Wednesday, August 05, 2009

CAMPO's latest scam: 290 East tollway would cost 66 cents per mile with free frontage roads jammed by stoplights.

Money crunch shrinks U.S. 290 East tollway

Tolls to be a stout 33 cents a mile or more for the 1.5-mile toll road.


By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2009

The U.S. 290 East tollway will be much shorter than previously proposed — at least for the first few years. And it will be expensive to drive.

Officials with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority said Tuesday that instead of building the full 6.2 miles from U.S. 183 to near Manor, as planned, the agency will complete only a first phase of flyover bridges at U.S. 183 and about a mile and a half of toll lanes.

Even that stretch will be less elaborate than planned, with two lanes per side in places rather than three lanes each way as previously announced.

And, to save $24 million, the agency will postpone building one of two parallel bridges over two cross streets; on a half-mile section, eastbound and westbound lanes will converge, separated only by a concrete median.

People using the toll road would avoid stoplights at Tuscany Way and Springdale Road, but at considerable cost. Mobility authority executive director Mike Heiligenstein said the initial toll (for those with toll tags) likely will be 50 cents near Springdale Road and, for those who take the flyovers to and from U.S. 183, another 50 cents. That would cost 33 cents a mile for those going straight on U.S. 290.

Those who take a flyover, and thus run up the full $1 toll, would pay about 66 cents a mile. There would still be free frontage roads of two lanes in each direction, but travelers on them would encounter several traffic lights people taking the short toll road would avoid.

That combined $1 toll would exceed even the 40 cents a mile that people pay to drive the agency's 183-A tollway in Cedar Park — $1.80 for 4.5 miles.
Both appear to be well above a 20 cents a mile ceiling that Heiligenstein said the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board required of the agency's future projects. That ceiling was in 2007 dollars, he said, and the short section of U.S. 290 East tollway likely will not open until 2012. Even applying a 3 percent annual inflation factor, however, the ceiling in 2012 would be less than 24 cents a mile.

The charge on the Texas Department of Transportation's four Austin-area toll roads generally is about 12 cents a mile. Older toll roads elsewhere in the country, particularly those where all the initial debt has been paid off, often have much lower toll rates. Traveling the entire 236 miles of the Kansas turnpike, for instance, costs $9.25 for a two-axle vehicle, or about 4 cents a mile.

Why the shorter, $265 million initial version? Money, both the lack of it on hand and the difficulty of borrowing it. The full 6.2 miles would cost an estimated $620 million.

As recently as 2007, TxDOT had said it would supply $191 million for the U.S. 290 East tollway project, Heiligenstein said, much of it to buy right of way alongside the existing four-lane road to accommodate a combined 12 toll and frontage lanes. He said none of that money is expected now.

In addition, the agency and governments across the country have found it harder to borrow large sums for public works projects. And finally, traffic volumes have flattened in recent years on U.S. 290 as development in Manor and Elgin stagnated, which would dampen projected toll revenue on the road.

Heiligenstein said he hopes construction will begin on the remainder of the tollway, and a westbound bridge added, in late 2010, just six months after groundbreaking on the first mile and a half. But he said that timing estimate, which assumes that the agency in those few months could buy all the right of way it needs and borrow several hundred million dollars for more construction, might be optimistic.

"I probably will be corrected at some point in the future on that," he said. "But I want it (the construction) to look like it is seamless. If things fall just right, it will almost appear that it is just one project."

The agency expects to borrow enough in this initial phase, both from bond markets and a federal transportation loan program, to have an extra $91 million that it could spend buying right of way for the remaining several miles. Heiligenstein said that construction on the flyover portion of the project, which is funded primarily with $90 million from the federal stimulus program, should begin in October.

The construction of the toll lanes from U.S. 183 to east of Springdale Road would start in summer 2010, he said. The flyovers and 1.5-mile toll road should open by fall 2012, he said., 445-3698

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