Wednesday, October 10, 2007

“The public really feels that it’s been ignored.”

Texas Toll Bond Plan

Austin Agency’s Vote Met With Opposition


by Richard Williamson
The Bond Buyer
Copyright 2007

DALLAS — Despite vocal opposition, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization in Texas approved plans to use toll bonds to help finance $1.5 billion worth of highway projects in the rapidly growing Austin area.

By a 15-4 vote, the CAMPO board concluded a three-year debate over how to finance highway expansion in the region that includes Travis, Hays and Williamson counties.

“One of the things the board took note of was the fact that all of the opposition was very passionate and very angry,” said Michael Aulick, executive director of CAMPO.

“My board would much rather build the roads without tolls, but that’s not the fiscal reality.”

The board is made up of representatives of regional governments and led by former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, currently a Democratic state senator. To accommodate the crowd of sign-carrying opponents, the meeting was held in the auditorium of a local high school.

“There was a lot of hooting and hollering and cat calls,” said Sal Costello, founder of the Texas Toll Party that opposes tolls on existing tax-financed roads. “The public really feels that it’s been ignored.”

Some of the signs protesters brought to the meeting read: “No tolls on existing roads,” and “Watson won’t listen.”

Watson voted for tolling on four of the five highway projects, but recused himself on a proposal for U.S. 290 East because he is a director of a bank that owns land along the route.

While the vote Monday night was intended to be conclusive, Costello said that his organization is not ending the fight. Texas Toll Party will target six CAMPO board members who face re-election next spring, including state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Austin, who sponsored House Bill 3588 in the 2003 session of the Legislature that promoted tolling.

Costello said that he formed his organization in 2004 in opposition to the tolling that was allowed by that bill. At that time, CAMPO was seeking to turn eight highways into toll projects. Through political pressure, the regional governments reconsidered its plan. In the intervening three years, the number of toll projects was reduced from eight to five.

“I think there’s been a real thorough vetting of this whole process,” Aulick said. “The plan includes a caveat that should another funding source become available, the board can decide that the new funding can phase out the tolls.

The tolling issue has grown in intensity as the Texas Department of Transportation warns that it is virtually out of money for new projects and will be forced to shift about $6 billion from new construction to maintenance of existing roads.

For the $1.5 billion of road projects approved by CAMPO, $323 million will come from federal funds, $81 million will come from state matching funds, $1.02 billion will come from toll bonds, Texas Mobility Fund debt and other state funds. About $23 million will come from local governments associated with the projects, Aulick said.

Construction of the first projects, State Highway 45 and U.S. 290, will begin about a year from now, Aulick said. The other projects will begin in the two years after that.

TxDOT must still complete environmental impact studies as the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority develops plans for financing. The RMA is authorized by the recently passed legislation to manage all toll projects in the region.

© 2007 The Bond Buyer:

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