Friday, 9 November 2012

News briefs - Australia, Florida, Indiana, Ireland, New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa, Virginia

Australia - Sydney to pursue three new toll funded highways

The Australian Daily Telegraph (via the Herald Sun) reports that the New South Wales State Government’s 20 year infrastructure strategy includes three new major highways in Sydney which are proposed to be funded through tolls, including reforms of existing tolls toward distance based pricing.  Let’s be clear this does not mean a change in technology or full network based charging, but by setting the tolls on toll roads at rates to reflect the distance between tolled points on the network.  The price is estimated to be A$10 billion, although it is thought the price could be lowered by private sector innovation and cut and cover construction techniques. 

The New South Wales Government has been studying options for reforming tolls in the Sydney metropolitan area, to normalise what vehicles pay across the tolled network to reflect distance.  The logic seems simple, but the difficulties are around addressing the costs of different concessionaires, as the motorways that have been built had different construction costs (e.g. tunnels are far more expensive than more rural highways).

Florida - Customers paying in high denomination banknotes can be detained at booth

According to the, in the case of Chandler vs. Florida Department of Transportation, the US Court of Appeals has found that "Motorists can be held indefinitely at toll booths if they pay with large denomination bills".

The report says: "Under FDOT policies in place at the time, motorists who paid with $50 bills, and occasionally even $5 bills, were not given permission to proceed until the toll collector filled out a "Bill Detection Report" with data about the motorist's vehicle and details from his driver's license".

The court decision, responding to a claim that it was a constitutional violation to stop the vehicle from proceeding is as follows:

"In Florida, a person's right and liberty to use a highway is not absolute; it may be regulated in the public interest through reasonable and reasonably executed regulations."

The judges found it was reasonable for Fanueil to set regulations for use of the road -- including the types of acceptable payment. The court decided that drivers implicitly agreed to those conditions by choosing to use the toll road.

Florida - State Road 408 collects 43% of all toll revenue of the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that the 22 mile long SR408 toll road generated $108 million in 2011, or 41% of the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority's total revenue.  It carried over 126 million toll transactions in that year and its revenue effectively cross subsidises the rest of the Expressway Authority's network.

Indiana - toll road privatisation touted as success

According to the Newark Advocate, Michael Cline, Indiana Department of Transportation commissioner, has been touting the successes of the privatisation of the Indiana toll road.

He said that the lease paid off old debt and provided "millions" of dollars to counties the road passes through to complete major projects including the extension of Interstate 69 from Evansville to Bloomington and Indianapolis and the reconstruction of U.S. 24 between Fort Wayne and Toledo "dubbed the highway of death for its high number of fatal crashes".

He claimed it "made sense for Ohio to study a similar plan for its section of the toll road".

The report said:  

The Ohio Department of Transportation is conducting a $3.4 million study with Texas-based KPMG Corporate Finance LLC to examine the ways to maximize the financial benefit of the toll road for the state. Jerry Wray, ODOT director, said the study will be completed by mid-November and he hopes to have a recommendation to the state legislature by Jan. 1.

During Cline’s presentation, he tried to eliminate some myths about the Indiana Toll Road lease, including that toll rates have doubled since 2006. Although the cost to drive the entire stretch across Indiana has risen from $4.65 in 2006 to $9.40 this year for drivers paying cash, tolls have remained frozen for drivers using electronic toll pass technology. Those rates can’t increase until 2016.

Tolls for many Ohio drivers have risen at higher than the cost of inflation during the past two decades. The turnpike operates entirely on its own revenue. It had $11 million in profits last year, and turnpike officials previously stated that more can be found through savings.

It is helpful to have this sort of information, because it is easy for privatisation advocates and opponents to both use slogans and cliches to justify their positions.  The best thing for Ohio will be to weigh up the evidence of what went right and wrong in Indiana, but it seems like a balanced approach has been taken that suits the needs of that state.

Ireland - Sacyr looking to offload debt ridden toll roads

The Independent (Ireland) reports that Spanish owned toll road concessionaire Sacyr is looking to sell its toll road concessions in Ireland.  Infrastructure fund Globalvia is said to be interested in these assets.  The concessions in Ireland are:
- N6 (56km motorway/dual carriageway between Galway and Ballinasloe, with a 7km connection to the Loughrea bypass);
- M50 Dublin (operation and maintenance contract for the 41km of Dublin's part-ring motorway);

New Zealand - unprofitable toll road gets revenue boost but still not enough

According to the Bay of Plenty Times, the Route K toll road has seen a 37% increase in revenues following a 50% increase in the toll for cars.  However, it still remains insufficient to cover the interest costs on the debt of the local authority financed road.

Philippines - Two new toll roads to be pursued in 2013 and Metro Pacific to expand Northern Luzon Expressway

The CALAX project, which will connect the Manila-Cavite Expressway (CAVITEx) and South Luzon Expressway (SLEx), will be among the two projects under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) scheme the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) will pursue in 2013. The PPP section is the 36.01 km length of the expressway from Kawit, Cavite to Sta. Rosa, Laguna. The ODA section is the remaining 11.01 km part of the road from Sta. Rosa, Laguna to SLEx at Mamplasan Exit in Laguna.

"The private proponent shall be responsible for the financing, designing and constructing of the PPP section, and the subsequent operations and maintenance (O&M) of the entire CALAX," the PPP Center explained.

The project is estimated to cost US$1.01 billion.

Meanwhile, Rappler also reports that Metro Pacific Investments Corp  is allocating P2.5 billion (US$61 million) in 2013 to expand and repave parts of the Northern Luzon Expressway.  This includes a P1.6 billion-worth (US$39 million) toll road that will link NLEx Cloverleaf and McArthur Highway near the Valenzuela City Hall with a 2.1-kilometer, 4-lane highway. Depending on how fast the government is in securing right-of-way, construction for Segment 9 will likely start by November or December and will be completed in 2013

South Africa - Gauteng e-tolling allowed, Moody's approves

According to Business Day Live (South Africa), the decision by the Constitutional Court of South Africa to allow the implementation of electronic free flow tolling as part of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project, will make a substantial difference to SANRAL's financial position.  Tolling on the project was due to be implemented in April 2012, but was stopped due to a court injunction.  The tolling has been opposed in South Africa on various grounds, but which largely appear to be about the injustice seen in tolling existing as well as new roads, because the existing roads have been upgraded, and because of fears of corruption in the contracts with the foreign suppliers of equipment and tolling services (which have not been substantiated).  The delay has cost SANRAL US$309 million since April.

The report outlines how taxpayers have been providing bridging finance to SANRAL to cover the gap:

Government responded by providing the roads agency with R5.8bn in funds to compensate for the lack of e-toll revenue and to defray operating costs, including debt service payments on the GFIP debt, a large proportion of which government guarantees.

Moody’s said the GFIP was mainly responsible for the rapid surge in Sanral’s debt, which rose to R37.5bn or five times its 2012 annual revenue as of August this year, from R6.2bn in March 2007.

Moody’s downgraded Sanral’s rating to Baa2 from Baa1 in May due to negative pressure on the roads agency’s liquidity.

The rating agency noted that at the end of June, Sanral’s cash reserves and government’s funds totalling R7.1bn were sufficient to cover operating expenditures and short-term obligations, including debt service, over the next 16 months.

Moneyweb reports further on SANRAL's financial position.

Virginia - I-95 HOT lane contract criticised, but doesn't tell the full story and I-495 express lanes about to open

The Newspaper has published an article critical of the PPP contract between the State of Virginia and TransUrban for the I-95 HOT lane project.

The reasons it cites are:

- It is a 73 year contract offering revenue to the concessionaire with no new lanes being added; 

- Casual carpooling will be dissuaded, as all carpoolers (only HOV 3 – meaning at least three people must be in the vehicle to be eligible) must use an EZ Pass tag to “declare” their presence. Those without will be fined; 

- If more than 35% of lane users are HOV (i.e. not paying tolls), the state must pay for each additional HOV vehicle an equivalent to 70% of the tolls that would have applied The state must pay an amount equal to 70% of the toll that would apply TransUrban if more than 35% of lane users are HOV (i.e. not toll paying); 

- If the State wants additional lanes, it must first negotiate an addition with Transurban. If it decides not to adopt an approach including Transurban, it must compensate the firm. The same applies to additional capacity on specific parallel routes. 

- Two-thirds of the project's financing is backed by taxpayers. Virginia is providing US$71 million in grants and US$242 million in revenue bonds. US$300 million comes from the Federal Government with a TIFIA loan.

Certainly it appears like Transurban has a good deal, although it doesn't look that good if traffic levels are flat, and there is a low volume of users with less than 35% of road users being HOV not toll payers.  That's the risk Transurban carries.  If car pooling takes off (which the article suggests is less likely because of the inconvenience of getting an EZ Pass tag), then it will be positive for the state (and users of the existing lanes), and will be because Transurban has encouraged it.   However, it is also understandable that Transurban gets first right of refusal to build new capacity, and that if taxpayers pay for new capacity elsewhere, Transurban gets compensated.  Such is the environment of privately owned lanes vs. government owned lanes. 

Furthermore, the article is plain wrong in asserting no new lanes are being provided.  In fact there will be some new lanes, and some extensions to existing lanes.  The press release announcing Transurban has won the extension specified these, and after all, it does not cost $940 million to do a HOV-HOT lane conversion.  There is a lot of new construction to make these lanes a more complete corridor congestion bypass system.   If you were paying for such improvements, you wouldn't want the state to be suddenly paying for parallel ones to enable motorists to bypass your improvements (and the tolls you need to recoup the costs).

Meanwhile, WAMU reports that the I-495 express lanes are due to open on November 17th.  The report says:

The two new lanes in each direction spanning 14 miles between the Springfield interchange and the Dulles Toll Road will be E-ZPass only.

Everybody needs an E-ZPass to use the express lanes. Carpools need the E-ZFlex for the toll-free trip. So far the Virginia Department of Transportation says signups for E-Z Pass are going well in the local area.

Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, criticises the project claiming that it will result in induced demand, filling up the space from vehicles shifting to the express lanes.  This has long been a criticism of any projects involving building new highway capacity, but in an environment where traffic growth has stabilised and there may be a long term trend of flat traffic, does this hypothesis still apply?  If so, does it matter if the new capacity is being charged to ensure it remains efficiently used?

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