Monday, February 09, 2009

“We’re spending our highway user dollars to give to the private sector that’s going to turn around and toll us? Really? During these economic times?”

TxDOT selects Cintra to add tolled lanes to Dallas loop


By David Tanner, staff writer
Land Line Magazine
Copyright 2009

Whenever Spanish toll road operator Cintra lands the winning bid to take over a toll road or build a new one, highway users should read the fine print, trucking officials say.

Cintra is the leading partner in a consortium most likely to rebuild and add tolled lanes to 13 miles of the Northeast Loop in the metro Dallas area.

The Texas Department of Transportation announced Jan. 29 that it intends to work with the Cintra-led team known as NTE Mobility Partners to replace a portion of Interstate 820 and state Highway 121/183 known as the Airport Freeway with a wider roadway that will include tolled express lanes.

The project is part of a regional corridor dubbed the North Tarrant Express, aimed at increasing lane capacity in North Texas to meet population and transportation demand.

Part of the concern that truckers and other highway users have with this agreement is that the Cintra-led team will be in charge of operating and maintaining existing infrastructure built with tax dollars, said Mike Joyce, director of legislative affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

“For our members, we’re concerned that Cintra is getting its claws into those existing lanes with a bigger picture in mind when it comes to collecting toll revenue,” Joyce told Land Line.

He points out that Cintra has at least a 50-percent involvement in long-term contracts for the Indiana Toll Road and Chicago Skyway that put highway users on the hook for decades of guaranteed toll increases.

“These agreements have begun to evolve over the past year or so into agreements that are much more favorable to the highway user, but they’re still not nearly as favorable to the highway user as they need to be,” Joyce said.

Another concern is that the Cintra-led team is composed of a total of 12 firms, including other European companies, American financial giant JP Morgan and the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System.

“That’s a lot of hands to feed,” Joyce said.

TxDOT officials said up to $600 million in available fuel tax revenue would be combined with private investment and toll revenue for a total investment of $2 billion.

“The second cautionary flag I see is the leveraging of $600 million in fuel tax that is paid by highway users,” Joyce said. “We’re spending our highway user dollars to give to the private sector that’s going to turn around and toll us? Really? During these economic times?”

As the 13-mile portion of the North Tarrant Express moves forward, TxDOT has also asked NTE Mobility Partners to develop master financial and construction plans for additional portions of the loop.

Cintra, whose full name is Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte S.A., partnered with Texas firm Zachry to construct and manage 40 miles of state Highway 130 from San Antonio to Austin.

TxDOT also tapped Cintra-Zachry to develop the first leg of the massive project formerly known as the Trans-Texas Corridor that would run parallel to Interstate 35.

Cintra also has a 53-percent stake in the Toronto-based 407 Express Toll Route.

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