Monday, December 01, 2008

Regional Mobility Authorities..."a creative euphemism for their real purpose: to build toll roads."

What's in a(uthority) name? Tolls, really

Law, bond documents mean mobility authority would have trouble building passenger rail.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

From the beginning, calling these new local governments "regional mobility authorities" seemed like just so much marketing, a creative euphemism for their real purpose: to build toll roads.

In Dallas and Houston, they just go ahead and call them toll authorities.

But after the Legislature in 2001 invented mobility authorities, officials said toll road profits could also be spent on free roads and even passenger rail — anything promoting "mobility." My assumption has been that when money became available — and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority's sole toll road is in fact clearing more than $5 million a year — the first, second and third choices would be to plow it into other tollways.

But some people want to use toll profits on rail projects, among them Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt.

Eckhardt, having pored over documents generated when the mobility authority sold $234 million of bonds in 2005 for the 183-A tollway, contends that those turgid legal contraptions make toll roads the only choice.

Given that conclusion, she wants her colleagues on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board to once again delay allowing the 183-A tollway to act as, in effect, a co-signer for the U.S. 290 East tollway.

The CAMPO board is scheduled to vote tonight to allow the mobility authority to borrow the money to build U.S. 290 East. It doesn't have quite enough predicted traffic and toll revenue to do that without 183-A's financial backing.

Eckhardt argues that joining the two roads financially will lead to other money-losing tollways getting similar treatment in the future, using up profits that could be spent on rail.

Eckhardt last week acknowledged that in fact both the law and those bond documents allow the mobility authority to spend profits on rail. But what is not possible, at least based on the Texas attorney general's interpretation, is for the authority to borrow money for rail now and pay it back a year at a time.

So that means that if, for instance, someone wanted the authority to put $150 million into a rail project (someone like Eckhardt, on something like a commuter line from Austin to Elgin), it would take something like 15 to 20 years to build up the money.

Toll roads, on the other hand, don't have this impediment. Need $623 million for a U.S. 290 East tollway? The mobility authority can borrow it.

Mike Heiligenstein, the mobility authority's executive director, said Eckhardt's concerns are misplaced. Those bond documents can and probably will be altered later, he said, and the agency will lobby the Legislature to allow rail bonds backed by authority profits.

The agency is building a $2 million hike-and-bike trail, he said, lets buses drive free on 183-A and plans to build rail lines eventually. The authority really is more than a tollway builder, he says, or will be.

Eckhardt will believe it when she sees it.

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