By Kenric Ward | Texas Watchdog.org
A rural Texas toll road run by a private company is adding traffic faster than a companion segment operated by the state Department of Transportation.
The southern section of State Highway 130 between south Austin and Seguin collected 1,744,921 tolls in the second quarter. That’s up 26.9 percent from the first quarter.
The TxDOT-run stretch, extending from south Austin north to Georgetown, posted a more modest increase of 18.4 percent from January to May (the latest month for which figures were available).
But a critic of the private-toll venture says a lack of financial data leaves a murky picture.
“This does not show revenue, nor does it show what is owed to the (toll road’s) lender so that we can determine if this number of transactions is sufficient to keep them in the black. That’s the true bottom line — how much revenue do they owe versus how much are they collecting?” said Terri Hall, president of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.
“Solvency, not transactions, is the key evaluator.”
The SH 130 Concession Company – formed by the Spanish engineering firm Cintra and Zachry American Infrastructure – built and operates the southern 41 miles of the 86-mile toll road. TxDOT bought and leased the right of way to the company for 50 years.
The Austin area Metropolitan Planning Organization originally estimated the cost at $325 million. The price tag then swelled to $1.3 billion. Passenger-vehicle tolls for the entire length of SH 130 run around $12.
TxDOT spokesman Mark Cross said, “There are currently no financial issues/concerns” with the agency’s section of the road.
But the SH 130 venture remains controversial because the concession company does not disclose financials about its portion of the toll road, and is not required to do so.
Hall says taxpayers have been in the dark from the beginning.
“The traffic and revenue studies on SH 130 were only available to the public after the contract was signed, neutering transparency and public disclosure in time to do anything about it,” she said.
TxDOT referred Watchdog’s request for revenue data to the concessionaire. The concession company declined to discuss its financials.
Concession spokeswoman Kate Morton said the firm has made more than $150 million in payments to the state. She said the money has funded road improvements in Caldwell and Guadalupe counties.
Both Cross and Morton rebutted assertions that Cintra is guaranteed a 12 percent to 18 percent annual profit on SH 130.
“The agreement with TxDOT only guarantees the right of the concession to collect usage tolls. This agreement also requires the concession to fund all maintenance and improvements,” Morton told Watchdog.
Hall charges that SH 130, designed to draw traffic eastward off congested Interstate 35, is being propped up at public expense.
“Texas taxpayers are paying tens of millions in subsidies to reduce truck toll rates so trucks can drive on SH 130 at the auto rate,” she said.
The public-private partnership has other angles, as well.
Cross noted if the state builds a nearby road that harms the value of the SH 130 lease by removing traffic from the toll road, “a payment to (Cintra) may be owed.”
On the other hand, if that unplanned road increases the value of the lease by attracting more traffic to SH 130, (Cintra) would credit TxDOT, he added.
Cross said TxDOT’s decision to raise SH 130’s speed limit to 85 mph came at a $100 million cost to the concessionaire.
“The agency demanded a payment from the developer as the value of their lease had increased,” Cross said.
Hall said the $100 million payment also came in consideration for the state lowering the speed limit from 65 mph to 55 mph on an adjacent highway.
“It’s more than ‘increasing the value for the asset’; it’s manipulation of speed limits on public roads for private profits,” Hall said.
Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected].