- Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
Squint hard at the desolate Camino Colombia tollway and still, it’s difficult to see a slippery slope.
The mesquite-lined 22 miles northwest of Laredo, after all, is South Texas flat, save for a slight rise as it approaches the Rio Grande. And then there’s the matter of the area’s scant rainfall, just 20 inches a year.
Nonetheless, the evidence suggests Texas Department of Transportation officials see a slippery slope when they look at the lonely, mostly two-lane road. That, or a camel poking his or her snout in their toll tent.
Either way, the point is that TxDOT is not eager to take tolls off the 17-year-old road, even though the road has no debt to pay off. After some now very regretful investors built this little-used bypass around Laredo’s choked Interstate 35 port traffic, TxDOT bought it with cash on hand in a distress sale in 2004 for what amounted to 22 cents on the dollar.
And it’s not like the road, which sees a paltry 1,100 travelers a day, is making TxDOT a bunch of money. Agency officials say the road, which goes by the official designation of State Highway 255, brings in less than $2 million a year and has netted just $2.5 million, after covering expenses, since TxDOT bought it. But still, the Texas Transportation Commission, which could vote to remove the road’s tolls any time it chooses to, has not done so.
Bad precedent and all.
Now a Laredo legislator would like to make that decision for them. House Bill 141, authored by Democratic state Rep. Richard Raymond, packs this 18-word punch: “The department may not operate any part of State Highway 255 in Webb County as a toll project.”
“Truckers won’t use it” with the current tolls in place, Raymond said when HB 141 received a committee hearing March 30. “You don’t want a toll on this road. It’s paid for. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Raymond and other Laredo leaders say that at least a few more I-35 truckers would take the turnoff about 20 miles north of the border and use the bypass — and the equally ill-used Colombia-Solidarity International Bridge it leads to — if they weren’t facing a $9 to $12 toll on Texas 255.
“This is our white elephant international bridge connected to another white elephant toll road,” Laredo City Council Member George Altgelt told the House Transportation Committee at the hearing. Laredo operates four toll bridges over the Rio Grande, and Colombia-Solidarity last year drew less than 5 percent of the vehicle traffic.
Granted, it’s located well up the river from the heart of Laredo and probably wouldn’t ever get a quarter of the use given geography. But the highways on the Mexican side are situated such that a trucker coming from or going to the interior of the country would travel roughly the same number of miles going through Laredo proper, or taking Camino Colombia. And, by using the western loop, they would avoid joining 120,000 vehicles a day on I-35 in downtown Laredo, and a very large queue of truckers.
Even so, very few are taking that bypass.
“As long as you’ve got that toll, (entrepreneurs) say they’re not going to invest in distribution facilities” near Colombia-Solidarity bridge, Raymond told me later. “When that toll is gone, there’s no question you’re going to have more development there.”
The bill is still idling in committee, with just six weeks left in the legislative session. So its prognosis is iffy. Raymond nonetheless was breezy about all this when I talked to him.
“We’re going to remove the toll, whether we do it by legislation or by (commission) order,” he said. “It’s going to happen one way or the other.”
So what does this standoff in faraway Laredo have to do with Central Texas?
It’s that “paid for” comment by Raymond. Because, technically speaking (or maybe just factually speaking), the Austin area has a few toll roads that likewise are already paid for: Texas 71, which just opened out by the airport; Texas 45 Southeast near Buda; the MoPac express lanes (which will open later this year, allegedly) and even Texas 45 Southwest, which began construction in November.
In each case, TxDOT built them using money on hand. No borrowing, no debt payments to come from toll revenue.
Mind you, TxDOT has made deals with the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (which it designated to operate the MoPac lanes, Texas 71 and Texas 45 Southwest) to get a cut of the toll revenue from Texas 71 and Texas 45 Southwest to “pay back” part of the money used to build them. The mobility authority has a separate deal with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to direct $230 million of the MoPac toll take to that group, over a 22-year period, for other Central Texas transportation projects. And TxDOT, after building Texas 45 Southeast with cash, later combined the road financially with three other tollways that carry more than $2.6 billion in debt.
But, at a foundational level, those agreements amount to siblings just passing cash around. The money will all stay in the family, and be used to build other stuff. Those deals could be torn up tomorrow, and likely no court would get involved.
So when people start talking about taking tolls off a road, even one that generates puny revenue and is 240 miles away, well, that sort of loose talk can seem pretty threatening. After all, TxDOT officials have made it clear since the Texas turnpike revolution began about 2002 that tolls are basically forever, a source of ongoing revenue in a state that no longer seems willing to raise the gas tax.
What Texans did show a willingness to do, with overwhelming public votes in 2013 and 2015 for constitutional amendments, was to direct a lot of existing tax revenue to TxDOT. Which undercuts the rationale for building more toll roads, and at least leaves the door ajar for taking the tolls off some of the tollways now operating in Texas.
Raymond isn’t arguing for that, however. Camino Colombia, which started going bankrupt shortly after private investors built and opened it in 2000, is a unique case, he says. TxDOT got a steal of a deal on it, buying it from an insurance company that months before had literally purchased it on the Webb County courthouse steps.
A slippery slope only upends those policymakers, Raymond argues, who aren’t paying attention to the footing. TxDOT and the Legislature, in other words, can make Camino Colombia and its traffic-dampening tolls a one-off.
“Just do your job,” he said to these notionally vexed transportation officials, “and we’ll be OK.”