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Critics say taxpayers, not drivers will have to pay for SH45 SW

Monday, April 21, 2014 by Mark Richardson

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority says a preliminary Traffic and Revenue Forecast for the planned State Highway 45 Southwest it released recently will stand as the final report, showing that the road project is financially feasible. But critics of the project say the numbers in the report just don’t add up.

The Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization has contracted with CTRMA to construct the controversial 3.4-mile toll road, which will stretch from the south end of MoPac Boulevard to FM 1626.

CTRMA plans to finance the $100 million project through a combination of funds from the Texas Department of Transportation, Travis and Hays counties, and bonds issued through the State Infrastructure Bank. (See Austin Monitor, March 19)

Plans to build the roadway were recently revived after the project languished for more than 20 years under a shadow of environmental protests and legal wrangling. Its proponents want to get the project underway as soon as possible before the local political climate changes and it gets postponed again.

The Traffic and Revenue Forecast is an engineering document that projects traffic volumes for the roadway, and thus how much revenue it will generate to pay off the bonds used to build it. The preliminary version was released 10 days ago to the Save Our Springs Alliance – which continues to have a “never say die” attitude in opposing the road – in response to a public information request for the study filed last year.

CTRMA officials said they released a Level 1 study, which was initially to be followed up with a Level 2 study later this year or early next year. However, CTRMA spokesman Rick L’Amie said TxDOT has said that they will not need a Level 2 study for the project, making the current study the final version

CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein said his agency believes that the current study shows that SH45 SW is being planned on a sound financial basis.

“Our view is that the data in the report clearly supports the need for the project,” he said. “Based on the report, we are confident that toll revenue will be sufficient to repay a State Infrastructure Bank loan. There are significant traffic volumes projected both initially and over time.”

However, after studying the report, SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch said the numbers are questionable and that CTRMA is dangerously off on its estimates.

“The report shows that they are overestimating how much money the road will generate, especially in its first few years,” he said. “They’re going to end up borrowing about $48 million, and with interest, they are going to have come up with about $7 million a year to make their bond payments.”

According to the CTRMA study, projected toll revenues in 2017, the first year SH45 SW is expected to be operational, are $1.41 million. By 2020, projected revenues grow to $3.5 million. Revenues sufficient to cover the estimated $7 million annual bond payments will not happen until 2027, according to CTRMA projections.

Bunch says with those revenue projections, about $70 million of the cost of the roadway could ultimately fall entirely on the taxpayers.

“Money isn’t just going to fall out of the air to pay for this,” he said, adding that the revenue deficit for the first 10 years of the toll road is a recipe for default.

The project was pushed forward recently when TxDOT and CTRMA shifted state funds from the US183A toll road project to SH45 SW, freeing that project from the need for a federal environmental impact study which would be more stringent than one following state guidelines.

Those who want the road built – most notably Travis County Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty – have been working diligently to try and push the project ahead as early as possible in order to get it underway. Daugherty, who pushed $15 million in funding for SH45 SW through the Travis County Commissioners Court earlier this year, knows that the current majority on the court supporting the road is likely to dissolve next January.

Unless there is an unforeseen political upset in November, former Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt will be elected County Judge and former Austin City Council member and environmentalist Brigid Shea will be the Pct. 2 Commissioner. Both of them are staunch opponents of the SH45 SW project, and along with Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis, would constitute a majority opposing the project.

Environmental groups have protested since the 1980s that SH45 SW would be built over one of the most sensitive parts of the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. Plans for the road have it being built over a number of critical environmental features, including Flint Ridge Cave.

This story was updated April 21 to reflect the correct cost of the SH45 SW project at $100 million and other minor editing changes.

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