By Paul Burka, Texas Monthly
I doubt whether Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, or Tom Craddick has ever heard of the Lane Cove Tunnel in Sidney, Australia. If they had, they might not be so eager to raid the teacher and state employee retirement funds to build toll roads.
On the day the Olympics opened (08/08/08), the Sidney Morning Herald carried the news that the tunnel “is rapidly turning into a bottomless pit for its financial backers….” Two credit rating agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, have warned that the toll road could default on its $1.1 billion debt with a year. The tunnel has suffered three consecutive monthly dropoffs in traffic usage. The estimated usage before the road was built was 100,000 vehicles per day; actual numbers in June and July barely exceeded 50,000. A Standard & Poor’s analyst predicted that unless the project gets fresh capital (at least half a billion dollars), it will default within 10 to 16 months. Perhaps TxDOT, since it is such a believer in such projects, would like to invest.
The problem with the financial wheeling and dealing with retirees’ funds that Perry, Dewhurst, and Craddick have proposed is that toll road projects are risky investments. They are risky for two reasons. One is that they are subject to economic fluctuations that affect people’s driving habits, such as the price of gasoline or the pace of development.
The second reason is that, when government is involved, they are vulnerable to political pressure and favoritism. Google “toll road defaults” and you will find a trove of stories with unhappy endings. The Camino Columbia toll road in Laredo, which was rife with political intrigue over which landowners would benefit from having a road go through their property, opened in 2000 and defaulted in 2004. Cost: $90 million. Auctioned off for: $12 million. Tx-DOT bail out acquisition payment: $20 million. The Dulles Greenway toll road to Washington’s Dulles Airport defaulted on its bonds within a year of its opening in 1995. The private owner, Toll Road Investors Partnership II, have lost money every year since the road opened. When toll roads lose money, tolls go up–in this case, to $4.80 by 2012. That works out to an astronomical 35 cents per mile. There are similar stories in Orange County, California (where the state had to buy failing toll lanes), and along Florida’s west coast, and near Richmond, Virginia, where the 8.8-mile Pocohantas Parkway, financed with tax-free bonds, has suffered around a 50% shortfall in projected toll receipts; the state has had to maintain the road because the private owners don’t have the money. Bond ratings have been lowered to below investment grade. To pay off the bonds, the toll was increased by 50%.Read the rest of the article HERE.