EDINBURG — The Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority asked the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court during a July 17 workshop if it would consider letting it use $10 in vehicle registration fees for the next 30 years so it could sell bonds to develop the southern tollway, which would connect the international bridges to Expressway 83.
HCRMA financial advisor, Richard Ramirez, with First Southwest, told the commission that the vehicle registration fees would be used to purchase existing right of ways and to help the HCRMA pay off its existing bank line, allowing it to move forward with the development of SH 365 and the International Bridge Trade Corridor.
“The contemplated structure is to issue $30 million as soon as possible, with your approval, and $27 million the following year for a total of $57 million. It’s a 30-year structure for the development, and initially some of the construction,” he said. “The county’s financial support would be to provide credit assistance, but not to do anything other than to use your credit.”
Ramirez said the HCRMA believes TxDOT reimbursements will cover most of the costs and the rest will be taken care of from total revenue. He said the county wouldn’t be liable, unless something goes terribly wrong.
“But projected numbers make that unlikely,” Ramirez said.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Joel Quintanilla asked if liability would be minimal, to which Ramirez said it’s hard to be able to assure that it would be minimal until the revenue numbers are ready. They won’t be ready until September. However, Ramirez did say that he thought liability would be minimal, he just can’t promise it without numbers to back it up.
Dennis Burleson, mobility authority chairman, said the Highway Bill could be a source of funding. President Barack Obama signed the $105 billion bill in early July.
“To be able to see exactly what profit and loss will be, from totals, that’s a decision that is two to three years out, and if we don’t do the work that we need to do now with the vehicle registration fees, we’ll never get to that destination,” Burleson said.
Louis Jones, the authority’s project manager, told commissioners that construction on SH 365 could begin from the middle to the end of 2014 and be open in 2016.
“We’re looking at 18 to 24 months to clear environmental,” he said.
County Judge Ramon Garcia wanted to know if general funds would ever be used.
“How is it that you are requesting us to go on and authorize the use of vehicle registration fees that we would never be required to tap into any general fund dollars, no matter what happens?” he asked.
Ramirez said that if the HCRMA gets enough funding from Federal sources and TxDOT it might not need any help.
“You are asking the county to invest about $120 to $150 million a year, and that’s a substantial amount of funds,” Garcia told Ramirez. “In addition to that, you are suggesting there is a possibility that we may need to come up with general funds in the event the project goes bad.”
Ramirez said when the HCRMA has revenue numbers tied down, and once it submits for bids, he thought the county would be more comfortable with its risk.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Joseph Palacios said it was important that everyone in the room remember where the vehicle registration comes from.
“At the end of the day, that vehicle registration is being paid by the taxpayer and I think that’s important,” he said. “I don’t think taxpayers are fully aware that we would be allowing vehicle registration to be utilized to sell bonds, and at the end of the day, the public needs to be comfortable with that because it’s their money that we would be releasing. And that is why I’m very cautious.”
Burleson said those fees set the groundwork to execute the project.
“The vehicle registration fees set the groundwork to execute it over an eight-year period. If we can’t find anymore state or federal money to substitute for what we might ask the county for — two or three years from now — that’s a setback and if the county says ‘no,’ we’ll just look to execute this over a longer period. The RMA doesn’t intend to stop,” he said.
He added that he’d love to answer all of the commissioners concerns about liability.
“But the economy, interest rates and construction rates can change between now and then,” he said. “So bringing you every fact today might be difficult because the real decision point might be different than it is today.”
Quintanilla told Burleson he understood that, but what he didn’t understand was if the HCRMA and the county were partners or not. Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe M. Flores echoed Quintanilla’s sentiment.
To address that issue, the HCRMA and commissioners decided to schedule a joint meeting or workshop at some point.
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