Saturday, March 31, 2007

Harris County plan might reduce the likelihood that future toll roads would be developed by private companies

Plan would break logjam on toll road, freeway projects

State and county would share in proceeds collected from drivers

March 30, 2007

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2007

Tolls paid by local drivers would pay for new area freeways as well as toll projects under an arrangement state and county officials are negotiating.

The plan, subject to approval by Commissioners Court and the Texas Transportation Commission, would break an impasse that has stalled three projects the Harris County Toll Road Authority wants to build promptly.

It could also reduce the likelihood that future toll roads in the area will be developed by private companies that might ship most of the toll revenue elsewhere, said Art Storey, the county's infrastructure director.

Gary Trietsch, district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation, presented the proposal recently to elected officials on the Houston-Galveston Area Council's Transportation Policy Committee.

A 56-project list

Trietsch listed 36 toll projects and 20 non-toll projects planned through 2035. He said these could probably be built, using toll funding, within 30 years and possibly as little as 12 years.

"I don't look at it as a wish list," he said. "I think we can implement it in a reasonable amount of time."

Storey and Trietsch said they roughed out the concept for sharing toll money at the urging of newly appointed Texas Transportation Commission member Ned Holmes of Houston. He asked them to resolve a stalemate between the Toll Road Authority and TxDOT that began last year.

Ending free rides

After decades of allowing the county to build toll roads on state right of way for free, TxDOT told the Toll Road Authority in May that it would have to pay $1 billion up front, plus some share of its future toll revenue, to use state land for toll projects on the Grand Parkway, Beltway 8 and Hempstead Highway.

The new proposal would waive up-front payment to TxDOT, but calls for the county to spend a share of its toll funds on various TxDOT projects now classified as "unfunded" in the region's mobility plan.

The share of the 56 projects' cost that the county would pay remains to be negotiated. Storey said the authority's annual revenue is about $400 million, which is only about 2 percent of the $22 billion total price tag.

That revenue will increase, however, as more toll roads are built, and the cost would be leveraged by bonds supported with toll revenue. Also, other counties in the Houston area are invited to join in similar agreements, Trietsch said.

Instead of viewing the concept as a way to siphon county toll revenue for state projects, Storey said he sees it as expanding the Toll Road Authority's role. If the county does not participate, TxDOT has said it will build and operate new toll roads itself or seek bids from private firms to build and run them for profit.

Priority for toll projects

Although the sequence in which the projects are built has not been worked out, Storey said toll projects on the list will likely get priority so they can begin generating revenue for the non-tolled ones.

Janelle Gbur, TxDOT spokeswoman, said the department still plans to build other projects over the years using federal dollars from fuel taxes.

"But we are looking for a way to fund all the needed projects, and federal funding is woefully inadequate to being these forward fast enough," she said.

Storey and Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack — both of whom were indignant when TxDOT said it would require payment for use of its right of way — praised the new proposal.

"This gives HCTRA the ability to analyze and build things that will bring in revenue, and it doesn't allow that income to go to the private sector," Radack said.

Storey described the idea as "visionary" and called it "the biggest single concept I've worked on in the 50 years I've been in this business."

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