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CAMPO approves controversial funding plan for US 290 East

Tuesday, December 2, 2008 by Mark Richardson

Last night, the board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) approved a controversial funding method for the US 290 East toll project, also known at the Manor Expressway. The plan would allow the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to use toll revenues from one of its other toll roads, US 183A, as collateral to fund the new project.


Construction on the $624 million Manor Expressway, a 6.2-mile limited-access toll road intended to alleviate congestion in the US 290 East corridor between Parmer Lane and US 183, is expected to begin by late 2009. The new expressway could be open to traffic by 2013.


And as with almost everything regarding CAMPO and toll roads, the vote did not happen without some controversy. Prior to consideration of US 290 East project, CAMPO Chair Sen. Kirk Watson recused himself because he is on the board of a business that owns property along US 290 East in Bastrop County and left the gavel to vice chair Cynthia Long, a Williamson County Commissioner. Watson said the property is outside the CAMPO service area.


Once members of the CAMPO board had questioned staff, including CAMPO Director Joe Cantalupo and CTRMA Director Mike Heiligenstein about the creative funding plan for the Manor Expressway, Long announced that because public comments had been taken at four public meetings held in October and November, there would be no public comment at Monday’s CAMPO meeting. That was a surprise since Watson said prior to leaving the meeting that comments on the toll road would be heard.


A number of people in the crowd began shouting at the chair, and Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt moved to allow comments on the project. Her motion was defeated by a 13-5 vote.


Eckhardt, who generally opposes spending toll revenues outside of a roadway’s corridor, had just finished a lengthy cross-examination of Heiligenstein over just how his agency planned to structure the financing of the US 290 East project using money from tolls on US 183A to partially fund the project.


Heiligenstein said the CRTMA has proposed the toll road revenue as a type of collateral for the financing package for the Manor Expressway. The US 183A toll rates would be pledged to secure more bond financing. Revenue from the toll road would only be used as a last resort, and Heiligenstein said he was hopeful that, given the way the debt is structured, that it was the last, and not the first, funding source to be accessed.


Following her questioning, Eckhardt moved to table the US 290 East project until the CTRMA board had finalized its funding plans. However, Heiligenstein said if the board approved the motion, he would have to shut down all operations on US 290 East and a planned extension of US 183A.


Board members, with Mayor Will Wynn leading, voted down that idea by a15-3 margin. Wynn immediately moved to approve the funding for the US 290 East project, and the measure passed 15-3, with Eckhardt, Sunset Valley Mayor Jeff Mills and State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez voting “no.”

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