Tuesday, December 02, 2008

CAMPO backs CTRMA's 'innovative financing' plan

Vote frees NE Austin tollway project to move ahead in 2009

Tranportation officials approve financial pairing of U.S. 290, 183-A.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

Transportation officials decided to create a financial marriage between two toll roads Monday, a move that could allow the U.S. 290 East tollway project to break ground sometime next year.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board voted 15-3 to create a tollway system made up of the existing, and profitable, 183-A toll road in Cedar Park and U.S. 290 East, which based on projections will not have sufficient revenue to persuade investors to lend more than a half billion dollars to build it. The existing tollway, which opened in March 2007 and is making a profit of about $5 million a year, will in effect act as a co-signer for the new project.

The U.S. 290 East project would cost $623.5 million, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority says. It involves expanding 6.2 miles of the existing four-lane, divided highway between U.S. 183 in Northeast Austin and Parmer Lane just west of Manor. It would have six toll lanes and six free-to-drive frontage road lanes alongside.

Some CAMPO members objected to the financial partnership Monday, saying it violates the intent of policies adopted in October 2007, when the board approved the U.S. 290 East project and four other potential toll roads. At that time, the board agreed that excess toll revenue from the five roads would be spent first in the general area of each road rather than being used for improvements far afield.

That will still be the case, according to the mobility authority, which operates 183-A and will build and operate U.S. 290 East. Given 183-A's profitable status, they say, no money would need to go from U.S. 290 East to 183-A.

In fact, mobility authority Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said no money is likely to go either direction. The authority says that preliminary traffic and revenue studies show that U.S. 290 East will be able to meet its debt payments and operating costs without any transfer of money from 183-A.

However, investors normally require that toll road revenues be well beyond projected costs. A summary of the traffic analysis released Monday shows that, based on charging 20 cents a mile for U.S. 290 East, the road would make about a 30 percent profit — which Heiligenstein said was not high enough for the mobility authority to borrow the full amount needed to build U.S. 290 East without riding on the back of 183-A.

Voting against the plan were Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, Sunset Valley Mayor Jeff Mills and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez.

Heiligenstein said Monday's vote was necessary to sustain engineering work and keep the project on schedule. Officials expect to get federal environmental clearance for the road in the first half of 2009, borrow the money on the bond market later in the year and begin construction soon after that.

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3851

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