Saturday, August 09, 2008

“All the warning signals are there.”

U.S. 281 toll-road planners didn't figure on costly gas


By Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

Gas prices shot through the roof this year and a debate drags on over what the future holds, but none of that was reflected in recent traffic and revenue projections for the planned U.S. 281 toll road.

As a result, the estimates got a thumbs-down last month from State Auditor John Keel, who meted out his case in a single page of bean-counter lingo.

“Explicit consideration for the possible effects of higher motor fuel prices on the usage of the toll facility and, therefore, on revenues would seem warranted,” he concluded in a letter to the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority.

The state auditor doesn't actually sign off on traffic and revenue reports from toll agencies. According to a 2007 tolling law, the auditor just reviews and comments on them.

Alamo Regional Mobility Authority Director Terry Brechtel noted that in a letter responding to Keel, saying the audit's over.

However, she said the local agency agrees with his criticism and already had asked the consultant, URS Corp., to do a gas-price impact analysis.

“We will nevertheless forward to you a copy of the fuel sensitivity analysis once it is completed,” she said.

Such an analysis was a no-brainer to toll-road critics as long as two years ago.

Activists had tried to get the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which approved 70 miles of tollways in San Antonio, to study rising gas prices and the impacts to toll bonds that can stretch over several decades. The MPO board refused.

“It doesn't make sense,” said Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. “We're glad the state auditor has the same concerns that we do. Will this road even be viable in 10 years with the trends we're seeing in gas prices?”

Wary motorists have been scaling back in the face of gas prices soaring to a record U.S. average of $4.11 a gallon last month, according to AAA.

Americans drove 2.4 percent fewer miles through May compared to the same time last year and rush-hour congestion eased in many U.S. cities from March through May, federal data show.

San Antonio drivers spent 4.7 percent less time stuck in traffic, though officials say new lanes opening on Interstate 10 and new ramps at two Loop 410 interchanges helped.

Americans also have started avoiding some toll roads, with Houston reporting a 3 percent drop in traffic from March through June, and Dallas seeing a 2.3 percent slip in June on its President George Bush Turnpike. Growth on the Dallas North Tollway was flat.

Dallas' North Texas Tollway Authority asked its consultant to take another look at traffic projections for planned toll lanes on Texas 161.

“But they're not anticipating any change,” Dallas toll spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt said.

Unlike San Antonio's toll-road consultant, Moody's Investors Service took rising gas prices seriously Thursday when it issued a stable but cautious report on U.S. government toll roads through 2009. The long-term outlook was more uncertain.

“Gas prices at around $4 per gallon for a prolonged period could have a dampening effect on traffic and revenue and, if declines are not offset by rate increases, it could cause Moody's to change our stable outlook,” Moody's Senior Vice President Maria Matesanz said in a statement.

Federal forecasters say gas prices will spike even higher next year, but where they go from there is wrapped in a muddy debate on when global oil production will peak and begin to slide. Some say it's happening now; others say there's a four-decade cushion for technologies to come to the rescue.

San Antonio toll officials, getting ready to sell 40-year bonds later this year to help fund toll lanes on eight miles of U.S. 281 north of Loop 1604, are undeterred. They point to the success of Austin's 65 miles of toll roads, which began opening in late 2006 and are raking in more money than expected.

“If we get higher fuel efficiencies in our vehicles, that could have an impact,” Alamo Regional Mobility Authority spokesman Leroy Alloway said. “People are still going to be driving, we're still a very auto-centric country.”

Still, many toll critics aren't sold on the car-dominated vision.

“It's time for us to shift to sustainability, by moving to mass transit, or pay the price,” Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson said. “All the warning signals are there.”

Portions © 2008 KENS 5 and the San Antonio

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