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CAMPO hearing studies finance options for Manor Expressway

Friday, November 14, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

A Wednesday night hearing designed to study on the financial plan to construct Manor Expressway turned into little more than a rehash of people’s objections to toll roads.


The series of hearings – first on a statement of purpose and second on a financing system – are intended to fulfill the requirements of the covenants set out for the toll roads projects approved by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board last year.


One of the covenants, proposed by County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, was that additional revenue realized through a toll road would have to be used within that toll road’s corridor. The intention was to make sure that those who paid tolls would be the ones to benefit from their efforts, rather than see the money siphoned off to pay for additional road projects somewhere else in the county.  


That concept, however, went out the window when the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority decided it needed to use its US 183A toll road as collateral to finance the Manor Expressway. Leveraging one asset to fund another is possible, but only if it is approved through the CAMPO Policy Board.


CTRMA is proposing US 183A and US 290 East be packaged as a system, combining the roads to leverage their financial viability, lower borrowing costs and speed up the projected delivery of the expansion of US 290 East.


And while the benefits of US 183A are intended to make it easier to get US 290 East done, the hearings this week were intended to address the possibility that, sometime in the future, funds from US 290 East might be used in the US 183A corridor. US 183A, CTRMA’s first toll road, already was under construction at the time the covenants were approved and, therefore, is not under CAMPO covenants.


Toll road covenants outline a specific process for getting a funding exception approved: It must be a “specific high priority road.” CAMPO staff must draft a statement of purpose.  Two hearings must be convened to discuss that draft. An additional two hearings must be convened to discuss what projects might be lost in the corridor question. And, after those four hearings are complete, the CAMPO Policy Board must approve the new financing method for a two-thirds majority.


At Wednesday night’s hearing in the expressway corridor, CAMPO staff did outline the process. CTRMA explained its rationale. And CAMPO took testimony, which raised few new issues. Bruce Byron of the Capital Area Transportation Coalition said system financing was common, whether it was toll roads or wastewater lines. Byron said the point was whether the highways should be looked at, first and foremost, a source of revenue for funding corridor projects or as an asset to create a regional transportation network.


Andrew Hawkins of the Save Our Springs Alliance opposed the proposal, saying it countered the CAMPO board’s intentions last year and that projects were intended to be approved, each on its own merits, rather than have one carry others. Hawkins also questioned what constituted a “specific high priority need.”


Vincent May questioned the new road’s tolls, and Nancy Fairchild criticized the CTRMA for failing to present a traffic and revenue study for US 290 East.


Spokesman Steve Pustelnyk of the CTRMA said system financing was both acceptable and common in the toll road industry. Asked why, then, some concern wasn’t raised at the time the covenants were passed, Pustelnyk said the finance situation was far different when the board approved its exceptions and conditions. At the time, the CTRMA expected TxDOT to pony up to a third of the cost of the toll roads. Much has changed in both financing and TxDOT’s finances since then.


And while the hearing did accomplish what it was required to do, it was anecdotal and didn’t provide the public with information in terms of whether the financing strategy was a good idea, how risky it might be, how likely it might be that projects were lost or even whether projects in the corridor was a realistic expectation in the first place, given whatever revenue projections US 290 East might offer.


CAMPO Executive Director Joe Cantalupo acknowledged that there were plenty of questions that CAMPO board members could raise about the project, but that the week of hearings had addressed what was required of the agency. Cantalupo said staff had attempted, to the best of its ability, to put a complicated financing picture into simple terms so the public could understand the process.


CAMPO’s Transportation Policy Board will take up the financing issue at its meeting on Dec. 1.  The first step would be to accept the statement of purpose. Then, if approved, the board could choose to approve CTRMA’s financing plan.

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