CHICAGO — The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority on Thursday approved a new pool of financial advisors as it gears up to enter the market in the coming months with a roughly $200 million issue in its first borrowing to support a $12 billion, 15-year capital program.
The authority chose four financial advisory firms from 12 submissions received in May as part of a competitive selection process. The high scorer, Public Financial Management Inc., will be adviser to the authority on an ongoing basis. Three others were chosen to advise on individual transactions — A.C. Advisory Inc., Columbia Capital Management LLC and Acacia Financial Group Inc.
The advisors are “a critical part of financing team,” tollway finance chief Michael Colsch told board members. The firms will serve in the qualified pool for a three-year term, with a possible extension of up to two years.
Colsch said he opted to recommend the hiring of one firm as advisor on an ongoing basis because of past experience in which the agency needed advice but was not necessarily planning a transaction.
The agency also was ready to seek approval for a new pool of law firms to serve as bond counsel but the board did not take action on that item Thursday. Agency staff also are still finalizing a recommended pool of broker-dealers and will seek approval of firms qualified for underwriting and bond counsel services at a future meeting.
“We still hope to move forward with a $200 million bond issue sometime this summer or fall and the timing will depend on market conditions,” said authority spokeswoman Wendy Abrams.
The authority board last August approved a new $12 billion program to maintain and expand the 286-mile system, along with a steep increase in passenger tolls. The additional toll revenue will go to repay $4.8 billion of borrowing to support the Move Illinois program.
The authority’s executive director, Kristi LaFleur, has promoted the new construction program as a means to create 120,000 jobs while improving mobility and relieving congestion and pollution. Officials estimate the program will generate $21 billion in economic activity.
Toll revenues are expected to rise to $973 million this year from $680 million in 2011, primarily due to the 87.5% toll increase that took effect Jan. 1. Debt service has a priority claim on system revenues after operations are funded.
Facing an end-of-the-year legislative deadline, the agency worked over the last year and a half to craft an encore to its $6.1 billion program launched seven years ago that relied on $3.6 billion of bonding. The tollway wrapped up debt for that program in 2009, and 85% of projects are complete. The congestion-relief capital plan that introduced electronic tolling to Illinois relied on an increase in tolls paid by cash users and commercial traffic.
The agency has exhausted its borrowing capacity under the current toll structure based on its policy of maintaining a two-times debt service coverage ratio considered critical to its double-A level ratings.
The new program funds construction of new toll roads and projects aimed at keeping the 52-year-old system’s existing roadways in a state of good repair through 2026. The program provides $8 billion for improvements to existing roads and $4 billion for new and expanded roadways.
New borrowing would be repaid with revenue from the toll hike for all passenger vehicles and a previously approved commercial vehicle increase that takes effect in 2015. Additional revenue would also come from tolls collected on new toll roads.
The authority had previously said it was looking at using a final maturity of 25 years with higher interest payments in the early to middle years and much of the principal backloaded to 2035 and beyond when existing bonds are retired. Total debt of $4 billion is forecast to peak at $7.3 billion. Debt service is estimated at $302.8 million in 2018, but projected to rise to $636.9 million in 2030 as a result of new money borrowing.
Moody’s Investors Service rates the authority Aa3. Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s rate the tollway’s $4 billion of debt AA minus.
Fitch assigns a negative outlook. It affirmed its rating and outlook in March.
“If traffic exhibits greater elasticity or is suppressed by economic conditions, additional toll increases could prove difficult to implement and the authority’s financial profile could be inconsistent with the current rating,” Fitch analysts wrote. Traffic was up nearly 2% last year, following growth of 5.4% a year earlier.