Some on City Council wary about toll road secrecy

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Some on council wary about toll road secrecy
Web Posted: 06/10/2005 12:00 AM CDT
By Patrick Driscoll
Express-News Staff Writer

The tradeoff of sacrificing open government to attract private investment in toll roads is beginning to sink in for some local elected leaders.

And it’s not a comfortable feeling, said City Council members who met Thursday.

State officials have promised to let local leaders have input on a recent proposal by Spain-based Cintra and locally owned Zachry American Infrastructure to take over planned toll roads in San Antonio. But to protect trade secrets, state law prohibits public discussion of details.

“It’s absolutely out of the question,” said Councilman Chip Haass, who says private sector dollars to solve traffic problems is otherwise temtping. You could not convince the constituents of San Antonio that this is a good deal.”

Officials can’t even see the Cintra-Zachry proposal without signing confidentiality agreements, which would prevent them from talking to anyone who hasn’t signed an agreement. Local leaders might end up taking shots in the dark at what is sure to be a moving target.

“This whole deal scares the hell out of me, quite frankly,” Councilman Roland Gutierrez said. “There’s so many details that we can’t even begin to contemplate.”

At stake is local oversight of construction and operation of 47 miles of toll roads on Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 on the North Side, including toll fees of 15 cents or more a mile. The system could cost $1.3 billion.

The Texas Department of Transportation plans to use gas taxes and other public funds to build 22 miles of toll roads and give them to the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority. Local officials intend to use the toll fees to double the network and continue expanding.

Cintra-Zachry submitted a proposal to the state in April that calls for private investments to construct the whole system faster, and the companies in turn would collect the toll fees for up to five decades. If considered, a call for other bids would have to be made.

Mobility authority board members could sign confidentiality agreements but probably wouldn’t be able to discuss the proposal as a board — not in a public meeting or, under current laws, in a closed-door session, an attorney advised them this week.

Meanwhile, Cintra-Zachry may file a lawsuit over last week’s opinion by the Texas attorney general that development and financial details in a March contract for another road project — the Trans Texas Corridor segment paralleling Interstate 35 — must be disclosed.

“We believe there’s some proprietary information and some financial information that should not be made public,” Zachry spokeswoman Vicky Waddy said. “People ought not to be able to take our intellectual property and use it for other projects.”

Transportation department officials are discussing whether to challenge the opinion, spokeswoman Gabby Garcia said.

The Trans Texas Corridor is a proposed 4,000-mile network of toll roads, rail lines and utility lines that could cost $184 billion and take more than 50 years to build. Cintra-Zachry’s contract with the state is to produce plans for the first leg, from Mexico to Oklahoma.

Opponents say they’re appalled at the secrecy swirling around the massive effort.

“We believe that the public is unaware that our system of open government is under gross attack,” said David Stall of