Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Toll road finance gets even riskier

Toll road and airport projects are now riskier

August 20, 2008

Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

High fuel prices, inflation and a dragging economy have made bonds for toll roads and airports riskier, Fitch Ratings said in a report today.

Click image for bigger version.

With tollway and airport traffic down as much as 16 and 19 percent, respectively, the report said the outlook for tollways and airports is now negative, down from a stable assessment just five months ago.

"The question is whether the current trend will continue for a longer period," it states. "It is Fitch's view that challenging conditions will persist over the next one to two years."

Though fuel prices have been dropping from last month's record, the economy and credit markets remain troubled and Europe and other counries show signs of stress, the report explains. Besides, food and other commodities haven't joined the fuel-cost slide.

Not mentioned is that the U.S. Energy Information Administration expects even higher gas prices next year, and a debate slogs ahead on whether global oil production has peaked — and if not, then when — and how well technologies and alternative sources can fill the gap. Many agree that the age of cheap energy is over.

If pressures continue, and policymakers start pushing more money to public transit and more people begin shunning suburbs to live in urban cores, toll roads will face bigger problems, the report says. Airports could lose 10 percent of capacity within several years.

The report's title rings ominous: U.S. Transportation Assets: Facing a Temporary Decline or a Permanent Change?


Most U.S. toll roads now face traffic losses of 2 to 10 percent, says the Fitch report, which tracked numbers through June. Operators may have to boost rates and cut costs to keep bond ratings healthy, which might be difficult, even more difficult for private concessionaires charging maximums allowed in contracts.

Texas toll hopes, though, aren't as bleak.

"Facilities in Texas appear to be a bright spot, with year-on-year reductions of less than 5 percent, which is half of what most other facilities in the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast and the West are experiencing to date," the report says.


Seats on domestic flights could be down nearly 8 percent in the last quarter of 2008 compared to a year ago, the Fitch report says. Major airport hubs will fare better, losing only 6 percent.

Some airports could grow mostly because Southwest Airlines continues to expand, it says. San Antonio International Airport, where Southwest is by far the biggest carrier, saw record months in May and again in June. But several airlines, including Southwest, recently announced they will pull back some flights here.

Most U.S. carriers plan to cut capacity 6 to 14 percent in the third and fourth quarters of this year, Fitch says. Airports in the middle of big projects, such as San Antonio's huge expansion, will likely have less flexibility to weather any financial storms.

© 2008 San Antonio

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