DALLAS - The Texas Transportation Commission voted last week to use $1.2 billion of federal stimulus funds to move forward with numerous projects across the state, including some controversial toll roads.

In a unanimous vote, the commissioners approved the spending plan for 29 projects, roughly two-thirds of which are toll roads. A two-year moratorium on toll road construction in the star state was automatically lifted when the Legislature convened for its 81st regular session in January.

Late last year, Gov. Rick Perry said while the state's population increased 57% the past 25 years, road capacity rose just 8% as road use doubled. According to Perry, the Texas Department of Transportation estimates road use will rise 214% over the next quarter century but capacity is projected to rise by only 6%.

"Texas is making the most of our economic stimulus funds," TTC chairwoman Deirdre Delisi said in a release announcing the vote. "We are working with local partners to build long-needed projects and to maintain a reliable and safe transportation system. [The] vote reflects four months of hard work by TxDOT staff and community leaders. Now it's time to put Texans to work."

Many of the projects aim to ease congestion on some of the state's most-heavily traveled corridors. One project calls for a new toll road between Interstate 10 and U.S. 290 in northwest Harris County outside Houston.

Another project is construction of three or four overpasses at the other end of U.S. 290 just north of downtown Austin, easing connectivity of the east-west highway with U.S. 183, which runs north and south and is a tollway for some stretches.

Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, said the funds he expects to receive from the state for part of the 290 East project that connects Austin and Houston are "absolutely timely."

"We'll now be able to move forward with a $600 million project that was about $100 million short," he said. "We were looking at plugging that $100 million gap with some deeply subordinate debt with rates in the 9-10% range. So the $100 million we expect gets us going on the construction of this six-mile, six-lane stretch with frontage that had been held up."

The TTC also said pooling the stimulus money with local funds will result in more than $2.6 billion of new transportation projects in the state.

The small Central Texas town of Brenham had planned to issue about $15 million of general obligation debt early this year to finance its share of expansion and improvements to U.S. 290. But the town doesn't have any authorized but unissued bonds and officials recently decided not to call for a bond election in May.

Last month, Williamson County sold $97.2 million of pass-through toll revenue bonds and limited-tax bonds for road projects to ease traffic coming north from Austin on Interstate 35.

The bonds aren't issued for toll roads, but are treated as such. Under a state program, the county funds and builds the project and then forecasts the amount of traffic the road is expected to experience. The state then reimburses the issuer based on the traffic estimates.

The TTC issued $1.1 billion of mobility fund bonds in January 2008 and plans to issue another $1.5 billion in multiple sales during this fiscal year. Texas voters approved $3 billion of highway bonds in 2003 and the Legislature doubled that amount during its last session.

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