay the state some of the tolls," Radack said.

County Infrastructure director Art Storey, who has been negotiating the issue with TxDOT, called the amount "surprising and outrageous." Storey said he will consult with Commissioners Court as soon as possible to decide how to respond.

County Judge Robert Eckels, who also chairs the regional Transportation Policy Council, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The sum would apply to three tollways totaling more than 80 miles: 15 miles along U.S. 290 from Loop 610 to Huffmeister, 53 miles of the proposed Grand Parkway (Texas 99) from the Katy Freeway to the Eastex Freeway, and 14 miles of the Sam Houston Tollway, extending it from the Eastex Freeway to U.S. 90.

Besides the fee, TxDOT district engineer Gary Trietsch said in an April 24 letter to Storey that the projects would likely cost the county toll road authority $2.1 billion to build.

Trietsch said Thursday that his proposal of a $1.2 billion payment and a share of revenue represents a roughly 50-50 split of likely net profits from all the projects.

TxDOT is negotiating with Cintra-Zachry to build and operate a $6 billion toll road on Trans-Texas Corridor 35 in Central Texas.

"This is the sort of deal that foreign entities have been dangling before them, and they want us to compete with that," Storey said.

Cintra, the lead partner in the consortium, is headquartered in Spain.

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