Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"The toll road bills... are almost surely halfway through their legislative journey."

Law would allow private tollway deals for MoPac, U.S. 183

Legislature warming to long-term leases with private companies after spurning the approach in 2007 session.

Political Corruption


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2011

Private toll road contracts, which fell out of legislative favor in 2007, are making a comeback this session.

And that includes at least the potential that two such projects in Austin, the MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) toll lanes and U.S. 183 in East Austin, could end up being financed, built and operated for decades by private firms.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who is carrying a bill that would allow such contracts on those two roads, said it is not necessarily an endorsement of that approach or an indication that the toll projects will end up in private hands.

"I want to make sure all of the tools are on the table," Watson said this week. "But it will be up to the local (metropolitan planning organization) to see if it gets used."

Right now, the local plan is for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, a toll agency that runs the 183-A tollway in Cedar Park, to build and operate the $248 million MoPac and $678 million U.S. 183 projects.

The Texas Department of Transportation would contribute $70 million in tax money to the MoPac project, which involves adding a fourth, tolled lane on each side between Lady Bird Lake and Parmer Lane, and $130 million to build express toll lanes and frontage roads on U.S. 183 between U.S. 290 in Northeast Austin and Texas 71 near the airport. The mobility authority, in theory, will raise the rest through borrowing.

But the authority's development plans in general were put on hold for at least two years when the 2008 credit crunch hit and it became difficult to borrow money. Carlos Lopez , TxDOT's Austin district engineer, said the ability to bring in the private sector would be an "insurance policy" if something goes awry with the TxDOT and mobility authority approach.

Watson's bill, which he filed March 11, has not yet been given a committee hearing. But four similar bills, allowing TxDOT to reach long-term leasing agreements with the private sector to build tollways in Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, made a lightning-quick trip through the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Wednesday .

All were approved unanimously and then channeled to the Senate's queue of uncontested legislation. Such bills are generally approved en masse by the Senate with no debate, meaning that the toll road bills in effect are almost surely halfway through their legislative journey. Similar bills are pending in the House, including one by state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman , that lists a dozen tollway projects that would become eligible for what are generally called concession agreements.

The Austin-area roads, however, are not included in Phillips' legislation.

This renewed embrace of toll road concessions is a notable departure from 2007, when the public and lawmakers soured on the idea of private companies being in control for a half-century of tollways on the state highway system, and profiting from those leases. Such deals, particularly the participation in them of foreign companies, had become a high profile issue in the 2006 gubernatorial election, and the fervor continued into the new year and the legislative session.

The 2007 Legislature passed, and Gov. Rick Perry signed into law, a bill that put a moratorium on all but a handful of such potential deals. Authority for TxDOT to reach the long-term deals in general expired in September 2009, and the ability to reach agreements on the excepted roads from that 2007 law will die on Sept. 1 this year.

However, with state gas tax revenue stagnant and federal highways grants diminishing, TxDOT officials have said that sometime next year they will have no money available to approve construction of new road projects. That threat has lawmakers taking a fresh look at concessions, but on a case-by-case basis.

Anti-toll road activists on hand for the committee hearing Wednesday let legislators know that time has not diminished their distaste for private toll road agreements. Raising the gasoline tax would be a cheaper approach, said Don Dixon, a retired San Antonio mechanical engineer.

"We're going to these fringe processes" to fund highway construction, he said. "We're going to have a two-tier system: those who can afford to drive the toll roads, and those who can't."

Opponents were also disturbed that TxDOT planned to pour billions of public dollars into projects that likely will lead to private profits by operating companies, according to TxDOT figures.

In one of the four projects named in the bills approved Wednesday, TxDOT would supply almost one-third of the $3.7 billion cost for the North Tarrant Express in the Fort Worth area. In another case, the Texas 183 managed lanes project, also in Dallas-Fort Worth, TxDOT would cover the entire $1.3 billion construction cost. The operator would, in theory, be responsible for only the operating and maintenance costs to follow., 445-369

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