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CAMPO continues debate on toll road funding

Monday, April 12, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

Last week Pct. 2 Travis County Commissioner and Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) Policy Board Member Sarah Eckhardt sent out a memo to her fellow CAMPO members and commissioners and to CTRMA (Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority) detailing her opposition to eliminating Toll Road Policy #4, which dictates where revenues from toll roads are spent and how CAMPO can have a mechanism to spend those revenues elsewhere.


The two lengthy memos are in response to recent CAMPO discussions within the Policy and Resolutions Sub-Committee. Regarding the funding of toll road projects, Toll Road Policy 4, or TR-4, states that CAMPO prefers to spend toll revenues along the corridor from which they are collected. It also requires a supermajority vote if excess funds are to be used on another corridor. Adopted unanimously in October of 2008, Eckhardt’s memo says this was “designed to establish the presumption that … toll revenue would be used for the benefit of the users.”


At the last CAMPO meeting, Judge Sam Biscoe told In Fact Daily there had been extensive debate over whether or not to include TR-4 in the forthcoming Policy and Resolutions for the 2035 plan. Rather than vote on a subcommittee recommendation, he said he decided to bring it before the full executive board.


Eckhardt said the reason she sent the memos out is that she is “hoping to achieve a re-commitment to the principles of TR-4. Even if some members of the policy board feel things need to be tweaked, I’m open to improving it. What I’m bucking against is scrapping the intent of TR-4 entirely.”


The memo takes on three arguments she ascribes to TR-4 critics. Eckhardt describes the first as the “Too Cumbersome” argument: In essence, the public input process of changing one stream of revenue to another corridor would require too much bureaucracy and time. The second is the “The Investors Don’t Like It” argument, which claims critics are worried that requiring CAMPO approval to move revenue will increase costs of borrowing due to “uncertainty and risk.” Saying that TR-4 provides “checks on the creation of a system of toll roads,” she argues that the supermajority would allow revenue streams from profitable toll systems to be routed to other systems.


The third line of criticism Eckhardt takes on is that by linking funding up from 183A, which she says is implicitly included in any future system, to other roads in that toll system, other roads would be pulled out of TR-4’s purview because 183A predates the rule.


Biscoe said he asked committee members to submit arguments for and against TR-4 and share those before the board votes. Biscoe seemed to be persuaded slightly by the “investors don’t like it” rationale, citing CTRMA resistance. Essentially, Biscoe said, connecting the bonding terms for new roads with excess revenue from profitable roads provides less risk for bonding entities and thus lowers the cost to borrow money. However, he added that CTRMA did not provide numbers on what those savings and costs might be. “Difficult and costly is a little more serious than inconvenient,” he said.


Biscoe noted that accepting the consequences of higher borrowing might be possible “if we have good reasons.” He said tying together a system of four projects and using “the surplus money from one to sort of float the other one looks a whole lot better in the marketplace, and it looks a whole lot better to me too.” Currently a supermajority of CAMPO board members is required in order to transfer money from one corridor to another.


TxDOT District Engineer Carlos Lopez, who sits on the board, told In Fact Daily,  “I think the elimination of TR-4 would be just fine. Like most forms of taxation you don’t return back to the area from which you taxed an equal amount; you spread it around … By giving the RMA the flexibility to finance other roadways in the area through other roadways, in my opinion that’s not a bad thing.”


The board meets tonight at 6pm in the Convention Center.

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