Friday, May 14, 2010

Lobbyists continue push for expansion of highly leveraged toll roads in Austin

Austin chamber urging CAMPO to cut restriction on toll revenue use


by Jacob Dirr
Austin Business Journal
Copyright 2010

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization 2035 Plan, which lays out strategy for regional transportation spending for the next 25 years, is catalyzing the business community over concerns about how and where toll road profits can be spent in Central Texas.

The 2035 plan, which is scheduled for a vote May 24, is important because items not included in it are excluded from any regional transportation projects that use billions of expected federal and state money.

As the plan stands now, money from toll roads left over after operations, maintenance and debt payment can only be used within one mile of the road or in ZIP codes where 10 percent or more of peak morning toll road drivers live.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce thinks that is bad business, however, and is launching a lobbying effort to delete the rule.

The goal is to be able to use the money as a financing tool to build projects such as a managed lane on MoPac Expressway, Chamber Vice President Beth Ann Ray said.

Such lanes, which are popular on the West Coast, charge drivers a fee based on current traffic congestion. They enable motorists to zoom by slower traffic, charging a higher fee during rush hour and a lower fee when traffic is low.

Both the chamber and the Alliance for Public Transit have expressed support for a managed lane on MoPac.

The chamber is also supporting the proposed Texas 45 Southwest toll road, which would connect MoPac and FM 1626. After years of planning, some CAMPO board members are thinking about deleting the road from the 2035 plan. Travis County Commissioners voted recently to push for its deletion from CAMPO’s plan.

It’s long been known that the region needs to improve mobility on its highways, but funds are short.

As sources of roadway construction funding continue to dwindle, it would be foolish to rule out sources like toll road revenue, said Patrick Flynn, president of Austin-based Flynn Construction. Flynn serves on the chamber’s Regional Infrastructure & Development Committee.

Flynn said the money would free another $50 million of loans by providing a means of debt repayment that can be used to build a managed lane on MoPac.

Even if the rule limiting where toll road revenue can be spent is kept in the 2035 plan, toll roads could still finance a managed lane on the highway.

A subcommittee of CAMPO board members voted on April 24 in favor of a finance plan system that includes the area toll roads and a future managed lane on MoPac.

The proposal is workable for both the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which manages the toll roads, and the Texas Department of Transportation, said Joe Cantalupo, CAMPO staff director.

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