Thursday, October 25, 2007

“I’m just worried about the charge, but then again I’m not a big, big company.”

County loop project $160 million short

October 25, 2007

James Osborne
The Monitor
Copyright 2007

McALLEN — A $160 million funding shortfall in the Hidalgo County loop project will almost certainly require local transportation officials to seek investment from the private sector, the project chief said Thursday.

Within the next two years, the Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority plans to sell an estimated $456 million in bonds. The bonds would be paid back by future transportation funding from the state and revenues generated by the 82-mile-long roadway, portions of which will require motorists to pay a toll.

But that still leaves the project well short of the projected $643 million it will cost to build the first half of the loop, a toll road that runs northwest from the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge past Expressway 83 and eventually connecting with U.S. Highway 281 north of Edinburg.

“It’s going to be a couple years. We’re not going to get a commitment (from investment banks) until we firm up some things,” said Gerry Pate, managing partner of Pate Transportation Partners in Houston.

“But we’re already getting good interest.”

Texas Department of Transportation District Engineer Mario Jorge said it is increasingly common for mobility projects statewide to be at least partially funded by the private sector, largely because of declining state and federal funding.

“We have a transportation fund in crisis. We’re going to have to delay a lot of projects this year,” he said.

“One of the main solutions is going to be the public and private partnerships. That’s the way of the future, especially on the large projects like the loop.”

The privatization of state highways became a contentious issue last legislative session when state lawmakers voted to place a moratorium on new toll road projects. Exemptions were made for projects in Hidalgo and Cameron counties and those already under way, including the segment of the planned Trans-Texas Corridor running along Interstate 35, on which Spanish infrastructure giant Cintra is setting up financing, Jorge said.

Billed as the solution to increasing traffic on Hidalgo County roadways, the loop is designed to move vehicles, specifically tractor-trailers, away from the more congested metropolitan area in and around McAllen.

Original plans had called for the completion of a southern loop first running east and west from the Pharr bridge and connecting to Expressway 83 at either end, with the northern half to be completed at a later date.

But now, at the suggestion of their engineers, local transportation officials have decided to build the loop in eastern and western halves, with construction on the western half starting first in 18 to 24 months.

“The loop is of little value until you have a whole facility,” said Dennis Burleson, chairman of the RMA.

If you just go from the free-trade zone to the Expressway, it’s not going to do much to relieve congestion around the Pharr bridge and the interchange at (U.S. Highway) 281 and (Expressway) 83.”

The first phase of the loop will be marketed mainly to trucking companies, which presently run their fleets from the Pharr bridge up the relatively slow-going portion of 281 south of the Expressway. But the prospect of a toll road, which would likely charge a single truck between $22 and $28 per trip, has met with mixed reviews from owners.

“It’s a controversial deal. Some guys say it’s going to help, some not,” said Horacio Vargas, the owner of Pronto Trucking in Edinburg.

“I’m just worried about the charge, but then again I’m not a big, big company.”

Construction on the first half of the loop is scheduled to begin in 2009 and take three years to complete.

James Osborne covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4428.

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