These two dueling news reports from North Carolina TV stories show the power of the press: one series reads like a puff piece written by Cintra, the other highly critical of Cintra - leasing viewers to draw totally different conclusions. This is why TURF exists - to help you sort the facts from fiction and to protect the interests of we the people - the taxpayers!
NOTE: Cintra canceled its interview with the reporter once they knew TURF was going to be interviewed.
9 Investigates: The real cost of toll lanes
To get answers, Channel 9 traveled to Dallas, Texas where Cintra is building a similar toll road.
By Scott Wickersham
November 5, 2014
Channel 9 - North Carolina
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The North Carolina DOT is close to finalizing a financial contract with a Spanish company to build toll roads on Interstate 77 from Mooresville to uptown Charlotte. But not much is known about exactly how much it will cost or how construction will affect traffic, and the public has only seen animations of how it will look when it's done.
To get answers, Channel 9 anchor Scott Wickersham traveled to Dallas, Texas where Cintra is building a similar toll road. Channel 9’s investigation found that Texans are paying a hefty price to drive congestion-free -- and one group there says people in Charlotte should be very concerned. The Dallas metro area is home to 6.5 million people -- and heavy traffic.
Highway 635 is one of the worst. The state didn't have money to add lanes, so they made a deal with Cintra to build toll lanes next to the existing lanes.
But taxpayers there are still kicking in $500 million -- 18 percent of the $2.7 billion deal.
Wickersham drove the first open 3-mile section to see what Charlotte drivers can expect. He first saw tall white signs, called "humongous" and "confusing" by a local newspaper. They tell drivers a toll section is beginning and the price for that section. The highest Channel 9 saw was $1.45.
But the price can change every five minutes, going higher if traffic gets too heavy to discourage use and keep traffic flowing. The price is capped at $2.62 for the 3.16 mile section, but can go up each year with inflation.
Sensors read express passes that drivers can get for their car. If you don't have a pass, cameras record your license plate and you receive a bill in the mail, along with an extra fee.
"It really is this huge double tax scheme that’s going to benefit these private developers," said Terri Hall, who formed a group to fight toll roads in Dallas called Texans United for Reform and Freedom. She worries about giving public infrastructure and land to a private company, and said those who can’t afford the toll will suffer the most.
"You are either going to be stuck in gridlock on the free route, or pay big bucks to take the toll lanes," Hall said.
Cintra agreed to speak to Channel 9 and give a tour of their operation until Wickersham told them he was speaking to Hall.
They then canceled, saying they would only talk if Channel 9 didn't talk to her.
Hall said she's not surprised.
"They will be able to charge tolls even after the debt is retired, even after it’s paid for," she said. "Then it becomes this profit-making enterprise for a private company, on the backs of Texas commuters."
But some Dallas leaders said it was either toll roads or decades of congestion.
"There was no way we could come up with $2 billion," said Michael Morris with the local council of governments. He said Texas has not raised the fuel tax since 1991, and more efficient cars are using less gas, meaning less money for roads.
"I wish we still had pay-as-you-go funding. I wish the revenues from Washington and the state capital would fund all of our needs, in your fast-growing community as well as ours, but that obviously isn't true," said Morris.
And then there's the question of what will happen to the toll road when the contract with Cintra runs out in 50 years. Morris said in the case of Highway 635, it will probably stay a toll road.
"I don’t think the revenue picture 30 to 50 years from now will be any better. In fact, I think it will be a lot worse," he said.
Hall said that is further proof that North Carolina taxpayers should fight the I-77 toll road. She said if they build one in Charlotte, more could soon be coming.
"The problem with public-private partnerships is that it’s sort of like giving our politicians a drug," said Hall. "You can't get them to kick the habit once it starts."
In Charlotte, Cintra said work could start on I-77 toll roads early next year, and take four years to complete.
Link to news story here.
The Toll Controversy: How Much Drivers Pay to Drive Congestion-Free
By: Caroline Vandergriff
Time Warner Cable News
North Carolina - TV
CHARLOTTE -- The North Carolina Department of Transportation is just weeks away from finalizing a contract with Spanish-based company Cintra to build toll lanes on I-77 from uptown Charlotte to Mooresville. The project has faced heavy criticism and even attempts to delay the process by local elected officials.
The Dallas-Ft. Worth region is one of the most congested in the country, and it's only getting worse as more and more people move to Texas.
"The fast-growth areas must find some way to fund roads as our explosive growth continues," said Judge Keith Self of Collin County, Texas.
One of the solutions has been to turn some of the most heavily-trafficked highways into roll roads. The state made a deal with Spanish company Cintra to build toll lanes next to existing lanes. A new 13-mile stretch called the North Tarrant Express opened in October. So far, drivers seem pleased with the results.
When asked if the new toll lanes relieved congestion, Dave Adkins of Bedford said, "Oh Lord, yes. It makes my job easier to get to work."
"It works really well, keeps the traffic from being extra, extra crowded," said Tonya Smith of Duncanville. "Especially when it's busy."
Cintra is also building toll lanes on Highway 635 in Dallas, where the first three-mile stretch is now open. Tall white signs tell drivers a toll section is beginning and the price for that section. Drivers can either stay in the free lanes or pay to drive in the express lanes.
"When it first came out, it was a little confusing," said Frank Dunn of Ft. Worth.
The system is all electronic. Sensors read express passes that drivers can get for their cars. If you don't have a pass, cameras record your license plate and you get a bill in the mail.
Toll prices can change every five minutes, going higher when traffic gets heavier.
"So at any point in time, we can assure that drivers on the managed lanes are at least going to be driving at 50 mph," said Nicholas Rubio, the U.S. president of Cintra.
It costs drivers about $6 to drive in the toll lanes for the entire 13-mile stretch of the North Tarrant Express during peak travel times.
"Sometimes I think it's a little high," said Dunn.
But others said it's worth it, especially if you're running late to work or need to get somewhere in a hurry.
"The option is there, and it's good," Adkins said. "And I see a lot of people using it."
Cintra said it's too early to tell just how successful the Dallas-Ft. Worth toll roads are, but so far more than one million drivers have chosen to pay the tolls and drive the express lanes.
Link to story here.
Cintra DID NOT bring most of the money to the table on ANY of its deals - taxpayers did. That’s a fact that can be verified on the FHWA web site (for just one example go here. The PABs and TIFIA loans are both public money in addition to the state gas taxes used). Therefore, Rubio’s contention that the risk is transferred and that Cintra is on the hook for the losses is an outright LIE!
When toll rates can go as high as they want (the contract on the LBJ says up to 83 cents a mile as of 2006 and goes up annually with inflation, but the toll rate is truly unlimited because it can go up continually based on congestion - and trucks pay 5 times that of autos) and the taxpayers guarantee their loans, there is NO RISK to them if the thing fails as we’ve seen with the Indiana Toll Road. To buy-back the LBJ P3 in Texas, it will cost taxpayers 3 times the PROJECTED toll revenues. That’s outright criminal! And no competing roads can be built beyond what was already in the plans as of 2006.
The Toll Controversy: Funding the I-77 Toll Project Through a Public-Private Partnership
By: Caroline Vandergriff
Time Warner Cable News.com, Charlotte
12/22/2014 03:39 PM
In the second part of our series on "The Toll Controversy," Time Warner Cable News reporter Caroline Vandergriff sits down with the U.S. president of Cintra in Texas for an exclusive interview, to get a better understanding of what exactly this foreign company does.
CHARLOTTE -- The North Carolina Department of Transportation is just weeks away from finalizing a contract with Spanish-based company Cintra to build toll lanes on I-77 from Uptown Charlotte to Mooresville.
This public-private partnership is a new and contentious formula that concerns many citizens and elected officials.
"Our business is about providing solutions to congested communities," said Nicholas Rubio, the U.S. president of Cintra, in an exclusive interview with Time Warner Cable News.
"We've been doing this for over 40 years."
Cintra develops toll roads and other infrastructure around the world.
Rubio said Cintra invests in growing regions where congestion is increasing, like the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex in Texas, where the company entered into a public-private partnership with the state to build toll roads.
Cintra provides the majority of the funding then retains control of the roadway for 50 years.
"We'll get revenue out of the managed lanes, and with that revenue, we'll pay for the initial investment and for the operation of the project," Rubio said.
Cintra sets the toll rate and then collects the toll revenue. The price of the toll varies based on traffic levels. If there's more congestion in the free lanes, the more expensive the toll will be.
It's in the company's best interest to set the tolls at a reasonable price, Rubio said.
"We cannot charge too high of tolls because no one is going to use the tolls," he said.
And if no one uses the tolls, Cintra is left with major financial problems.
The company's project on Highway 130 in Texas came close to bankruptcy this summer before it restructured $1 billion in debt. Another Cintra toll road in Indiana did file for bankruptcy to restructure nearly $6 billion in debt.
Time Warner Cable News asked Rubio if North Carolinians should be worried because of those financial issues.
"Rather than worry, they should be comforted," Rubio said. "At the end of the day, part of the advantage of this business is you are passing the traffic risk to private developers."
All debts will stay with Cintra, Rubio said. However, critics believe taxpayers could face consequences too if a project fails.
"You're risking hundreds of millions of dollars on an unproven concept," said Judge Keith Self of Collin County, Texas. "That both in the good times and the bad times economically, that the model will be successful."
Rubio admits: "It's always uncertain, but I would say that we are professionals in our business."
And if Cintra is successful in these toll road projects, Rubio said there will be a long life for public-private partnerships in the U.S.
Cintra is expected to reach financial close with the North Carolina Department of Transportation in January and then begin construction of the I-77 toll lanes in the summer of 2015.
Link to article here.
The Toll Controversy: What Drivers Can Expect on I-77
By: Caroline Vandergriff
Time Warner Cable News.com, Charlotte
In the final part of our series on The Toll Controversy, Time Warner Cable News Reporter Caroline Vandergriff looks at what North Carolina drivers can expect.
CHARLOTTE -- The North Carolina Department of Transportation is just weeks away from finalizing a contract with Spanish-based company Cintra to build toll lanes on I-77 from uptown Charlotte to Mooresville.
The $655 million project has been moving forward, despite concern from citizens and elected officials.
Interstate 77 is the main route for commuters between Charlotte and the Lake Norman area, and one of the most congested roadways in the state.
The NCDOT's plan to address the gridlock is to build 26 miles of toll lanes through a public-private partnership.
"These express lanes will ensure, through the use of variable tolling, that anyone who pays that toll will not have to suffer through congestion through any time of day, traveling anywhere from Uptown to Mooresville," said Warren Cooksey, director of Outreach and Community Affairs for NCDOT Division 10.
Under the plan, NCDOT will contribute $88 million to the project. Spanish company Cintra will finance the rest of the $655 million needed for the new lanes.
"The private investor allows us to leverage the toll revenue better, for them to take on the risk and the debt than the state of North Carolina," said Cooksey.
The project is similar to toll roads Cintra has built in Texas. Sensors read express passes drivers can get for their cars. If you don't have one, cameras record your license plate and send you a bill in the mail.
Commuters can choose to stay in the free lanes.
Tall white signs tell drivers a toll section is beginning, and the price for that section, which can change every 5 minutes based on congestion levels.
Cintra hasn't set the rates yet for the 26-mile stretch on I-77.
"They have to be rational, or otherwise they'll never work," said Nicholas Rubio, the U.S. president of Cintra.
An independent study in 2012 suggested tolls could be as high as $20 for round trip during rush hour, but Rubio said that won't be the case.
"We do not think, even under the assumptions of that study, that rates would be that high," he explained.
Cintra will collect the toll revenue until the year 2068.
"We're only going to get return on our investment if we are the best partners of the community," Rubio said.
Construction could start as early as the summer of 2015. The state's contract requires Cintra to keep all the existing lanes open during construction.
If the construction in Texas is any indication, "it was hectic and crazy," said Duncanville driver Tonya Smith. It could be a long few years for commuters.
The NCDOT says it will be worth it.
"Twenty-six miles of improvements in three years of construction," said Cooksey.
However, critics of the toll projects in Texas still warn local officials to be cautious.
"The sales pitch is one thing," said Judge Keith Self of Collin County, Texas. "But as everyone knows, the sales pitch may or may not equate to the actual reality."
And we won't see the actual reality until 2018, when the first toll lanes on I-77 are expected to open.
According to NCDOT, Cintra has until Jan. 22, 2015 to complete the financial close of the contract. Rubio said the company is on track to meet that deadline, but the NCDOT could give Cintra an extension if they haven't locked up the financing by then.