Thursday, June 14, 2007

'Freeze' unleashes more than 80 new toll road projects

Texas authorizes more than 80 toll road projects


Associated Press
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Transportation officials today approved more than 80 toll road projects across the state, many of which probably would use some private financing.

State lawmakers recently passed a two-year moratorium on some private toll road contracts. The law still allows local and state planners to move on the new toll projects — with a price range of more than $50 billion — although the rules have changed.

Under these projects, local officials would get the first crack at development before the state steps in. And even if privately financed, the government would own and operate the roads and collect the tolls.

But with that comes the added risk to taxpayers that if the tolls don't produce the revenue they were expected, they get stuck with the loss.

"The message we got was toll roads are OK, but we don't want privately owned roads," said Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, which approved the projects.

The projects touch most of the state's largest cities. Williamson said they need to be built as toll roads because traditional state funding won't cover the cost.

According to state officials, the agency's $16.6 billion budget the next two years is only a 2 percent increase that won't cover the double-digit inflation in recent years of road costs. Gas tax collections will not even cover road maintenance, let alone support building new roads.

"These are projects local officials have said are needed to reduce congestion but are waiting in line for funding," Williamson said.

Toll roads and the state's aggressive policies regarding the controversial Trans Texas Corridor were among the major issues of the recently completed legislative session.

Legislators from rural areas were concerned about private property rights. Those from urban districts complained of toll roads financed and owned by foreign companies.

"We were moving faster than most government agencies move and it spooked some people," Williamson said.

Lawmakers originally considered a two-year ban on private toll road contracts. Gov. Rick Perry said it would kill jobs, shut down road construction and prevent access to federal highway money.

The compromise bill signed into law by Perry last week freezes some of the kinds of private funding contracts the state had been using, but also carved out about a dozen exemptions for those projects that were far into the planning stages.

It also created new rules for projects like those approved Thursday, giving local governments more authority to build toll roads.

The compromise bill also imposes limits on comprehensive development agreements, used in contracts for private-public road building. It also set up a process to determine a road's market value.

Comprehensive development agreements, or CDAs, are a relatively new tool meant to let the Texas Department of Transportation complete road-building projects more quickly and cheaply by using a single contract for design and construction.

Those agreements have attracted the attention of multinational consortiums willing to pay large sums up front for the right to operate roads and pocket the tolls for decades to come.

That startled some residents and lawmakers who said drivers will become hostages to the private companies, forced to pay increasingly hefty tolls.

© 2007 The Associated Press:

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