Monday, October 22, 2007

"These are the taxpayers roads. They belong to the people of Texas, not a foreign company to control and manipulate how fast we get to work.”


Taxpayers On Hook for Toll Road Builders' Losses

Contract language stipulates that taxpayers will reimburse toll road builders if improvements to free alternatives cause then to lose revenue

October 22, 2007

By Jim Forsyth
Copyright 2007

Toll road promoters have stressed from the beginning of the debate that wherever toll roads are built, there will always be free highways running parallel to them, that motorists can drive if they choose. But documents obtained by 1200 WOAI news indicate those ‘free roads’ may not be fit to drive on, and may be more expensive than you might think.

An agreement between the Texas Department of Transportation and the partnership of Zachry Construction Company of San Antonio and Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte of Madrid, Spain, the contractor building the State Route 130 toll road which will run east of Interstate 35, from near Marion to Georgetown north of Austin commits Texas taxpayers to reimburse the toll road builders for any improvements made to Interstate 35 which cut into it’s toll collections.

The document, entitled “Facility Concession Agreement SH 130 Sections 5 and 6 Facility” also holds out the possibility that TxDOT would consider cutting the speed limit on Interstate 35 to make travel on the toll road more attractive.

While the agreement specifies that TxDOT will not be prohibited from making improvements to Interstate 35, the language requiring the state to pay the partnership what is called a ‘Compensation Amount’ is certain to make any improvements less attractive and far more expensive, especially to an agency which has already said it has ‘no money’ left for new non toll construction.

“The Compensation Amount owing from TxDOT to Developer on account of the Competing Facility shall be equal to the loss of Toll Revenues, if any, attributable to the Competing Facility…” Section of the agreement states.

The partnership has paid TxDOT $1.3 billion for the right to build and collect tolls on a 40 mile stretch of State Highway 130. Portions of State Highway 130 in Round Rock are open now, and the entire highway is scheduled to be open by 2009. State Highway 130 is the centerpiece of Governor Perry’s ambitious toll road construction plan and may be part of the Trans Texas Corridor.

While concessions agreements like the one used to build State Highway 130 were outlawed for two years by the Texas Legislature in 2007, sources close to plans to build toll lanes along US 281 tell 1200 WOAI news that similar agreements may be required by the bond issuers who will front the money to the Regional Mobility Authority to build the lanes, money the bond holders expect to recoup by toll collection, putting potential improvements to Blanco Road, Bulverde Road, and Stone Oak Parkway, roads which run parallel to the US 281 toll lanes, in question.

“I think this is an absolute outrage,” Terri Hall of the anti toll group Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, said of the State Route 130 agreement.

“The taxpaying public is being sold out to private companies. These are the taxpayers roads. They belong to the people of Texas. They don’t belong to a foreign company for them to control and manipulate how fast we get to work.”

There’s even a name in the toll road industry for the practice of quietly allowing alternative free lanes to decay in order to drive more traffic to toll roads. It’s called “traffic calming.”

Perhaps the most controversial part of the agreement allows TxDOT to cut the speed limit on Interstate 35 from the current 70 miles an hour to 55 miles an hour, in order to encourage motorists to travel on the toll road. Under enabling legislation, speed limits on the Trans Texas Corridor could be as high as 85 miles an hour, which would be the highest posted speed limit in the world.

“Would taking a toll road be worthwhile?” Hall asked. “Maybe if the free road had a 55 mile an hour speed limit and you could go far faster on the toll road, I’m certain it would be.”

© 2007 The Associated Press:

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