Thursday, October 11, 2007

"A pass-through deal."

Comal acts fast, snags funds for wider 281


Roger Croteau
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

NEW BRAUNFELS — Comal County officials approved a contract with the state Thursday to widen U.S. 281 from the Guadalupe River north to the Blanco County line.

And the 5.6-mile, $35 million project won't include any tolls.

The Texas Department of Transportation will foot $19 million of the bill. In a "pass-through" financing agreement, Comal County will issue certificates of obligation for $16 million to pay the rest of the project cost, and TxDOT will pay the county back most of the money.

The county will be responsible for the interest payments on the $16 million, as well as 10 percent of the cost of right of way and relocating utilities.

The state will pay the county back somewhere between $2.6 million and $4 million a year, based on the number of cars that travel the road.

County officials initially considered toll projects to move the Texas 46 and U.S. 281 projects along quickly, but traffic count projections showed tolls wouldn't have raised enough money to make that option feasible.

"I believe TxDOT is about financially incapable of doing this kind of deal any more, so we are striking while the iron is hot," Comal County Commissioner Jay Millikin said.

TxDOT District Engineer David Casteel said the department recently gave a presentation showing the shortfall in available funding for road construction in Texas.

"If you were not real aggressive, like Comal County, the opportunity to do a pass-through deal is probably gone," Casteel said. "Comal County was very wise to move so quickly."

Comal and New Braunfels officials also agreed last year to a separate $16 million in pass-through financing for the Texas 46 widening project from the Bulverde city limits to Landa Street in New Braunfels. That project will cost $61 million and is under way.

The U.S. 281 project is moving quickly toward construction as well, Casteel said. The environmental studies and public comment period are almost done and right of way acquisition could start within a year.

The 5.6-mile stretch now is two lanes. It will become a four-lane, divided highway.

County Commissioner Jan Kennady noted two recent collisions on that stretch of U.S. 281, one of which killed three people.

"There's not doubt about it, if you widen it and add medians, it's going to be safer," she said.

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