[beta] TRN Weekly Review: Week of October 16-22, 2022

Bay Area’s Newest Express Lanes Scheduled For November Opening

KGO-TV reported, the next segment of US 101 express lanes “will begin incrementally opening” for carpools early next month, weather permitting, and will be fully open to traffic by mid-November. “Between the hours of 5 a.m. and 8 p.m., the express lanes will be limited to HOV3+ vehicles. Outside of those hours, all drivers will be allowed to use the lanes.” The authority that operates the lanes had planned to delay opening until the facility’s toll system is fully installed and tested sometime early next year. However, it adopted the current plan in response to public calls for peak period congestion relief. Most of the remaining toll system work takes place at night.

A Push Is On To Keep Houston Grand Parkway Extensions On Track

Houston Chronicle reported, Texas state lawmakers and local officials in Brazoria and Galveston Counties are pushing to keep construction of segments B and C of the Houston Grand Parkway (SH99) a priority. “After a long wait, and some uncertainty as Texas lawmakers pivoted from tolls, elected leaders from Kemah to Pearland are pulling together to say it is time for the tollway to come their way.” They argue that “toll fatigue” and the consequent shift in state highway funding policy shouldn’t derail a decades-old plan to complete a third loop around metro Houston, especially since population growth and real estate development in the two counties promises to increase traffic congestion. The Chronicle notes, “Work between League City and Alvin on $231.5 million of tollway could start within five years, according to the region’s 10-year plan. That could be followed, eventually, by another 20 miles or so to Texas 288, at a projected cost of $691 million.”

The Charlotte MPO And NCDOT Continued Talks About An I-77 Express Lanes Proposal

The Charlotte Observer reported on last Wednesday night’s public discussion of a proposed I-77 corridor expansion.  Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRTPO) board members “could vote Nov. 16 on whether NCDOT should further analyze an unsolicited proposal from Spain-based Cintra in March to build and manage toll lanes along the stretch.” Cintra financed, built and manages the 26 miles of existing I-77 toll lanes between Uptown Charlotte and Mooresville. NCDOT has said the firm’s proposal to build an extension to the South Carolina border will receive further consideration only if CRTPO leaders so request. If the project ultimately gets a greenlight, Cintra competitors would also have an opportunity to vie for the state contract. Officials told the CRTPO board NCDOT  could execute the estimated $2.1 billion widening project on its own, but funding and scheduling constraints mean the work would not be completed until sometime in the 2040s.

US And Mexico Reached Agreement On Otay Mesa II Tolling

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported, “Officials from across the San Diego-Baja California region [on Friday October 14] celebrated a painstakingly negotiated binational agreement for collecting [dynamically-priced] tolls at the envisioned new Otay Mesa border crossing. The deal — unanimously approved by the San Diego Association of Governments board of directors — calls for one tolling facility located north of the border. The revenue would be split evenly with Mexico, pulling in an estimated $3.4 billion for each country over the next four decades.” Construction of the port of entry facilities began in August even though both countries need to complete financing of the $1.47 billion project expected to open in 2024. The Union-Tribune looked at the new port’s projected economic benefits, which will come from expediting the movement of freight and people across the border.

These are some of the toll industry developments TRN covered last week. If you’re not a subscriber to Daily News Briefs, click here for a free, 14-day trial. Read the news as it happens every weekday.

NJ Announced Its Plan For A $180 Million Atlantic City Expressway Expansion

NJ.com reported, during a media event on Wednesday, South Jersey Transportation Authority (SJTA) officials announced that a $180 million project to widen a sometimes congested, 13-mile segment of the Atlantic City Expressway “is in the preliminary design phase and on the way to a 2024 groundbreaking.” Their plan, to add a third lane in each direction by building in the center median, “potentially answers environmental objections to the project that were raised in May 2020 when a $500 million capital plan that included the widening project was approved.” SJTA’s chief engineer said a further public hearing is planned and construction will take place on a “pretty aggressive” two-year schedule.

A Colorado Groundbreaking Launched The Huge I-70 Project

The Denver Post reported, “Federal and state officials on Wednesday kicked off several off-highway projects that will serve as a prelude to next year’s massive reconstruction of Interstate 70 at Floyd Hill.” The ceremony marked the launch of early projects to construct roundabouts, wildlife crossings and a park-and-ride lot for customers of regional bus services. However, it also “served as a celebration of the larger multi-year, $700 million project. . . . Work is set to begin next spring and could last as long as five years, affecting a primary construction zone that extends six miles. . . . The Colorado Department of Transportation’s plans  include extending I-70’s westbound tolled express lane to the top of Floyd Hill to eliminate a bottleneck; reconstructing significant portions of the highway through Clear Creek Canyon to smooth those curves; and extending a frontage road while relocating major portions of the creek.”

Fitch Said US Toll Roads Second Quarter Traffic Nearly Reached 2019 Levels

Fitch Ratings released an update of its U.S. Airports & Toll Roads Traffic Monitor — a “web-based interactive platform that provides traffic volume information for more than 50 U.S. issuers” — finding that traffic at US airports and on toll roads “continued its gradual recovery over the second quarter of 2022.” Fitch noted, “The toll road sector remains effectively fully recovered through the first six months of 2022 relative to 2019 levels. Average toll road traffic recovery for 2Q22 was 99% of 2Q19 levels, an increase from 1Q22 levels. Some regional variations in performance persist. Traffic on most facilities located in Florida, Texas and Oklahoma along with the California managed lanes along the SR-91 corridor, have exceeded pre-pandemic levels since last year. In contrast, ongoing travel restrictions at the U.S./Canada border resulted in lower traffic at the Buffalo Peace Bridge facility.”

The Beach Express Bridge Owner Sued To Stop An Alabama DOT Project

AL.com reported, the Baldwin County Bridge Company (BCBC), the American Roads LLC subsidiary that operates the Beach Express toll bridge, on Thursday asked a state court to stop Alabama DOT from constructing a nearby non-tolled public bridge, a project scheduled to get underway this week. The injunction request is part of a wide-ranging lawsuit in which BCBC claims that ALDOT director John Cooper has a long-standing bias against the firm and its concession agreement with municipalities. The new bridge project, according to BCBC’s complaint, was inadequately studied by the state and constitutes an “inverse condemnation” of the private tolled facility. ALDOT issued a statement calling the lawsuit “frivolous” and an attempt to “delay a local improvement project the area clearly needs” for the purpose of protecting a private interest. AL.com noted that another aspect of the case concerns the recent termination of negotiations over an alternative to the public bridge project involving BCBC’s widening of  the Beach Express bridge.

MDX Board Approved Temporary Automatic Toll Discounts For Frequent Drivers

Miami’s Community News reported, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) board recently approved two toll discount policy changes. First, the year-end refunds coming to registered participants in MDX’s Frequent Driver Rewards Program will now be automatically credited to their SunPass accounts. “In previous years, those participating in [the program that originated in 2015] received a check in the mail by the end of the year.” Board members also approved a new toll discount pilot program with no registration requirement. Customers who incur 40 or more MDX tolls within a month while operating a passenger vehicle and using a SunPass account in good standing will receive an automatic 20 percent discount on the total they paid. The pilot will be in effect between this month and February 2023. MDX chair Jose “Pepe” Diaz, the proponent of the pilot, said the discounts “will provide temporary relief to support our residents during these difficult economic times.” (The temporary discount program is similar in its terms to one announced in late August by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R). The governor’s program applies SunPass credits based solely on tolls incurred on FDOT and Florida’s Turnpike facilities.)

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WSDOT’s SR 99 Tunnel Has Disappointed Planners’ Expectations And May Need A Taxpayer Bailout

The Seattle Times reported, “Washington state’s new Highway 99 tunnel lost so much traffic because of work-from-home that toll increases and a bailout by the Legislature are needed to solve a permanent budget shortfall, the state Treasurer’s Office predicts.” The article takes an in-depth look at the tunnel’s shifting performance measures since opening in February 2019; the facility’s construction financing strategy and the underlying assumptions about toll revenue; WSDOT’s decision to develop both the tunnel and an expanded Alaskan Way surface facility without tolls; and the probability that a recent upward trend in traffic will continue.

Industry People Made News

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine announced that Victoria Sheehan will leave her post at New Hampshire DOT and become executive director of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) on December 5. Before assuming the leadership of the state agency seven years ago, Sheehan held senior planning and program management positions at Massachusetts DOT. She was president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) from 2020-2021. She will replace Neil Pedersen, who announced his retirement in March.

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum (R) appointed Ron Henke to serve as director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, effective October 13. Henke, formerly the department’s deputy director of engineering, joined NDDOT in 1990. He has been interim director since Bill Panos resigned in September to return to his home state of California.

The Norman Transcript reported that the plaintiffs in an Oklahoma Open Meeting Act lawsuit against the state’s turnpike authority began to take depositions last week. Executive director (and ODOT secretary) Tim Gatz and deputy executive director Joe Echelle were scheduled to testify first. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 244 state residents who claim OTA did not provide adequate notice that it was considering projects incorporated in the ACCESS Oklahoma expansion initiative.

SICE Won A New Zealand Tolling Contract

ITSInternational.com reported, “Sice has been awarded a nationwide tolling contract in New Zealand, beginning in 2024. Sice NZ is to replace Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency’s current tolling back-office set-up, including systems for toll operation, automatic vehicle identification and billing invoices.” The contract has an initial term of five years and includes options that could extend the term by 14 additional years. (SICE issued a news release with more information about the contract.)

An Oregon Group Is Working To Qualify A Voter Initiative On Tolling

Oregon City News reported, “A group of Clackamas County residents seeks to give Oregon residents a say in whether to toll state highways. The group, Vote Before Tolls Committee, . . . has received state approval to begin signature gathering to place an initiative on the 2024 ballot” in advance of Oregon DOT imposing tolls on a seven-mile segment of I-205. If the group obtains the necessary 200,000 signatures and the measure passes, the state constitution would be amended to require regional voter approval for any highway tolling proposal.

How And Why Georgia DOT Transformed A Managed Lanes P3 Project

“Engineering News-Record” reported on the evolution of Georgia DOT’s strategy for obtaining construction of 16 miles of tolled express lanes on SR 400 in metro Atlanta. Originally conceived as an availability payment P3, the project was postponed in 2021 when the department received and rejected a single bid that exceeded its projected construction budget. This year, GDOT transformed the project into a revenue risk P3 and eventually shortlisted three teams to compete for a design-build-finance-operate-maintain agreement with a 50-year concession term. An RFP is expected to be issued in March, with selection of a contractor to follow next summer. ENR noted that the “evolving commercial terms” of an SR 400 deal — for example, “risk-sharing for costs of core construction materials” — reflect GDOT’s eagerness to put “the ‘partnership’ back in P3.”

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