Thursday, July 31, 2014
   
Text Size

Cintra markets SH 130 in San Antonio

Category: Public Private Partnerships

Link to article here.

Cintra tries to sell San Antonio on SH 130
By Terri Hall
Examiner.com

“There are few things that Governor Perry and President Obama agree on, but both oppose an increase in the motor fuels tax,” began Chris Lippincott, former Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) public information officer and the new public relations point man for Spain-based Cintra, the concession company for the first privatized toll road in Texas -- State Highway 130, segments 5 & 6, from Mustang Ridge to I-10 in Seguin. Lippincott was the guest speaker and chief cheerleader for Cintra’s toll road set to open this fall at yesterday’s luncheon hosted by the oldest transportation group in San Antonio, the San Antonio Transportation Association, established in 1921.

As its new spokesperson, Lippincott is the Texas face to a foreign company that’s been the center of controversy in Texas since the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) development rights were first awarded to Cintra in 2005. SH 130 is the first public private partnership (P3) tied to the Trans Texas Corridor, TTC-35, signed in the midst of a heated legislative session that eventually slapped a moratorium on such contracts in 2007.

Texans have a deep-seated aversion to foreign-owned toll roads and see it as a threat to state sovereignty over public infrastructure. So the fact Cintra tapped a familiar face from TxDOT to be its public voice, demonstrates the company’s attempt to cloak itself as just another Texas venture. Lippincott was careful not to mention Cintra, instead referring to the project using the more innocuous title of SH 130 Concession Company. He admitted his job is to seek out trucking, freight, and logistics groups like the San Antonio Transportation Association as a means to market the toll road and tap ridership from San Antonio.

Your wallet, please
Lippincott tried to lay the groundwork for the necessity of toll roads across Texas in his opening remarks, the same ol’ tune he sang while working at TxDOT, by speaking of the motor fuels tax shortfalls and the refusal to raise it on either the federal or state level. Hence, Cintra rides in on its white horse with a $1.3 billion ‘investment’ in Texas infrastructure for which Texans will pay handsomely to use.

Since Texas has no reciprocal agreement or any enforcement capability for out-of-state or international truckers and visitors from Mexico or other countries, it’ll be Texans bearing the brunt of this new tax on driving, while others get a free ride. However, on strictly gas tax funded roads, all drivers who fill-up in Texas pay for their use.

The 49 miles of the northern stretch of SH 130 (segments 1-4) already open to traffic and operated by TxDOT cost over $5 one way, or nearly $11 roundtrip and will soon have a 25% increase January 1 bringing that total to above $6 one way and over $12 roundtrip. Truckers and vehicles with more axles will pay even more, and those without toll tags who will be billed by mail will pay 50% more.

The toll hikes come two years ahead of schedule for the struggling toll road that lies so empty during rush hour that a distressed plane landed on it. Though no toll rates have been announced for Cintra’s 41-mile southern leg of SH 130, Lippincott stated the rates would be competitive with Austin’s other toll roads (that range from 14 cents a mile to 29 cents a mile). Cintra’s projects in Dallas-Ft. Worth will cost commuters 75 cents a mile to use the toll lanes on LBJ and the North Tarrant Express, which is like adding $15 to every gallon of gas you buy.

Hair-raising speed limit
Today Lippincott announced the speed limit will be 85 MPH, part of the P3‘s revenue sharing deal (see Exhibit 7 here) TxDOT made with Cintra, increasing TxDOT’s financial incentive for raising the speed limit by an additional $100 million. The speed on Cintra’s section of SH 130 will be the highest in the United States.

The Austin American Statesman reported last weekend that TxDOT will reduce the speed limit from 65 MPH down to 55 MPH on one of the primary competing free roads to Cintra’s SH 130, US Highway 183 through Lockhart. Lippincott’s response to this obvious manipulation of the speed on free routes to incentivize more drivers to use Cintra’s tollway as “TxDOT’s decision” and the reasons were “safety and economic development” not profit.

Anti-toll activists have long contended that transportation decisions in Texas have been hijacked by greed and profit potential and that public safety and the public interest have been supplanted by the shift to tolling and privatization. Now they have evidence to prove it.

Lippincott was adept at trying to quell criticism like lack of ridership and enforcement, often shifting the focus away from Cintra to TxDOT, saying TxDOT’s looking into changes in state law to beef-up enforcement as well as ‘enhancing connectivity’ to SH 130 through building more feeder roads (at taxpayer expense, of course) that connect to SH 130.

He also cited a YNN story where two similar cars left for the same destination, one using SH 130 and the other taking I-35, and SH 130 shaved an entire hour off the trip, but at more than twice the cost of using the free route. Lippincott saw this is as a huge PR boost, but for the average Texan struggling to fill their gas tanks and for trucking companies who already operate on thin profit margins, the time savings doesn’t always outweigh the added cost. Few have the means for the extra tax. With speed limits now up to 85 MPH on the tollway, the added gas guzzling at such high speeds will also add to the cost of taking the toll road, so will the added distance of getting out to SH 130, approximately 25 miles east of I-35.

I gotta highway to sell you
Another key advantage TxDOT handed Cintra was its dual designation of interstates I-410 and I-10 in San Antonio as SH 130 -- to incentivize motorists to head eastward on I-410 and I-10 to SH 130 and once they get to Seguin, there’s no way north but Cintra’s tollway. It’s a form of entrapment, but Lippincott touted it as merely enhanced ‘signage’ that lets people know about SH 130 -- at taxpayer expense not Cintra’s.

There’s also worry about the shoddy construction of SH 130. Lippincott disclosed that Cintra used a new form of asphalt that’s supposed to reduce cracking and damage. Yet, he failed to mention that just weeks ago, a report surfaced about $30 million in damage from major cracking had occurred along the tollway, before it’s even open to traffic, for which Cintra quickly blamed on the drought.

I thought this new asphalt was supposed to reduce cracking? I-35 and I-10 and other Texas roads were exposed to the same drought without this level of damage. Are you sure you wanna drive 85 MPH on this road built with such questionable materials? And TxDOT plans to outsource more of its maintenance on interstates to private companies -- is this what Texans can expect? Shoddy materials that could endanger the traveling public?

Cronyism in plain site
So there can be no doubt that the state is cozying up with big business to incentivize truckers and motorists to use Cintra’s tollway, and effectively grant Cintra a monopoly for the next 50 years through various revenue sharing schemes and other incentives, like slowing free alternatives and ensuring any expansion of I-35 will also be tolled, not free. God help Texas with such sinister agents in charge of transportation. Eventually, you won’t have a choice but to pay.

Lippincott was sure to dodge the glaring hypocrisy of Governor Rick Perry, who is so obviously starving the gas tax in order to hand Texas roads to his corporate buddies. Perry claims to be all about state sovereignty, the primary subject of his latest book, Fed-Up, while selling off Texas to the highest bidder. The fact his former minions at TxDOT have been snatched up by Cintra to promote such devious schemes, showcases Perry’s crony capitalism in full view, like the revolving door back in 2005 when Cintra’s Dan Shelley went to work for Perry, secured Cintra the state contract for the Trans Texas Corridor, and then Shelley went back to work for Cintra.

Texans need to clean-up the corruption in Austin before there’s no Texas left to defend.