Tuesday, May 01, 2007

State Auditor: Cost estimates to justify toll roads in Texas are so flawed, that they "may not be reliable for making policy or funding decisions."

Transportation estimates questioned

Auditors: Transportation 'funding gap' less than estimated

April 30, 2007

San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Transportation cost estimates that have been used to justify toll roads in Texas are so flawed, according to a state audit, they "may not be reliable for making policy or funding decisions."

Auditors questioned the accuracy of at least $45 billion in assumptions that make up the Texas Department of Transportation's $86 billion "funding gap" in highway construction that is projected to be needed between now and 2030.

Without putting a dollar figure on it, the auditors also raise questions about the estimates transportation planners make on how much state money will be available in the future.

The auditors said planners based their estimates on the idea the state's major highways will have to be rebuilt in 30 years instead of the normal life span of 40 years.

Some toll road opponents immediately seized the auditor's report to say proposals for turnpikes in Texas have been oversold.

"There are some serious questions about whether that $86 billion is a real number," said Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, the sponsor of a transportation bill that includes a two-year moratorium on the construction of toll roads.

"When I look at this, when you've got $45 billion out of $86 billion that's called into question, it makes you wonder how real the number really is," Williams said.

The Senate on Monday called back the moratorium bill briefly to add an amendment to exempt several North Texas projects. The House is expected to take the bill up for final action as early as today. If sent to Gov. Rick Perry, he may veto it.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, is a former state highway commissioner who supports the building of toll roads. But he is the key author of the moratorium because he objects to privatization contracts.

Nichols said the transportation funding estimates are sound, but that they should be treated as estimates.

"It is the most accurate forecast of the funding gap for transportation that anyone has made," he said.

Toll road promoter Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, said he believes the estimate may be low by as much as $50 billion because of the needs of local governments.

The auditor's report said $8.6 billion in local government costs should not have been included in the funding estimate because those costs are not part of the state funding plan. The audit team also said almost $37 billion in urban and metropolitan costs could not be documented.

TxDOT Executive Director Michael Behrens said the state audit still shows Texas is billions of dollars short of meeting its transportation needs.

"Today's report is further documentation of a multibillion-dollar funding gap between the transportation system our state deserves and the one we can afford with current resources," Behrens said.


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