Delaughter: Why are you having to raise these toll rates?
Key: The Toll Road Authority in Harris County has a system of toll rate increases annually that essentially track inflation that we see in the local economy. And so, on an annual basis, certain toll rates get adjusted. This coming Saturday, there will be a nickel increase on EZ tag rates at most of those big toll plazas that folks drive through around the county’s toll road system. And then at certain entrances and exits there will be an increase for both the EZ tag and cash-paying driver.
Delaughter: Now the managed lanes on the Katy Freeway, that’s going to see a rather substantial increase, by about $2.00. Why so much of an increase there?
Key: Tolls on the Katy Managed Lanes are going up during peak periods. The Katy Managed Lanes, for folks who are familiar, who’ve driven that system, know that it’s not just a regular toll road like you see around the rest of the region. You’ve got two lanes of traffic in each direction out there that have to accommodate the Metro bus system, HOV drivers, and also toll-paying drivers.
Delaughter: The figure that we hear tossed around quite a bit is that your agency has about a billion dollars in reserve, and critics ask why aren’t you using that money to make improvements on the toll roads, but you say you’re not really in a situation where you can.
Key: Many of the folks you may hear criticize this billion dollars are well aware that a lot of the money is set aside, per the bond documents that underlie governance of the county’s toll road system. So our agency has to set aside this year’s debt service, and next year’s debt service, to comply with those bond documents. Then there is some money set aside for that rainy day, should we ever have something catastrophic to hit the toll road system. And it’s also set aside, so if we do have to go to the debt market to fund some of these enormously expensive projects going forward, and 290 is a good example of this, that if you have some money set aside in the bank the interest rate that you can get to sell bonds becomes much lower.
Delaughter: For example, the 290 project, how much do you have to have set aside for debt service?
Key: Well, in terms of this year, our debt service was around $220 million dollars. That’s just this fiscal year. For a project like 290, it looks like the county’s portion of its contribution to the state’s 290 rebuild will be around $400 million.
Delaughter: So that adds up quick when you look at the money you have in reserve?
Key: It absolutely adds up quick, particularly when you take into context the other projects that we’re trying to put in the ground. 249 on the northwest side of town will start construction in October. Hopefully many of your listeners have heard that we are undertaking a project to either rebuild or put a second span across the ship channel where our existing toll bridge is. That’s going to be a massive undertaking.